by Chris Babits
Conservative Americans’ fascination with medieval knights attracted the attention of mainstream news outlets after the violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, from August 11 to 12, 2017. In a piece for The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone outlined the far right’s obsession with “medievalisms,” or fantasies of “an imaginary past that bears little resemblance to the real one.” After Charlottesville, the Medieval Academy Blog also wrote about how they were “disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements” and that “[b]y using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relation to reality.” The focus on white supremacy has been warranted, but the issue of how medieval knights became such a prominent symbol of modern masculinity has not been addressed in full. Part of the story involves how the modern-day knight is supposed to battle other threats to normative masculinity, namely feminism and gay rights.
For nearly sixty years, conservatives have seen feminism and gay rights as threats to patriarchal authority within the traditional family. In the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, numerous commentators lamented the decline of manhood, observing that rapid social changes had destroyed what they viewed as the American way of life. Edwin Louis Cole, the founder of the Christian Men’s Network, wrote that “our manhood has been emasculated, and that has sterilized our ability to reproduce.” He railed against feminist rage, which he thought cried out to “replace gender-specific terms with neuter terms.” Cole believed that the average men tried to please everyone and, in the process, “end[ed] up castrating their identity, becoming ineffective and sterile males.” Patrick Morley, the author of The Man in the Mirror, a bestseller in the early-to-mid 1990s, spoke about the failures of the men around him. Morley blamed “a murky sort of prosperity, financed by a remarkable increase in productivity and by a suffocating load of personal, corporate, and public debt” for this problem. In an interesting critique of modern society, Morley contended that capitalism created the conditions for fathers to fail their sons. American men needed to take a long look in the mirror, he thought, and take stock of what had gone so horribly wrong.
By the late 1990s, conservative writers and commentators had created a cottage industry on effective fathering. For example, Bill McCartney, then the head football coach at the University of Colorado, founded the Promise Keepers to reassert masculine authority, particularly in U.S. households. The Promise Keepers encouraged a form of manhood that centered the health and well-being of American masculinity as well as the heteropatriarchal normative family. The organization pushed for racial reconciliation (mostly because of McCartney’s extensive exposure to African American athletes), while at the same time stressing intimate friendships between men. The Promise Keepers also supported a fundamentalist reading of gender roles as an antidote to the “feminization” of American culture.
In his 1997 book, Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, Robert Lewis echoed these same concerns. Right away, Lewis presented a dire situation for the nation’s men. He warned fathers about how they needed to know “your son and thousands like him are presently being stripped of their maleness by a modern, secular, feminist culture.” “Over the last few decades,” he continued, “this culture has steadily and relentlessly undermined healthy notions of what it means to be a man.” Lewis claimed that the problem was that “[o]nce-noble images of masculinity have now been replaced by images of men behaving badly…or incompetently…or both.” He proposed that this had created “an acute masculine identity crisis,” one that made it so that most young men no longer knew how to act. The key was to restore a healthy, vibrant masculinity. Once this happened, Lewis believed that there would be social stability. Fathers provided the best hope for the United States to find its way again.
Lewis had another goal: to help fathers raise heterosexual sons. As the directional leader of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, Lewis developed an interest in helping boys and young men achieve authentic manhood in a world under assault. In Raising a Modern-Day Knight, Lewis denounced homosexuality as an illegitimate lifestyle, one that had even taken his own brother, a gay man who died too early because of AIDS. Lewis claimed that dangerous social movements like gay rights had “steadily and relentlessly undermined healthy notions of what it means to be a man.” Lewis connected normative masculinity and heterosexuality with health and viewed male effeminacy and homosexuality as diseased.
Lewis sought to provide a new way forward. By drawing on romanticized memories of the medieval knight, Lewis wanted to restore American masculinity. He wrote how “[t]his medieval figure casts an impressive and masculine shadow. Clothed in a chain mail, brandishing a sword, and mounted on an invincible steed, the knight remains even today a powerful symbol of virile manhood.” Lewis relayed how knights had “a well-defined set of ideals” and a “chivalric code of honor [that] formed the moral and social bedrock of moral life.” Last, Lewis elaborated on three parts of a Knight’s Code of Conduct that he saw as particularly important: 1) a will to obey (God’s will); 2) a work to do (according to his own unique design); and 3) a woman to love. By instilling obedience to God and respecting each son’s individual gifts, fathers could lead their male offspring to the last part of the Code of Conduct: heterosexual marriage. Lewis underscored how “our sons must be instructed to love, lead, and honor the opposite sex.”
The modern-day knight is supposed to battle other threats to normative masculinity, namely feminism and gay rights.
According to Lewis, a large part of raising modern-day knights involved a series of manhood ceremonies. In these ceremonies, fathers were to mark their sons’ masculine milestones. Each ceremony observed an important rite of passage and included a gift to commemorate the moment. Lewis identified four moments as particularly important: puberty (the page stage); high school graduation (the squire stage); college graduation (the knight stage); and marriage (the promise/oath stage). These moments presented different challenges to fathers. Puberty, for instance, forced fathers to confront their sons’ sexual urges. “Puberty is a confusing time for a young man,” Lewis wrote. “His sexual desires become intense and predominating. A boy needs a father’s help to make sense of the confusion.” Lewis described how he taught his oldest son, Garrett, about sex. This included listening to and discussing James Dobson’s “Preparing for Adolescents,” a seven-part tape series produced by Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family. After working through this curriculum, Lewis wanted to mark the occasion with a simple ceremony. He took Garrett to dinner and let him order whatever he wanted from the menu. Garrett, probably sensing that this was supposed to be a masculine moment, chose his favorite meal: steak.
Other Focus on the Family books highlighted the importance of raising masculine and heterosexual sons. In Bringing Up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Responsible for Shaping the Next Generation of Men, for example, Dobson asserted that the project of raising heterosexual children would buttress the American family. Dobson’s work underscored how forces such as feminism, gay rights, and postmodernism had damaged natural gender roles, opposite-sex sexual object choice, and biblical truth. Dobson thought that rebuilding the normative family, with a patriarchal father at the helm, was key for not only salvaging the American family, but also saving the nation. Having earned a PhD in child development from the University of Southern California, Dobson believed that he had the answers when it came to child rearing practices for raising straight children. After the success of Bringing Up Boys, which sold over two million copies, Dobson followed up with a book on raising girls.
The success of books about raising modern-day knights continues. The most recent iteration is Heather Haupt’s Knights in Training: Ten Principles for Raising Honorable, Courageous, and Compassionate Boys, published in 2017 by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Books. Like Lewis, Haupt believes that Americans no longer celebrate—and cultivate—manly strength. Knights in Training offers a training program that differs in some significant ways from Lewis’ Raising a Modern-Day Knight. For one, Haupt focuses on instilling courage, chivalry, and respect in young children. She highlights how important it is for children to read about important figures of the medieval age. On top of this, Haupt occasionally lists figures she considers to be heroes of American history. One list highlights how complicated historical memory can be, with Haupt identifying George Washington, Davy Crockett, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass as “real men who overcame all kinds of setbacks, weaknesses, and failure to become people who responded with strength and dignity when the need arose and made a difference in the lives of those around them, altering the very course of history.” Unlike the white supremacist knights in Charlottesville, Haupt recognizes the courage of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass.
By sandwiching Robert E. Lee between these two prominent African Americans, Haupt groups a slave owning general with men who fought against racial inequality. This might seem odd, especially in light of the white supremacy often associated with modern-day knighthood, but it speaks to something that historian Seth Dowland observed in 2015’s Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. Dowland noted how “[l]ike other Americans, conservative evangelicals in the 1990s saw the civil rights movement as a heroic moment in the nation’s history.” Most acknowledged how white Christians had been complicit in the nation’s racism, but they “believed the road to true racial reconciliation ran through the transformation of individual lives rather than through systemic changes.”
The idea of raising modern-day knights has found deep resonance in American culture over the past several decades. This child rearing literature has viewed medieval knighthood in simplistic terms, as has the medievalisms proffered by members of the far right. This is not to say that Lewis, Dobson, and (especially) Haupt are responsible for the violence that happened in August 2017. But, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, we have to ask whether this is a child rearing genre that should continue to have an audience. Some humility on these matters is always important, particularly since we cannot always control how others will interpret our ideas. Unless those who profess the importance of raising modern-day knights confront white supremacy, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ hate head-on, this is a genre that should become a relic of the past, much like the real medieval knights of the Middle Ages.
Chris Babits is a PhD candidate in History and an Andrew W. Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation is titled “To Cure a Sinful Nation: ‘Conversion Therapy’ and the Making of Modern America, 1920 to Today.” Chris’s research has been funded by Harvard University; Columbia University; Yale University; Cornell University; the University of Chicago; the University of North Texas; the University of Minnesota; the ONE Archives; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Massachusetts Historical Society; the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archive; and the Virginia Theological Society.
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