The right-wing beard revolution: Look out, hipsters, here come the counterculture Christians

The newly sprouted beards of American evangelicals are a social rather than a religious statement

Published December 25, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

Willie Robertson, Si Robertson, Jase Robertson   (AP/Mike Stone)
Willie Robertson, Si Robertson, Jase Robertson (AP/Mike Stone)

Reprinted with permission from "Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair"

In the spring of 2013, Rick Warren, the goateed Baptist preacher, invited the men of his twenty-three-thousand-member Saddleback Church in California to grow facial hair and submit photographs of themselves to win a spot in the finals of a beard contest. In July, Warren himself, identified by many as America’s most influential pastor, would hand out hundred-dollar gift certificates to those with “the most magnificent” and “the most pathetic” beards. The occasion for this “Beardup Saddleback” hoopla was a visit by “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson, the heavily bearded patriarch of the hit reality television series Duck Dynasty and a noted proponent of conservative evangelical piety. After that day’s services, church members were treated to a party featuring Cajun food, zydeco music, a crawfish cooking demonstration, and Duck Dynasty prize giveaways, as well as the beard awards.

The Southern Baptist tradition, of which both Warren and Robertson are a part, has a long history of resistance to male hair. Now, paradoxically, conservatives were eagerly experimenting with this countercultural style. The simplest explanation for this about-face would be that long hair and beards are no longer considered liberal or rebellious, and that the Saddleback beard contest, like the fulsome beards of the Duck Dynasty men, were more stunt than statement. But that answer would only be partly true. Beards, especially large ones, retain their daring and nonconformist quality, and this is an important part of their appeal to conservative as well as liberal men. A generation ago, conservative evangelicals began appropriating rock music into their worship. Now, finally, it is time for hair. Is it possible to be a conservative rebel? Why not? That is precisely what many young American men aspire to be today.

Warren and Robertson have, to a great extent, attained the influence they have by embracing a dynamic and contrarian spirit (along with beards). In the early 1970s, the teenage Rick Warren was the good son of a Baptist preacher who aspired to be a preacher himself, but on his own, decidedly contemporary terms. When he started a Christian club at his high school in 1970, he was guided by the example of the “Jesus Movement,” which adapted the style and expression of the 1960s rock and roll culture to conservative religious sensibilities. Warren looked every bit the Christian John Lennon, long-haired, with wire-rim glasses, soulfully strumming his guitar to contemporary folk rock tunes. His semi-hippie style did not sit well with everyone, however. Still in high school, he appeared before a review committee of his home church to obtain his lay preaching license, the first step toward a career as a Southern Baptist minister. His answers to questions about his salvation experience and doctrinal beliefs were satisfactory, but the senior pastor objected to his appearance. It seemed to him that the gangly young man looked more like a war protester than a Baptist minister.

Warren defended himself; his hair was not a political statement, he said, but a youthful style that would help him connect with people his age. The committee saw his point and granted him a license to preach. In later years, Warren remained committed to presenting a modish California appearance. In the 1980s and 1990s, while building his new church in suburban Los Angeles into one of America’s most successful megachurches, he reduced the length of his hair but added a mustache, and later a goatee. In the 2000s, a closet full of Hawaiian shirts further enhanced his presentation as the laid-back man of God.

All this was a subtle way of breaking conventional boundaries and suggesting that he and his church would not be bound to outmoded customs. Warren’s approach was well suited to the denizens of southern California’s disconnected maze of colorless subdivisions, cut off from their historical and communal roots. Warren offered a conservative faith that seemed attuned to modern conditions. His choice was not simply a matter of style, nor was it limited to him. Sociologist John D. Boy has incisively observed that a new crop of bearded evangelicals emerged around the turn of the century, eager to exchange the rigid doctrines and codes of the past for uplift and “conversation.” “The goateed proselytizer,” Boy opines, “appears more of an authentic man of God than his well-groomed, overly politicized, GOP-loving forebears.” True to form, Warren has demonstrated less patience with the right-wing fixation on family and sexual morality, and directed more attention to wider social problems such as poverty and global warming. It was this unconventionality that inspired newly elected president Barack Obama to invite Warren to deliver the opening prayer at his 2008 inauguration.

Warren and Duck Commander Phil Robertson are not exactly birds of a feather, but they are alike in more than just their affinity for facial hair. In their different ways, both offer resistance to modern, secular culture. Robertson, the camouflaged guru of cornpone wisdom, abandoned the path of conventional respectability as a young man, though his departure from the straight and narrow was, like his beard, more dramatic than Warren’s. Robertson was the star quarterback on the Louisiana Tech football team for two years in the late 1960s, skillful enough to keep future hall-of-famer Terry Bradshaw on the bench. With his square jaw and crew cut, Robertson was the picture of the middle-American ideal, but he quit football because it interfered with what he cared about most: duck hunting. Rejecting the socially approved and richly rewarded model of sporting manliness, he opted instead for the leave-me-alone masculinity of the outdoors. The problem for Robertson was that he let himself get lost in the wilderness, so to speak. Married, with young children, he fell into a self-defeating pattern of carousing and alcoholism, to the point that he abandoned his family for a time. Having hit bottom, he found Jesus and a way back to sobriety and his family. Even then, Robertson refused to be entirely domesticated, holding tenaciously to his hunting lifestyle and his outdoorsman beard. It was a badge of manly independence and defiance that he later turned into marketing magic.

The basis of Robertson’s business success was his collection of uniquely successful duck calls, but his real genius was in selling the hunting lifestyle, packaged in clothing, gear, videos, and his own bearded hunter image. When Roberston’s sons, now grown, began running the business, they did not at first emulate their father’s example, believing it was important for businessmen to maintain a clean-cut look. Around 2005, however, they realized that beards made them distinctive and got their company attention. According to son Willie, a long beard was “the best marketing gimmick anybody’s ever thought of and it didn’t cost.” Even so, they tended to grow beards only for sales shows and duck hunting season. Once they hit the big time, however, the sons had an image to protect, and they committed themselves full-time to their patriarchal manes, to the regret of several of their wives. The women endured the change because, in the Duck Dynasty show, the men are the stars, while the women are the support crew.

Duck Dynasty’s nostalgic call to the rugged life echoes key themes in the great beard movement of the 1850s, when mountain climbing and big-game hunting also attracted urbanized men worried about the authenticity of their manhood. Phil Robertson and his sons recognized a similar impulse in contemporary society and have, directly and indirectly, addressed the perceived need to strengthen male self-confidence while reinforcing traditional gender roles. Willie Robertson recently contributed a forward to Darrin Patrick’s conservative (though not conservatively titled) The Dude’s Guide to Manhood (2014), in which he declared that he came “from a family who not only have mature facial hair but more importantly are mature men who know how to live life and love their wives and kids. . . . We don’t need more boys, we need real men. Strong, godly, mature men.” Precisely what he meant by this distinction between boys and men is not entirely clear, particularly when he followed his disapproval of “boys” with this appeal: “Oh yeah, and by the way, get to growing those beards out, Boys!!!” The terminology may not have been consistent, but the clear message of the duck hunters to suburban men was to hold fast to their embattled manliness and wear it with defiant pride.

The newly sprouted beards of American evangelicals are a social rather than a religious statement. Neither Warren nor the Robertsons have promoted facial hair for specifically biblical or theological reasons. They could hardly do so when, for the vast majority of conservative Christians, short hair and a shaven face remain the conventional signs of moral and religious rectitude. The most dramatic promoter of this attitude is the Mormon church, which generally interprets facial hair as a form of disobedience. Brigham Young University, Mormonism’s flagship university, positively forbids beards for students. A recent study has revealed that, in spite of intense pressure, a small minority of faithful Mormon men maintain mustaches and beards. These men are not reformers or rebels, but their decisions, for whatever personal or psychological reasons, to wear facial hair, forces them into the role of nonconformist. The case of Mormon beards thus demonstrates that beard-wearing can become a defiant act even when that is not the original motivation.

Most conservative Christians still view facial hair as discordant with tradition, but for other conservative religious groups in Europe and America, it has precisely the opposite significance, namely, as a sign of religious obedience and group identity. Amish, Orthodox Jewish, and fundamentalist Muslim men rely on beards to affirm and advertise their religious piety and ethnic identity. In these settings, piety and masculine honor are inseparably bound, which makes a beard an especially powerful symbol, as well as a target for those who might wish to do harm.

Reprinted with permission from "Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair" by Christopher Oldstone-Moore, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

By Christopher Oldstone-Moore

Christopher Oldstone-Moore is a senior lecturer in history at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

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