Men playing basketball.

(Ryan McVay/ThinkStock)

Mormon men play a lot of basketball. Every Saturday morning across the country, Mormon men gather for a strange liturgy of “Church Ball” in the basketball courts found at the center of most Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) meeting houses. It begins with a prayer. But it rapidly devolves into intense physical combat, punctuated by thrown elbows, hard picks, and accusations of all manner of wickedness on the part of the opposing team. Afterward, everyone shakes hands or exchanges an awkward, sweaty half-hug. Then everyone scurries home to mow lawns, change diapers, and ferry kids to soccer games.

Mormon men also cry a lot. As a practicing Mormon, I can count on seeing at least one man cry each Sunday service. They cry standing at the pulpit, speaking of their wives and children, and of Jesus. They cry when they describe their friendships with the men they do volunteer church work and play basketball with. (For the Mormons who tuned in to hear Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention—his eyes moistened with admiration and solemnity when he talked about his family—Romney’s remarks, at times, looked and sounded much like the “testimonies” they hear at their local meeting houses).

Neither basketball nor crying is unique to Mormon culture. Yet what is noteworthy is the intensity and frequency of these two ritual acts among Mormon men. Their basketball playing is so ferociously competitive, even violent, that Mormons make jokes about Church Ball ushering in the “restoration of blood sacrifice.” Yet what also characterizes Mormon masculinity is a highly sentimentalized involvement with family, an often-weepy public piety, and a soft-spoken homosociality in groups of Mormon men working together to administer the functions of the church.

Paradoxically, these behaviors, which might be pejoratively coded “gay” or effeminate in other contexts, are key components of Mormon masculinity. A look at this fraught masculinity may offer a glimpse into what drives the LDS Church, and Mormon politicians like Mitt Romney, to insist on the defense of traditional gender roles in the family. The unique contours of Mormon masculinity can also help answer the question: Why are (many) Mormons so vehemently opposed to gay marriage and any other overt expression of homosexuality?

The short answer to that question is that the unique mix of ritualized homosociality and patriarchal authority—the bedrocks of Mormon masculinity—means that many Mormon men are nervous about permitting even the idea that there might be more than a platonic “bromance” in the post-Church Ball game sweaty hug.

THE MOST OBVIOUS COMPONENT of Mormon masculinity is patriarchal privilege. By the time Mormon boys are 12, they have more official authority than their mothers. At that age, most boys are ordained to the Mormon priesthood and can begin to administer communion. When they turn 16, they are authorized to perform baptisms. There are no parallel opportunities for girls. Men administer all of Mormonism’s sacraments, and hold all leadership positions at both local and general levels, with the exception of the women’s and children’s auxiliaries. (Even there, where women are nominally in charge, they must obtain priesthood approval for all decisions related to staffing of the organization, budget, and curriculum.)

Men are told that they are imbued with the power of God and charged with building God’s kingdom on earth. The administrative and pastoral functions of the church are both enabled by “priesthood,” which is synonymous with maleness and authority. It is not uncommon for someone to thank “the priesthood” for setting up chairs for an event. In practice, though, this patriarchal power is exercised quite gently. Boys are taught to treat women with respect. “Motherhood” is held in great esteem. And in many Mormon communities, women are invited to participate in some decision-making meetings, even if “the priesthood” always has the final say.

The lay structure of the Mormon clergy in local congregations (Romney didn’t get paid to serve as bishop of the Mormon community in Belmont, Massachusetts, in the 1980s) requires close personal relationships between the men who lead and serve the church—friendships of a sort that are, I think, rare in American society. Mormon men frequently talk about each other in overtly emotional ways. At the RNC, Romney’s fellow Mormon leader from Belmont, Grant Bennett, teared up when he spoke about the “thousands of hours over many years [I’ve spent] with Mitt Romney … serving in our church.” Few Mormons would be shocked to hear a Mormon man declare from the pulpit that he “loves” the Mormon men with whom he’s mopped up the meeting house bathrooms or visited a sick child’s bedside to bestow a “priesthood blessing,” a ritual intended to heal, comfort, and reassure the sick of God’s love.

THIS GENTLE MASCULINITY SITS uneasily with the discourse that buttresses the patriarchy of the church. The very maleness that bestows this power and privilege is also frequently characterized as spiritually dangerous. When the women of the church convene for their annual meeting in Salt Lake City, they are likely to hear things like, “Sisters, we love you. We pray for you. Be strong and of good courage. You are truly royal spirit daughters of Almighty God. You are princesses, destined to become queens.” And they may be gently admonished to refrain from gossip or increase their self-esteem. Yet men are often bluntly castigated over the same pulpit for using pornography, abusing women and children, and otherwise failing, as the late Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley declared in 2006, to “‘Rise up, O men of God!’ and put these things behind you.”

Mormons learn early that “maleness” is by nature potentially sexually dangerous. These lessons begin with the Book of Mormon itself. “For the natural man is an enemy to God,” Mosiah 3:19 reads, “and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man.” This “putt[ing] off the natural man” requires a total prohibition of sexual activity before marriage and strong taboos against masturbation.

Obedient Mormon boys are thus excluded from their peers’ conversations about sexual discovery. Participating in the casual misogyny and homophobia typical of teenage boys’ locker rooms induces discomfort and guilt in a boy who regularly hears admonitions to abstain from sex of any kind before his wedding night—with himself or anyone else. Mormon boys might laugh at or even tell gay jokes, but they cannot brag about how far they’ve “gone with the girl” or what they’re planning to do with their prom dates. For a Mormon boy, becoming a Mormon man means not becoming a man, at least not the “natural man” engendered by the adolescent onslaught of testosterone. This means that, perhaps paradoxically, while most Mormons would assert that both biology and God establish gender at birth, Mormon men’s experience of masculinity is highly performative. They learn that the natural tendencies of maleness must be subjugated to religious principle.

This performance is taught most intensively during the two years of missionary service that devout Mormon men undertake, most often beginning at age 19. Two-by-two, Mormon men knock on doors or pass out church pamphlets and Books of Mormon on street corners. During their mission, they are instructed never to be apart from the companion. They eat, work, pray, and sleep “in the same room but not in the same bed” with their companion. Missionaries are even instructed to conduct a weekly “companionship inventory,” the instructions for which read like a self-help book for married couples: “Discuss the strength of your relationship with your companion. Discuss any challenges that may be keeping your companionship from working in unity or from being obedient.”

THIS INTENSE CAMARADERIE, combined as it must be among celibate 19- and 20-year-old men with sexual repression, is Mormon men’s induction into masculinity. In this context of profound homo-social bonding, they learn that masculinity is both a privilege and a danger. It is something to be controlled and sublimated to religious ideals of gentleness that are, in many other contexts, coded feminine. If, on the one side, the danger is giving into the “natural man”—becoming promiscuous or abusive—on the other side the danger is that one might become too gentle and meek—contaminated by femininity.

Homosexuality is, in this model, simply a failure to behave in appropriately masculine ways. Mormon rhetoric betrays this sense that homosexuality is a confusion about gender, rather than an orientation of desire. The Proclamation on the Family, the document most cited in Mormon objections to gay marriage, never actually mentions homosexuality. Instead it declares that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” and that “God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”

The performance of Mormon masculinity is a difficult balancing act, a tightrope walk between poles established by a brutish, hyper-masculine “natural man” and an effeminate gay man. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mormon patriarchs—as well as Mormon men running for high elected office—wobble from their carefully constructed equilibrium when buffeted by the cultural winds of feminism and the gay rights movement.

Kristine Haglund is the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She lives and goes to church in Belmont, MA.