• Founded 1972
  • Seminar Number 531

The Culture, Power, Boundaries Seminar is a forum for work and work-in-progress that strives for a critical analysis of contemporary power relations at local and global scales and how such power relations affect the analysis, reproduction, and transformation of inequality and its cultural expressions. The seminar began forty years ago with a focus on immigration and developed into a broad forum for critical social science. While the majority of seminar members are anthropologists, and presentations tend to focus on case studies, the seminar continues to welcome, as both guests and speakers, other social scientists interested in investigating the power dimension of cultural formations and the cultural aspects of inequality.

Patricia Antoniello

Shreyaa Suresh

Meeting Schedule

10/30/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:30 PM
A Religion Run By a Biker Gang”: Cultural Christianity in the American CrossFit Gym
Katie Rose Hejtmanek, Brooklyn College, CUNY


In 2000, Greg and Lauren Glassman founded CrossFit®, a new fitness regimen that Greg, a personal trainer, had started in their garage after being kicked out of many mainstream gyms. By 2017 one could find a CrossFit® gym (called affiliate, not franchise) in 162 countries, with a total of 15,000 worldwide, and 100% owned by Greg. It was considered the 7th largest and fastest-growing corporate chain in the world. Glassman, a college dropout, was giving lectures at Harvard Business School about his successes.

It was at Harvard Business School where he shared the common refrain that CrossFit® is “a religion run by a biker gang.” He was subsequently invited to speak at Harvard Divinity School. Two graduate students were investigating “how Millennials gather,” arguing that many in the demographic sought meaningful spaces outside of formal religious spaces. One of these spaces was The CrossFit® Gym. Glassman and CrossFit® have been the subject of New York Times articles, a 60-Minute segment, and many other news, popular culture, and academic sources asking: how did CrossFit® become so popular? And is it a cult?

This talk examines the popularity of CrossFit® as a method of self-transformation at this contemporary moment assessing different elements of the practice of CrossFit® alongside its historical antecedents. I pay particular attention to the legacy of Christianity in this process. However, I propose to call this “cultural Christianity” to focus on the entrenchment of Christian elements into everyday American life, where they have moved from the church to the gym.

CrossFit® is called a cult or a “religion run by a biker gang” and how, despite the rise of Nones (people who don’t identify with any institutional religion) a significant percentage of the population, and what people identify as the “secularization” of US life. I examine what it means to call something a “cult” and this legacy in American culture, from the US being founded as a nation of fringe Christianity to the off-handed ease by which we identify things as cults. I argue this is due to the way Christianity has become more “cultural” than simply religious. I focus on the way news organizations and CrossFitters use cult-y language, such as “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Narratives of CrossFitters include themes of “salvation” that follow Christian templates of being lost-finding CrossFit®-submitting, to it-being saved. The narrative is used in the identity construction of individuals and “the CrossFit® Community,” and to sell the brand. Again, I argue the use of salvation narratives is due to the way Christianity has become more “cultural” than simply religious. Additionally, CrossFit® mobilizes tropes of the “frontier” or the “wilderness” tapping into deep-seated understandings of what it means to be an American. This includes the role of the superhero and his link to Christian frameworks, such as community salvation through the sacrifices of a rugged masculine individual. I locate the CrossFitter as the embodied version of the proliferation of the superhero in today’s media.

I examine CrossFit® as a self-transformative practice within the larger context of self-help frameworks. The history of self-help is deeply entrenched in early Puritan values and those of New Thought Theology, a particularly American branch of Protestant Christianity. CrossFit® is part of a long history of prescriptive programs telling people what to do to transform their lives and themselves. Where Oprah used television to sell her oracle brand, CrossFit®’s early use of the internet to provide free fitness programming, which it still provides free of charge today, helped sell their “gospel.” Glassman also began in a garage in California so I link his business success with the trope of the “white college dropout in a garage in California” that has seen many of the same kind of rogue white guys find extraordinary financial success.

The role of the military, 9/11, is part of another framework of “the apocalypse” in which CrossFit® originated as a fitness regimen for police, and its “varied, intense, and functional fitness” framework became known as the preferred training method for the US military and its special forces. CrossFit® is also known for its Hero workouts, those named after a US soldier who has died in battle during the War on Terror. The CrossFit® gyms used these workouts to prepare everyday CrossFitters for doomsday scenarios which became interpreted as the apocalypse. I examine this use of apocalypse narratives and the understanding of the War on Terror as a crusade against evil to illustrate how Christian frameworks and values have been so “cultural” that they can now be found in the gym.

This talk reveals the entrenched nature of cultural Christianity in our economic, military, self-improvement, and media institutions through the lens of a contemporary physical fitness practice and gym called CrossFit®.

12/11/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
6:30 PM
Brian Ferguson, Emeritus, Rutgers University