Soft Patriarchs, New Men

Brad Wilcox on the New Face of Christian Fatherhood

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, FEB. 1, 2005 ( One of the most talked-about U.S. social phenomena of the past 30 years has been the «fatherhood crisis,» wrought by a culture of permissiveness and easy divorce.

Few public officials and academics, however, have looked to Christianity as a source of renewal for fatherhood in everyday life, in part, says one researcher, because they often accept the myth that Christian men are domineering and patriarchal.

That misconception prompted University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox to study the state of fatherhood among Protestant men and write about his research in «Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Husbands and Fathers» (University of Chicago Press).

He shared with ZENIT his findings, which challenge some of the secular assumptions about Christian fathers, and his thoughts on Catholic fatherhood.

Q: What inspired you to study and write about the state of Protestant fatherhood?

Wilcox: I was raised in the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church, but migrated into the evangelical wing of that church as a young adult. So I had personal experiences with mainline and evangelical Protestantism, though I am now Catholic.

When I started reading critical academic accounts of evangelical Protestantism, I found them unconvincing. One article by a Princeton Seminary academic, for instance, argued that there was an intrinsic link between evangelical Christianity and child abuse.

I set out to test these academic accounts with serious empirical research of evangelical fathers and husbands — something which, for the most part, was sorely lacking in academic discussions of evangelicalism.

I have done articles and a book on surveys of more than 1,000 pastors and more than 3,000 husbands and fathers of all religious traditions in the United States.

Q: Do you think your studies would turn up similar findings among Catholics?

Wilcox: My book focuses on Protestants, but my empirical analyses, in the appendices, include Catholic fathers and husbands. I’ve also done a separate paper looking at traditional Catholics compared to regular and liberal Catholics.

I find that mainline Protestant fathers are somewhat more involved than secular fathers and that evangelical Protestant fathers are markedly more involved than secular fathers.

For the most part, Catholic patterns would be similar. For instance, I find that self-described «traditional» Catholic fathers and mothers are markedly more involved with their children than other Catholic — and secular — parents.

The main difference between traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants is that traditional Catholics rely more on close friends and family to guide and monitor their children, and evangelical Protestants rely more on rules and their own direct parental oversight to guide their children.

Q: Why do you call today’s Christian men «soft patriarchs»?

Wilcox: Evangelical Protestant family men are patriarchs because they see themselves as the heads of their families, they do less housework than their secular peers, and they take a stricter approach to discipline than secular fathers.

But theirs is a «soft» patriarchy because their authoritative approach to family life is softened by large amounts of affection and involvement, both with their children and with their wife.

Q: Has the Christian male’s understanding of familial patriarchy changed in recent years?

Wilcox: Fifty years ago, many Christian men saw male authority in the home largely in terms of their rights to a certain level of service and deference from their wife and children. Of course, these same Christian men also believed that male authority was linked to successful work outside the home, which was largely done to serve their families.

Now, many Christian men see their authority at home primarily in terms of their responsibilities to serve their wife and children in the home. So this ethic of male responsibility applies now both to work outside the home and work inside the home.

Q: Is there a crisis of fatherhood in America? How do you think this has affected children’s vocations, especially to the priesthood?

Wilcox: There is a twofold crisis in fatherhood in America.

The biggest crisis in fatherhood is that approximately 50% of American children will spend part of their childhood living apart from their biological father — either due to divorce, separation or illegitimacy. These children are much more likely to suffer serious emotional, social and spiritual consequences.

For instance, boys who grow up without their father are twice as likely to end up in prison, compared to boys who grow up in an intact family. I suspect that children from these homes have difficulty pursuing vocations to marriage, religious life, apostolic celibacy or the priesthood because they have not seen commitment modeled by their parents.

The second crisis is that too many fathers — including Christian fathers — do not teach their children the virtues of obedience and fortitude. They are soft with their children, and tolerate too much disobedience, misbehavior, sloth and cowardice from their children.

I suspect that children in soft homes have difficulty embracing the sacrifices associated with a vocation to religious life, apostolic celibacy or the priesthood.

Q: Your studies demonstrated that fathers are spending more time with their children. However, it seems that society in general has exhibited a further weakening of the bonds of family. What accounts for this phenomenon?

Wilcox: Overall, children spend no more time with their fathers than did children in the 1960s. But this general trend obscures a fundamental disjunction in the lives of contemporary children.

Children living in intact families now spend more time with their fathers than did the average child living in the 1960s. Children living in fatherless homes now spend much less time with their fathers than did the average child living in the 1960s.

Family structure makes all the difference in the world for contemporary paternal involvement.

Q: Another interesting statistic noted in your book was that the Christian men you surveyed did far less housework than their wives, yet these same women exhibited the highest degree of satisfaction with their husbands. Why the disparity?

Wilcox: Evangelical Protestant men do about an hour less of housework, compared to secular men. But evangelical wives whose husbands attend church regularly report the highest levels of marital satisfaction of any major group in the United States.

What gives? My book indicates that evangelical wives get more gratitude and affection from their husbands than secular wives. And it turns out that the emotional work that husbands do is more important for wives’ marital happiness than the housework that their husbands do. In other words, compliments matter more than cleaning.

Q: Some have claimed that Christianity has become overly feminized in the past 50 years. Were the Protestant men you studied emasculated by their faith life, or supported in the growth of authentically male virtues? How do you see the masculinity of Catholic men displayed and encouraged?

Wilcox: I do not think that the evangelical Protestant men I studied are emasculated but I do think there is a danger that some of these men — as well as many Catholic men — are drifting in the direction of emasculation, both with themselves and their children.

Of course, the danger with encouraging men to focus more on family life is that they may lose sight of their unique roles in the family as teachers, protectors, disciplinarians and challenging guides to the outside world. Contemporary fathers need to figure out how they can exercise a uniquely paternal role i
nside the home that doesn’t turn them into a second — and inadequate — mother.

Many evangelical churches have strong pastors and men’s ministries that encourage manly virtues, and succeed in making men see faith and family life in a manly light — partly because they are not afraid to tackle controversial moral issues from the pulpit.

Unfortunately, I would say that there are few Catholic churches in the United States that have pastors or men’s ministries that present faith or family life in a manly light.

It is no accident that evangelical churches have higher rates of male participation than do Catholic churches. Priests and Catholic men need to rectify this by revisiting the life of Our Lord, and by embracing the array of manly virtues that he displays throughout the New Testament.

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