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Fatherhood Crisis, New Men

2/2/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Brad Wilcox on the New Face of Christian Fatherhood

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, FEB. 2, 2005 (Zenit) - 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 us 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 ...

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