Faith of our fathers

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: Jun 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Should we fear a man who prays?

Some liberals think that we should. They?re apparently comfortable, to judge from Father?s Day advertisements, with men who fish, golf, repair things and fix hamburgers on the grill. But one who goes to church every week, or who prays daily with his children, is viewed with suspicion, if not downright hostility.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and author of ?Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands,? made this point in a paper recently published by The Heritage Foundation. Some feminists and journalists believe that religion, especially Evangelicalism, is ?a key factor in stalling the gender revolution at home,? Wilcox noted.

?In 1998, in the wake of the Southern Baptist convention, journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts claimed that the conservative Protestant gender ideology ?can clearly lead to abuse both physical and emotional,? Wilcox said. ?John Gottmann, who is one of the leading psychologists of the family at the University of Washington, has argued that the religious right is pushing ?fathers toward authoritarian parenting in child-rearing.??

And those are the more moderate charges. Listen to groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) take on Promise Keepers, for example, and you?ll hear more hysterical charges. ?This organization breeds bigots,? NOW?s Web site says. ?Underneath the fa?e of Christian religion are the workings of the radical religious right, mobilizing men against the rights of women, lesbians, and gays.

Let's remember they blame women's equality for society?s ills.? Their agenda is one of ?submission, racism and homophobia.?

Professor Wilcox, on the other hand, has taken a cool-headed look at the data -- and found that it makes a strong case for religion as a positive force for families. Indeed, religion is a primary predictor of how men approach the world, fatherhood, household labor and marriage -- more than education, location or other factors. (Note: Although his work focuses on Protestants, Wilcox says similar patterns exist for traditional Catholics and Orthodox Jews.)

Wilcox?s book focuses on two concepts: familism -- the idea that family is society?s paramount institution and individuals have responsibilities to their family members -- and gender traditionalism -- the idea that men should be the primary breadwinners.

Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, he found that belief in both concepts is significantly higher (between 20 and 30 percentage points) among active Evangelical family men than among men with no religious affiliation.

We also see religion?s beneficial effect when it comes to fatherhood. Church-going fathers are more involved with their children ?They?re more affectionate, and they?re stricter with their kids,? Wilcox says. ?We can see, for instance, in youth-related activities that active Evangelical dads spend about 3.5 hours more per week compared to unaffiliated dads.?

Do these religious fathers do more housework than non-religious fathers? No, but the difference isn?t that great. And, Wilcox notes, ?wives of active Evangelical Protestants report higher levels of appreciation for their housework ? whereas wives of unaffiliated men report comparative low levels of appreciation.? Interesting, the wives of active Evangelical Protestants also report the lowest level of domestic violence (2.8 percent versus 3.2 percent).

Religion, in short, is a powerful influence for good within families, but why? Wilcox cites four reasons: For one thing, it provides key ?family-oriented rituals,? such as baptisms, that give fatherhood a religious character. Second, churches host activities that allow men to spend time with their families. Third, churches are often home to social networks that lend support at crucial times. Last, but certainly not least, is spirituality. As Wilcox puts it:

?There?s a sense that God is a part of their lives and gives emotional security to them. This is important because one of the key factors leading to marital problems and problems with parenting is stress. Things like unemployment, especially for men, or a death in the family can lead to poor parenting or poor marriage behaviors for men. If men can offer these problems up to God, God can provide them with a sense of security and direction in terms of how to deal with these things in a productive way.?

Amen. As I write in my book Home Invasion, fathers should add tangible spiritual elements to family life. This means taking your family to church, of course, because being active in a congregation grounds you in faith. But it also means bringing spirituality into your home. Play spiritual music. Incorporate grace into mealtimes. Institute regular family prayer and study. Talk about what you believe, why you believe it, and how it applies to your daily lives.

Dads, you know you can expect some nice gifts from your families when Father?s Day arrives on the 19th. And from homemade artwork to the inevitable tie, they will be things you treasure. But nothing compares to what you can give them all year long -- the gift of faith.