The new advocates for marriage

Posted: Jun 16, 2004 12:00 AM
This Father's Day, some 24 million American children will sleep in fatherless homes. So this Sunday, if you were lucky enough to know the love of a father, thank him. Oh, and if your kids wake up Sunday morning in the home of a loving father, thank your husband.

The marriage crisis that is producing fatherless homes is becoming so intense that anyone who cares about children or communities can't ignore it. Hear, for example, the extraordinary remarks by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., at a recent Brookings Institution conference on marriage and the black church. Calling attention to the low rates of marriage among African Americans, Norton warned:

"My friends, we are seeing a sea change in African-American life. It cannot continue or we will not continue as a viable people. I just want to put it as starkly as I can. We've got to get the attention of our community and our country. It is impossible to overestimate what has happened to our community in only a single generation or two and what might then happen in my son's generation if it continues at this pace."

She said it. I didn't. When the marriage idea becomes weak enough, the very idea of perpetuating ourselves as a people is called into question.

The problem, according to Norton, is a catastrophic lack of marriageable men. Men with jobs. Faithful men. Family men. The problem is how do we produce such men?

Policy analysts will and should weigh proposals about how to boost the earning power of poor husbands and fathers. But in his new book, "Soft Patriarchs, New Men" (University of Chicago Press), Brad Wilcox, a rising star in the sociology of religion, lays out a different part of the answer. Religion makes men better husbands and fathers.

He finds that "churchgoing family men -- especially conservative Protestant family men -- are more progressive than their peers: They spend more time with their children; they are more likely to hug and praise their children; their wives report higher levels of satisfaction with the appreciation, affection and understanding they receive from their husbands, and they spend more time socializing with their wives." They also have the lowest rates of domestic violence toward their wives than any other group.

Why? One reason is that, in its fight with modernity, conservative Protestantism has invested the roles of husband and father with unusual moral and religious importance: Men are supposed to model for their children the love of God, for their wives, the love of Jesus Christ. Men who recognize a critical "masculine" role in family life are probably freer to enter into stereotypically "feminine" realms, such as emotionally expressive family life. If you want to turn men into good family men, you have to tell them that men matter to women and children.

As Arlie Hochschild pointed out in "The Second Shift": "When couples struggle, it is seldom over who does what. Far more often, it is over the giving and receiving of gratitude." The struggle for marriage in the contemporary context is the struggle to cultivate gratitude between men and women.

Wilcox's data suggest the black church may have a unique role to play in creating and transmitting a marriage culture to the next generation, and that part of this task is sustaining an image of manliness that supports rather than undercuts women's desires and children's needs.

"There is no marriage movement yet," Eleanor Holmes Norton said, speaking of the black church. "But we've got to make a movement.... Somebody has to speak up for marriage. ... We must do it in the name of the black family, but we must do it, first and foremost, for our own children." For all our children.