- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Bradford Wilcox is the author of the new book “Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands.” A Roman Catholic and father of three, Mr. Wilcox says his research indicates that “a neotraditional model of fatherhood” is correlated with higher levels of commitment to family life and lower levels of divorce.

An assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, Mr. Wilcox’s research is based on two major studies — the National Survey of Families and Households, and the Survey of Adults and Youth that included information on family interaction and religious affiliation.

Question: In doing the study for and writing this book, what did you seek to accomplish?

Answer: My hope is that the study might contribute in some way to a cease-fire in the culture wars we have … between feminists and religious conservatives. I think we need to recognize that the reality on the ground is that fathers who are religious conservatives are actually, in many ways, quite progressive in their approach to family life.

Q: How does religion influence the way fathers act toward their families?

A: Basically, religion domesticates men in ways that make them more attentive to the ideals and aspirations of their wives and children. Men who attend religious services, especially evangelical and Protestant men, are more likely to spend one-on-one time with their kids and be involved in youth activities. They are also more likely to attend social events with their wives. And their wives are more likely to report high levels of affection.

Religious participation, particularly among evangelical Protestants, is more likely to turn the hearts of men towards their wives and families.

Q: Why is regular religious participation and attendance stressed instead of simple religious affiliation?

A: Attendance in general does four things. One is that basically it gives men a sense that their roles as fathers have kind of a divine sanction to them. By regularly attending they are getting this message that God is interested in what they are doing as fathers.

The second thing is that there are certain norms, such as the golden rule, taught in religious settings; and just getting that message in churches and synagogues basically helps motivate fathers to pay more attention to their children and take their family roles seriously.

The third is that the social networks that one encounters in religious congregations tend to be family focused. Basically you are encountering lots of other families who are also more likely to be interested in the parent enterprise.

The fourth thing that religious congregations do is provide opportunities for fathers to do things with their children. For instance, one thinks of father-daughter dances, or summer family retreats, or helping out with the church youth group — or some churches have basketball leagues. These activities provide direct opportunities for them to spend time with their kids.

Q: How does this active religious participation help husband-and-wife relationships?

A: Since the 1970s, evangelical Protestant churches and family organizations have expressed more and more concern about the state of the American family and about the state of the popular culture. They have told their members that they need to do more to help strengthen their families, because their conviction is that the family is under siege.

I think that currently in the United States, two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. One of the key factors in promoting marital stability is making sure wives are happy. In literature coming out of our evangelical subculture, men are being encouraged to take care of the emotional side of their marriages.

Q: Your book mentions a study in which evangelical Protestant wives whose husbands attend church regularly report the lowest levels of domestic violence of any group studied. However, Protestant men are often stereotyped as oppressing women. Why the discrepancy?

A: In 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention released a statement basically affirming male headship in the home. That statement generated a lot of press attention and commentary. In particular, Steve and Cokie Roberts wrote something at the time claiming that this type of message would “clearly lead to abuse, both physical and emotional.”

What people don’t always realize is that these same [religious] institutions often talk a lot about the family responsibilities to which men should attend. Your typical Evangelical Joe pays a lot of attention to his responsibilities in the family and not just being the leader of his family. It’s the message of responsibility and love.

Q: Which group has the highest rate of domestic violence?

A: Interestingly, the nominal evangelicals who don’t attend services with any regularity have the highest rates of domestic violence.

Q: Why is that?

A: There could be a whole host of things going on here, but I’m speculating that the active evangelical men encounter a message that their headship is connected to loving their families, whereas the nominal evangelical men don’t have any religious context. They aren’t encountering people in the congregation who are encouraging them to channel their idea of headship in a positive direction.

Q: What do you think has brought evangelical men to this place?

A: I think it’s important to note that I think one of the reasons they do such a good job nowadays is that they take to heart the feminist concern that historically men have not done such a good job paying attention to the needs of their wives and children.

Both feminists and religious conservatives spend a good bit of time criticizing one another, and I think one of the findings of this book is that if you pay attention to men with religious convictions, they would be judged by most feminists as doing a pretty good job.

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