- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

Christian men — to be more specific, devout evangelical Protestants — make better fathers than the public perceives, says sociologist and author W. Bradford Wilcox.

“Many think religion plays a baleful role, pushing men toward authoritarianism,” Mr. Wilcox said during a discussion at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the District. But he said men who attend church regularly are “more affectionate, involved and strict” than fathers who do not attend church regularly.

In his new book, “Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands,” Mr. Wilcox says religious men are more attentive to the needs of their families than nonreligious men.

Active evangelicals, he said, spend more time with their children, have better relationships with their wives and are less likely to be abusive when compared with nonbelievers. Devout evangelical fathers also compare favorably with other Christians — including Catholics and those of “mainline” Protestant denominations — and with Christians who don’t attend services regularly.

Mr. Wilcox said his research showed that dedicated evangelicals “tend to excel in discipline, playing and encouraging their children.”

Strong faith also promotes domestic tranquility, according to his research.

“No one ain’t happy if mama ain’t happy,” Mr. Wilcox joked. He said wives of churchgoing evangelicals report being happier than wives of men who don’t attend church.

Mr. Wilcox said that men who have good relationships with their wives tend to be better fathers. In addition to spending more time with their children, fathers who have good relationships with the children’s mothers become good examples of how men should treat women respectfully.

“Children with involved, affectionate fathers are much better off,” Mr. Wilcox said.

He said it is important to distinguish between regular churchgoers and men who identify themselves as religious but are not involved in church services or activities. Irregular members, he said, “use male headship to legitimize bad things” such as abuse and divorce.

Divorce rates among those who identify themselves as Christians are higher than for atheists and agnostics, according to the Barna Group, a California-based organization specializing in religious research. In September, the group released data showing that 39 percent of married Protestants had experienced divorce while 35 percent of married non-Christians had been through divorce.

Such statistics, Mr. Wilcox said, fail to measure the influence of church attendance. “Regular churchgoers are more than 30 percent less likely to divorce” than people who do not attend church regularly, he said.

“The key issue is not whether one is affiliated with a church or claims to have had a ‘born-again’ experience,” Mr. Wilcox said. “It is if they regularly attend church.”

He said separating active churchgoers from those who merely report an affiliation to Christianity breaks down the stereotype that traditional religions encourage emotional and physical abuse.

“Assumptions make people skeptical of traditions,” Mr. Wilcox said, adding that men who spend time in church and understand the teachings tend to make better fathers.

“Religion offers men opportunities to spend time with their families,” Mr. Wilcox said. He said Sunday-morning services, church picnics, camping trips and conferences encourage good family structure.

“Churches have been more intentional about targeting men with strong family messages,” Mr. Wilcox said. He specifically mentioned the Promise Keepers organization, which conducts conferences across the nation and declares its aim to help men become “better husbands, stronger fathers. … They want closer friendships, and to be a vital part of a community.”

Mr. Wilcox, a Catholic, said members of his religion fall somewhere in the middle of mainline and evangelical Protestants in the amount of time spent with their families and the happiness of their wives.

He said the Catholic tradition of celibate men as church leaders might fail to provide a good role model for married men.

Amy Sullivan, an editor of the Washington Monthly who had served as an assistant to Sen. Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said the activities of evangelical churches are positive.

Ms. Sullivan said: “Religion, even of a liberal sort, can help people.”

She questioned why more modern Protestant churches did not engage in similar activities that would aid in making better fathers.

Mr. Wilcox said mainline Protestants have more difficulty encouraging male-only activities or services because they wish to avoid alienating women. More conservative churches, Mr. Wilcox said, are willing to take a stand on men’s roles and responsibilities and do a better job preparing men for fatherhood.

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