|Brad Wilcox on the New Face of Christian Fatherhood
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, 1 FEB. 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
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 ZENIT his findings, which challenge some of the secular
assumptions about Christian fathers, and his thoughts on Catholic
Q: What inspired you to study and write about the state of Protestant
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
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
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
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
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
either due to divorce, separation or illegitimacy. These children are
much more likely to suffer serious emotional, social and spiritual
For instance, boys who grow up without their father are twice as likely
to end up in prison, compared to boys who grow up in an intact family. I
suspect that children from these homes have difficulty pursuing
vocations to marriage, religious life, apostolic celibacy or the
priesthood because they have not seen commitment modeled by their
The second crisis is that too many fathers
including Christian fathers
do not teach their children the virtues of obedience and fortitude. They
are soft with their children, and tolerate too much disobedience,
misbehavior, sloth and cowardice from their children.
I suspect that children in soft homes have difficulty embracing the
sacrifices associated with a vocation to religious life, apostolic
celibacy or the priesthood.
Q: Your studies demonstrated that fathers are spending more time with
their children. However, it seems that society in general has exhibited
a further weakening of the bonds of family. What accounts for this
Wilcox: Overall, children spend no more time with their fathers than did
children in the 1960s. But this general trend obscures a fundamental
disjunction in the lives of contemporary children.
Children living in intact families now spend more time with their
fathers than did the average child living in the 1960s. Children living
in fatherless homes now spend much less time with their fathers than did
the average child living in the 1960s.
Family structure makes all the difference in the world for contemporary
Q: Another interesting statistic noted in your book was that the
Christian men you surveyed did far less housework than their wives, yet
these same women exhibited the highest degree of satisfaction with their
husbands. Why the disparity?
Wilcox: Evangelical Protestant men do about an hour less of housework,
compared to secular men. But evangelical wives whose husbands attend
church regularly report the highest levels of marital satisfaction of
any major group in the United States.
What gives? My book indicates that evangelical wives get more gratitude
and affection from their husbands than secular wives. And it turns out
that the emotional work that husbands do is more important for wives'
marital happiness than the housework that their husbands do. In other
words, compliments matter more than cleaning.
Q: Some have claimed that Christianity has become overly feminized in
the past 50 years. Were the Protestant men you studied emasculated by
their faith life, or supported in the growth of authentically male
virtues? How do you see the masculinity of Catholic men displayed and
Wilcox: I do not think that the evangelical Protestant men I studied are
emasculated but I do think there is a danger that some of these men
as well as many Catholic men
are drifting in the direction of emasculation, both with themselves and
Of course, the danger with encouraging men to focus more on family life
is that they may lose sight of their unique roles in the family as
teachers, protectors, disciplinarians and challenging guides to the
outside world. Contemporary fathers need to figure out how they can
exercise a uniquely paternal role inside the home that doesn't turn them
into a second
Many evangelical churches have strong pastors and men's ministries that
encourage manly virtues, and succeed in making men see faith and family
life in a manly light
partly because they are not afraid to tackle controversial moral issues
from the pulpit.
Unfortunately, I would say that there are few Catholic churches in the
United States that have pastors or men's ministries that present faith
or family life in a manly light.
It is no accident that evangelical churches have higher rates of male
participation than do Catholic churches. Priests and Catholic men need
to rectify this by revisiting the life of Our Lord, and by embracing the
array of manly virtues that he displays throughout the New Testament.