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Soft Patriarchs, New Men How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands

Soft Patriarchs, New Men How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands

By W. Bradford Wilcox

Reviewed by Jenet Jacob

In trying to analyze the 2004 election results, the mainstream media is once again relying upon its distorted caricatures of the Christian right-wing: strict, emotionally distant, close-minded, uncompassionate and unbending. The conservative Protestant father is imagined to be the one dismissing childcare as "women's work" while ruling his home with an iron hand and a stiff upper lip. However, this portrayal, so beloved by the media, is sharply called into question by the groundbreaking findings presented in Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands.

Using nationally representative survey data, University of Virginia sociologist W. Brad Wilcox reveals a "surprising" kind of conservative Protestant father, one not yet discovered by an all-knowing Hollywood or by the academic elite:

* Fathers who set the most rules, but who give the most hugs; * Fathers who discipline the most but who also spend the most one-on-one time with their kids; * Fathers who do the least housework, but whose wives feel the most appreciated and loved.

Wilcox makes an important statement at a significant point in the debate: religion is a powerful influence in creating the best kind of husbands and dads. Indeed, the home of an active conservative Protestant father seems to be one of the safest places for women and children today.

In the first study of its kind, Wilcox compares conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant, and religiously unaffiliated fathers to illuminate the influence religion has on fathering today, and to contrast how two of the largest religious traditions in the United States have responded to the dramatic family changes of the last three decades.

After carefully reviewing the family and gender ideologies produced by conservative and mainline Protestant churches during the second half of the twentieth century, Wilcox evaluates how these ideologies have impacted fathers within these traditions in ways that unaffiliated fathers have not typically experienced. Wilcox demonstrates that religious affiliation, belief and practices affect not only fathers' attitudes, but their parenting, household chores, and marriages as well.

Wilcox's findings strongly refute modernist assertions that religion's influence over the family is weakening. In fact, Wilcox notes that the traditional family centered ideology particularly strong among conservative Protestants is actually reflected in the daily practices of married fathers. Indeed, the author concludes, conservative Protestantism may be the most important institutional force behind the ideological persistence of gender traditionalism and family-centered beliefs in the United States. Conservative Protestants who frequently attend church show the most traditional and the most pro-family attitudes among the population at large. And a further look at the role of theological conservatism, or a literal interpretation of the Bible, indicates that belief itself is a strong predictor of such attitudes.

By comparing conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant and unaffiliated married fathers, Wilcox is able to distinguish the unique effects of conservative Protestant belief and practice from the generic effects of religious participation. His review of twenty years of religious literature shows marked differences in the responses of mainline and conservative Protestant churches to profound family changes. While mainline Protestant churches have adopted a largely "accommodationist stance" espousing the cultural ideals of tolerance, gender equality, inclusion and a therapeutic ethic, often at odds with traditional familism, conservative Protestant institutions have managed to greatly maintain familistic attitudes and gender-role traditionalism amongst their frequently attending, theologically conservative members.

Three sections contrasting fathers' parenting, household labor, and marital behaviors show that conservative Protestant married fathers tend to be traditional family patriarchs. Wilcox terms them "soft patriarchs," however, because while these fathers do a smaller share of household labor, are more likely to use corporal punishment, and express support of male headship, they are also the most active and emotionally engaged fathers and the most emotionally engaged husbands of all the married fathers in this study. Mainline Protestant married fathers do more household labor than any other group, and are more active and engaged as fathers and husbands than unaffiliated fathers, but are less engaged than conservative Protestant men.

Thus, Wilcox effectively discredits the assertion that conservative Protestantism propagates an authoritarian style characterized by low levels of positive involvement and high levels of corporal punishment and domestic violence. Instead, Wilcox's research indicates that conservative Protestant fathers express more affection and praise toward their children and spend more time with them. In addition, the wives of these conservative Protestants say they feel more appreciated for their household labor, are more satisfied with the affection, love and understanding they receive from their husbands, and have more time socializing with them. Furthermore, active conservative Protestant men have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any group represented in this study.

In a visionary encapsulation of his findings, Wilcox predicts that the United States will see "the rise of a neotraditional family order that succeeds in domesticating men while retaining a measure of traditionalism in the division of labor and authority in the home." His findings reveal the significant - although often ignored - role of religion in creating a family life where the vital contributions that men make to family life are experienced. As Americans come to understand that paternal involvement is vital to the economic achievement, educational attainment, and emotional health of children, and that men's ability to emotionally connect is the most important factor when women evaluate the quality of their marriages, they will realize that Wilcox's thesis and findings could not come at a better time.

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