Faithful husbands and fathers

Absent fathers are a sign of one of the deepest problems of today’s society - the weakening of male bonds with the family. Religion is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing this issue, but research by sociology professor W Bradford Wilcox shows that men who go to church are more likely than their secular peers to stick around, and to have children and wives who are happy to have them around. In this interview with MercatorNet Dr Wilcox discusses the data.

MercatorNet: Most churches would claim to support and encourage strong families, but in general, how much difference does church-going make to American marriages?

Dr Wilcox: It makes a difference—particularly when couples attend together. But, as we all know, churchgoing doesn't guarantee a couple a happy marriage; it simply raises the odds they will succeed.

Specifically, my research indicates that churchgoing spouses in the United States are about 35 per cent less likely to divorce than their unchurched peers. The effect of religion is even stronger for couples who attend together. Likewise, churchgoing spouses are happier in their marriages than spouses who don't attend. In my recent report, I found that 65 per cent of attending spouses in the United States were "very happy" in their marriages, compared to 58 per cent of those who attended rarely or never. This may not seem like a dramatic difference but it actually understates the effect of churchgoing. The effect size would be stronger for couples who attend church together but I couldn't look at this type of attendance in the data I analysed for this report.

All the research I've done suggests that religious faith is only linked
to happy and strong marriages when that faith is shared between husband
and wife.

Interestingly, some other work I have done suggests that wives who attend church alone are the least happy wives. This may be because unhappy wives seek solace in church. Or it may be because unchurched husbands resent the time, energy, and devotion their wives devote to church. Or it may be because wives are disappointed in their husbands' lack of faith. But all the research I've done suggests that religious faith is only linked to happy and strong marriages when that faith is shared between husband and wife. In other words, the old saying about the "family that prays together, stays together" really gets it right.

MercatorNet: Everyone is talking about the need for fathers to take a more active role in their families -- are religious men any more involved with their children? Are they more considerate to their wives? Does it depend on what kind of Christian a man is?

Dr Wilcox: Fathers play an indispensable role in the lives of their children. In the typical father-present home, dads take the lead in providing for and protecting their families. They also have a distinctive approach to discipline, play, and challenging their kids to embrace life's opportunities and to face difficulties with fortitude. Religious fathers are more involved, affectionate, and strict—on average. For instance, American dads who attend church several times a month or more spend about two more hours a week in youth activities—coaching, Boy Scouts, youth religious groups—than dads who do not regularly attend church. 

In the United States, evangelical Protestant dads are especially likely to be involved and affectionate with their kids. I would chalk this up to the strong family focus, and focus on men, found in many evangelical churches here in the United States.

MercatorNet: What is it about religion that makes men better husbands and fathers?

Dr Wilcox: Religion provides norms, networks, and a "nomos" – or theological worldview – that matter to men. Churches promote norms regarding fidelity, sacrifice, and forgiveness that foster happy and stable families. They also situate men in family-friendly networks that are likely to turn their hearts and minds towards their families, and to help them stay on the straight and narrow path. Finally, religion offers men a "nomos" that gives them a sense of their paternal vocation, and also helps them make sense of the inevitable stresses and suffering that will come their way. This latter point is important because stress often leads men to be distant or abusive fathers and husbands. Faith helps to prevent men from letting life's difficulties poison their home life.

MercatorNet: They may be doing all right at holding the family together, but, some would say, Christian men are a reactionary force, clinging to male leadership in the family and resisting the gender revolution. How true is that?

Dr Wilcox: Well, my work suggests that evangelical homes in the United States are less equal. Evangelical wives take on a larger share of housework than their peers, in large part because their husbands devote more time to the kids and less time to the cooking or cleaning. Probably similar patterns can be found among traditional Catholics and orthodox Jews.
But it's complicated. Churchgoing husbands, especially evangelicals, are also more involved and affectionate in their wives' lives. They socialize more with them; they express affection more often. So this is a very "soft" patriarchy we now see in more traditional religious circles.

MercatorNet: You and Steven Nock have done research on the issue of equality in marriage -- equal sharing of domestic work, including care of the children, and paid work etc. Is this really the thing that is going to make women happy in marriage?

Dr Wilcox: For most American wives, a "50-50" model of marital equality does not lead to marital happiness. The most important factor for a wife nowadays is her husband's emotional engagement—his affection, understanding, appreciation. Of course, equity matters also. Wives want to see their husbands contribute their fair share; but most wives and husbands don't define fair as "50-50" equality.

My work also suggests shared church attendance, a shared commitment to marital permanence, and a breadwinning husband who earns more than 65 per cent of the couple's income are also linked to greater happiness for today's wives.

So, the bottom line is that the happiest marriages nowadays combine elements of the new (e.g., his emotional engagement) and the old (e.g., old-fashioned commitment).(1)

MercatorNet: The United States as a whole remains more religious and more married than most other Western nations, and yet it also has a high rate of divorce and growing rates of cohabitation and single motherhood. What could churches be doing better to prevent the decay of marriage amongst Christians?

Dr Wilcox: The United States has a volatile mix of money, individualism, and God. These influences push us in contradictory directions, oftentimes.

I think churches can do four things to improve the state of marriage in their own congregations. First, they need to communicate the basic social scientific facts about marriage, divorce, and cohabitation to their members. Pastors, priests, and lay leaders need to let their congregants know that Christian teaching about marriage and family life is eminently reasonable.

Second, churches need to identify lay couples with strong marriages and make them available as mentors to couples who are preparing for marriage, as well as to couples who are facing problems or need advice. People need models to navigate the challenges of contemporary married life.

Third, pastors and priests need to find the courage to confront the elephants wreaking havoc in our homes—from internet pornography to runaway credit card debt. Today's families face real challenges and, sadly, they hear very little about these challenges from the average pulpit. This has got to change if we wish to strengthen the covenant of marriage.

Finally, the church needs to encourage married and singles alike to see marriage as a vocation, and a difficult and exciting one at that. Single men and women need to discern if they are called to marriage, and to be more intentional about finding a good spouse if they discern a call to marriage. Married men and women need to figure out how they can best live out their calling in the midst of the joys and difficulties of ordinary life; they need to think and pray especially about what new thing they need to sacrifice for the good of their spouse. But they also need to think and pray about how they can make marriage and family life a sporting adventure for themselves, their spouse, and their children. In other words, they have to be looking for ways to breathe a bit of excitement into their marriage and family life on a regular basis.

W. Bradford Wilcox is associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and the author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (2004). He is married and the father of five children.


(1) “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces, Volume 84, Number 3, March 2006


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