Ethics & Public Policy Center

"Soft Patriarchs"

Published in Books & Culture, September/October 2004, pp. 20-21 on September 10, 2004


W. Bradford Wilcox, whose assumption-busting book Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands has just been published by the University of Chicago Press, is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a rising star in his field, and a devout Catholic. He and his wife have adopted three children from Guatemala: he isn’t writing about family life from the standpoint of a detached observer. Michael Cromartie spoke with Wilcox early this summer in Washington, D.C.

You say, “Married men with children who are affiliated with conservative Protestant churches are in some ways traditional family patriarchs … but theirs is a very soft patriarchy. These family men are consistently the most active and emotionally engaged group of fathers and the most emotionally engaged group of husbands in this entire study.” How does conservative Protestantism domesticate men and make them more responsive to the aspirations and needs of their wives and children?

It domesticates men by making them more attentive to the ideals and aspirations of their wives and children, and it does this by providing men with a clear message of familial responsibility, a clear sense of their own status in the family, and equally important, a male ethos where they can encounter other men who are committed to family life. Let’s face it—the church is one of the few institutions in the United States where men encounter other men who are interested in talking about fatherhood and marriage—and interested also in practicing what they hear preached. You don’t often find it at work; you don’t find it in the sports stadium; you don’t find it in the local tavern. But in church what you will find is a message and ethos that is family-focused and gives men the motivation to attend to their families. When you look at measures of paternal involvement—things like reading to your children, volunteering for a Boy Scouts group, coaching sports, and so on—active conservative Protestant or evangelical fathers are the most involved fathers of any major religious group in the United States.

You also observe that “wives of active evangelical Protestant family men report the highest levels of happiness with love and affection.” Is that your finding, or is that from the University of Chicago study on sex in America?

That’s my finding. The University of Chicago study on sex found that evangelical women reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their sexual lives. You have to recognize that, particularly for women, sexual satisfaction is related to a sense of security and commitment. So, you do the math. Women who are married to men who are strongly committed to the institution of marriage are, on average, probably going to experience better sexual happiness because they experience a level of security and comfort that may be missing in more progressive marriages where there’s a shadow of insecurity hanging over the marriage.

You suggest that conservative Protestant institutions have continued to chart a path largely defined by resistance to family modernization. But you also note that you have seen a number of accommodations and innovations in their family-related ideologies. You put it this way: “What is striking about many of these changes, and especially the expressive strategy of encouraging men to be more engaged and affectionate with their families, is that they represent innovative efforts to shore up the family as an institution. Thus conservative Protestant institutions have adopted progressive means in the service of traditional ends.” Explain that.

What we see when we look at the religious scene in the United States is that the churches in which you are most likely to hear about men’s responsibilities in the family are evangelical churches. This is fairly innovative; it would not necessarily have been the case as recently as 30 years ago. I think what’s happened is a recognition among evangelical clergy and laity that the family is in trouble and that one of the key ways, if not the most important way, to respond to the fragility of family life in the contemporary United States is to get men more engaged with their own families. So that’s one way in which things are more innovative in evangelical congregations.

Over the same period, there has been a new focus on the emotional domain—especially an innovative focus on women’s emotional needs and potential coming from key family leaders like Gary Smalley and James Dobson. You have Smalley, for instance, talking about 122 ways in which men can be more sensitive to the needs of their wives.

I’m a bit more ambivalent about this focus on emotional needs, which may work against a recognition that marriage as an institution has a lot of purposes—foremost among them, the spiritual life of the couple and their children. Those purposes can get lost in the emotional focus that we see in some discourse from evangelicals. But the bottom line here is that, I think, because evangelicalism is intent on protecting the family, there is also room to adopt some techniques, messages, and strategies that are in many respects quite innovative. So you have both innovation and defense of tradition.

Can you outline the major differences between what you call the “golden rule liberalism” of mainline Protestant families and the “expressive traditionalism” of conservative Protestant families? What makes them distinct from each other?

In the mainline, you have a view of Scripture certainly as God’s word, but the literal word of Scripture is not necessarily seen as a concrete guide for family life. So you have to try to uncover a certain spirit of the New Testament, if you will, which will then guide family life. That is more a liberal theological approach. When it comes to family, mainline Protestantism has been intent on signaling its cultural liberalism, its commitment to affirming family diversity, its openness to same-sex marriage, and its commitment to meeting people where they’re at, in terms of their family status. That’s their formal level of discourse.

But at the practical level, if you go to your average mainline congregation, what you’ll find is that they’re really reaching out to married couples with kids, and they’re doing that by basically preaching the golden rule both to adults and, most importantly, to kids through Sunday school, programs, and children’s worship. There’s a kind of two-step dance, where formally they’re in favor of family diversity but when you actually look at who’s in the congregations, you’ll find mostly very conventional families. So people basically want to think of themselves as liberal yet live a fairly conventional family life.

Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, actually have a higher percentage of single parents, step-parents, single adults among them. I think there is a higher percentage of non-traditional families in evangelical congregations for a number of reasons. But one reason is that the kind of intensive experience and community they offer is attractive to people who are in a difficult family situation and are looking for a community that will help them get through their life. And often they’re also looking for an ideal model of the family, which they haven’t necessarily encountered in their own lives—the ideal that is held up in a pastoral way in the evangelical context. There’s a certain irony here: evangelicalism holds up a traditional ideal of the family and yet has more non-traditional families, whereas mainline Protestantism holds up a more liberal ideal and yet has more traditional families in their pews.

—Michael Cromartie directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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