'They certainly take their families to church--early and often. They are totally off the radar screens in Hollywood and elite academia. They are ordinary, faithful, evangelical and Catholic men and University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has survey data showing that they appear to be more involved, more dedicated fathers than their secular counterparts, or even those who worship in more "progressive" pews.
"Conservative Protestant Churches and parachurch ministries have stressed values such as traditional gender attitudes, strict discipline, expressive parenting and parental involvement," noted Wilcox, in the Journal of Marriage and Family. "Moreover, because of their pietist tradition of worship and increasingly therapeutic approach to relationships, conservative Protestant churches have an expressive ethos that may carry over into family life."
It would be wrong, Wilcox explained, to call these fathers old-fashioned traditionalists who rule their homes with an iron hand and a stiff upper lip. Instead, Wilcox called them "neo-traditionalists" who are trying to blend discipline and doctrine with a new style of parenting that is also heavy on "affection and sensitivity."
The result is not "some kind of flashback to the 1950s," said Wilcox. "I think what we are seeing is evidence that there are lots of evangelical and Catholic fathers who are truly changing their lives to try to spend more time with their children. The evidence is that they are doing this because they believe God wants them to."
This survey will certainly be seen as a paradox, if not a threat, by other researchers, said theologian Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "After all," he said, "wouldn't one expect that conservative evangelical dads would dismiss childrearing as 'women's work,' while they attend Billy Graham crusades or uproot South American rain forests, or do, well, whatever it is that evangelical men do?" But perhaps, he added, "evangelical fathers are more committed to their children, not in spite of their biblical understanding of the family, but because of it."
The national study of 1,000 fathers who live at home focused on several practical questions about daily life. Wilcox found that evangelicals were more likely to spend one-on-one time with their children and to take part in family meals and church activities. Catholic fathers had similar high scores, but tended to favor non-religious activities with their children.
Evangelical and Catholic fathers consistently scored higher than those from the denominations that researchers have long considered "mainline" and progressive. In his study, Wilcox included Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists and Congregationalists in this "mainline" camp. Meanwhile, the evangelicals included participants from Southern Baptist, the Assembly of God, Christian Reformed, Pentecostal and other conservative churches.
Yet Wilcox understood that the "mainline" world is not monolithic, since he was raised as an Episcopalian before converting to Roman Catholicism. While the mainline denominations lean left on moral and cultural issues, they also include many individual congregations that are quite conservative.
Thus, Wilcox was able to dig into his data and test his thesis that beliefs make a difference. He discovered that about 30 percent of the "mainline" men identified themselves as conservatives on issues of biblical authority and whether the Bible was their final guide on "practical issues they face in daily life." Sure enough, he said, these conservative men were more child and family oriented than the typical fathers in the "mainline" denominations. There was no way to avoid this theme in the data, he said. "There is no doubt in my mind," said Wilcox, "that part of what is going on here is that these fathers have a strong belief that there is such a thing as a biblical worldview, one that stresses that God wants to play a vital, active role in their lives. They also believe God wants them to pass this belief on to their children, right there in their homes. So that's what they're trying to do."