2016-06-30
Conventional wisdom suggests that evangelical Protestants are a uniform force for reactionary politics when it comes to "family values."

Two years ago, the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, passed a resolution calling on wives to "submit" to their husbands. Evangelical parenting experts, led by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, are some of the culture's most vociferous defenders of a traditional disciplinary child-rearing style that incorporates corporal punishment. And more than 85% of evangelicals believe that "the husband should be the head of the family," compared with 48% of all other Americans, according to the 1996 Pew-funded Religious Identity and Influence Survey.

This conservative family rhetoric has prompted a vigorous response from feminists and mainstream media. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, accused Promise Keepers of being "radical-right religious activists" bent on keeping women in the "back seat." Journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts suggested that the Southern Baptist position on marital submission "can clearly lead to abuse, both physical and emotional."

But the conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong. The reality is that evangelicals' actual family practice confounds the rhetoric of left-leaning cultural elites as well as conservative evangelical elites. We call it the "evangelical family paradox." It turns out that evangelical men and women act in ways that parallel--or are in fact more progressive than--other Americans.

First, when it comes to parenting, evangelicals--especially evangelical men--are in many ways more progressive than other Americans. The single exception to this pattern is that evangelical parents spank their toddlers and preschoolers more often than other parents, according to a research team led by Christopher Ellison at the University of Texas.

However, the kind of warm, expressive parenting style first advocated by Dr. Spock is also deeply entrenched in this subculture. We find that evangelical mothers praise and hug their children more often than do other mothers. More surprisingly, we also find that evangelical fathers are more likely to practice this kind of expressive parenting.

In fact, current evidence suggests that evangelical fathers are more involved with their children than other fathers. They have dinner with their children and volunteer for youth activities like soccer and Scouts more than other fathers. Evangelical fathers report monitoring their children's chores, homework, and TV-watching regimen more closely than other fathers. And evangelical fathers are no more or less likely than other fathers to help out their wives with such basic child-care tasks as feeding, clothing, and bathing preschoolers.

In many ways, then, evangelical men more closely resemble the iconic "new father" of the 1990s--the expressive, involved, and egalitarian family man--than do other men.

So, why is a religious culture that has championed gender-role traditionalism leading the way in fathers' family involvement? How can we explain the evangelical family paradox?

The expressive character of evangelical parenting appears to be an outgrowth of what evangelicals see as a "divinely ordained" approach to family life. In sermons, books, small groups, and radio programs, evangelical institutions like Focus on the Family press the message that the family can be saved if parents exercise love and authority in a way that models the love of God.

Moreover, fathers are expressly told that they have a crucial role to play in this regard. As one evangelical parenting expert said, "Is Dad necessary? You bet he is! He is part of a God-designed team, and his teamwork is essential to the personal growth of his children." This focus on the loving exercise of family authority appears to be a critical factor in their progressive parental practices.

But why doesn't this powerful family focus translate into differences in marital behavior between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, given the conservative gender rhetoric? Part of the reason for this gap can be attributed to the shifting ideal of authority within evangelicalism.

In recent years, partly as a consequence of feminist pressures within and outside the evangelical subculture, the ideal of male authority has evolved from one of "headship" to "servant-leadership." This ideological innovation is notable among Promise Keepers leaders and other conservative Protestant luminaries, who are keenly aware of the democratization of American families. At the same time, however, they want to retain some allegiance to traditional gender roles. Language such as "servant-leadership"--which, incidentally, is included along with the wifely "submission" edict in the Southern Baptist resolution--allows evangelical men and women to retain their allegiance to the symbolic authority of men.

But it also allows them to adopt behaviors more in keeping with the norms of their non-evangelical friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Moreover, it allows evangelicals to express--symbolically if not practically--their moral superiority over these very same non-evangelical friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

Meanwhile, evangelicals approach married life in ways that largely mirror other Americans. Melinda Lundquist and Christian Smith, researchers at the University of North Carolina, find no difference between evangelicals and other Americans in marital decisions dealing with family finances, child rearing, and work decisions. These findings are reinforced by the now substantial academic literature on evangelical family life--much of which reveals how the decision-making power of conservative Protestant women is bolstered by their affiliation with evangelical congregations and parachurch groups.

Our own research indicates that there are also no differences in patterns of male household labor between evangelical and other American couples. We also find, contrary to Cokie and Steve Roberts' argument, no evidence that evangelical men are more likely to abuse their wives physically. The only two exceptions to this general pattern are that evangelicals are more likely to report that husbands take the "lead in spiritual matters," according to Lundquist and Smith, and that evangelical men and women are more likely to report higher levels of marital satisfaction than other Americans, according to our research.

Evangelical leaders and their critics--from mainstream media to feminists--may give the impression that evangelical Protestants are stalwart agents of reaction in American life. But the reality of the "evangelical family paradox" is that evangelicals are not that different from other Americans when it comes to marital practice, and more progressive when it comes to parenting, especially fathering.

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