Conservative Protestants and their critics--from mainstream media to feminists--may give the impression that conservative Protestants are stalwart agents of reaction in American life. But the reality of the "conservative Protestant family paradox" is that conservative Protestants are, in fact, not that different from other Americans when it comes to marital practice and more progressive when it comes to parenting, especially fathering. This paradox suggests that conservative Protestant leaders should pay more attention to the marital practice of their own rank and file before attacking "cultural elites." But it also suggests that their critics, ironically enough, might learn a thing or two about family life from average conservative Protestants.
The Responsive Community, the journal where this essay originally appeared. The essay is also included in the volume "What's God Got To Do With the American Experiment?", edited by E.J. Dionne, Jr. and John J. DiIulio, Jr. Excerpts from the book will appear throughout the convention season. Conventional wisdom suggests that evangelical Protestantism is a uniform force for reaction in American life. Indeed, the close ties between conservative Protestants--that is, Protestants who take a high view of the Bible and prioritize evangelism--and the political right give some credence to this view. James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Pat Robertson, leaders of family ministries and political groups loosely associated with conservative Protestantism, consistently push the Republican Party to stake out conservative stands on social issues. At the grassroots level, white conservative Protestants (who make up almost 20 percent of the population) have migrated at disproportionate levels to the Republican Party, to the point where they are almost 50 percent more likely than other Americans to identify as Republicans. Conservative Protestantism's links to political conservatism grow largely out of its more fundamental concern with the preservation of the "traditional" family. The conservative family rhetoric and attitudes issuing from conservative Protestant quarters have prompted a vigorous response from feminists and mainstream media. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, accused the Promise Keepers of being "religious political extremists" 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." Conservative Protestant leaders have responded in kind. For instance, Dobson recently wrote that "conservative Christians continue to lose ground in the great civil war of values.[as] the cultural elites.continue their campaign to marginalize and paralyze us." Beyond the rhetorical volleys that characterize this elite-driven cultural conflict, however, the reality is that family practice of conservative Protestants on the ground confounds the denunciations of left-leaning cultural elites and the proscriptions of conservative Protestant elites. What we call the "conservative Protestant family paradox" is best summarized as follows: conservative Protestant family practice doesn't match conservative Protestant family rhetoric. When it comes to the practice of family life, conservative Protestant men and women act in ways that parallel or are in fact more progressive than other Americans. First, conservative Protestants approach married life in ways that largely mirror the practices of other Americans. Melinda Lundquist and Christian Smith, researchers at the University of North Carolina, find no difference between conservative Protestants and other Americans in marital decisions dealing with family finances, childrearing, and work decisions. Our own research indicates that there are no differences in patterns of male household labor--that is, cooking, cleaning, and so on--between conservative Protestant and other American couples. We also find, contrary to the argument by Cokie and Steve Roberts, no evidence that conservative Protestant men are more likely to abuse their wives physically. The only exceptions to this general pattern of conservative Protestant marital similarity are that conservative Protestants are more likely to report that husbands take the "lead in spiritual matters," according to Lundquist and Smith; that conservative Protestant men and women are more likely to report higher levels of marital satisfaction than other Americans, according to our research; and that conservative Protestant men are more likely to be empathetic and affectionate toward their wives, according to our research. Thus, despite conservative gender role rhetoric and attitudes to the contrary, the day-to-day reality of conservative Protestant marriages doesn't seem all that different from the lived experience of other American couples. Indeed, the expressed marital style of conservative Protestant men seems more progressive than that of other American men.Excerpted with permission from
Moreover, when it comes to parenting, conservative Protestants--especially conservative Protestant men--are in many ways more progressive than other Americans. The single exception to this pattern is that conservative Protestant 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 pushed by Dr. Spock is also deeply entrenched in this subculture. We find that conservative Protestant mothers praise and hug their children more often than do other mothers. More surprisingly, we also find that conservative Protestant fathers are more likely to practice this kind of expressive parenting.
The warm, expressive character of evangelical parenting and marriage appears, in part, to be an outgrowth of the increasingly therapeutic character of American evangelicalism more generally. From stadiums filled with Promise Keepers men weeping over their sins to mega-churches offering small groups for every imaginable emotional need, conservative Protestant institutions have turned their attention in a dramatic way to the psychological well-being of their members. The expressive ethos produced in conservative Protestant churches has undoubtedly carried over into the family, which helps to explain why mothers and fathers in this subculture are more likely to hug and praise their children and why men are more likely to be affectionate and empathetic to their wives.
However, the distinctive parenting styles among evangelicals also seems related to the way they have connected notions of "divinely ordained" authority 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 authority in away that models the love of God. Moreover, fathers are expressly told that they have a role to play. As one conservative Protestant 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 proper exercise of family authority--including parental authority, allied with the distinctively powerful social supports and controls at the disposal of conservative Protestant churches, appears to be a crucial factor in accounting for the progressive parental practices of conservative Protestants.
But why doesn't this powerful family focus translate into more differences in marital behavior, given the conservative gender rhetoric and attitudes found among conservative Protestants? Part of the reason for this gap between culture and conduct can be attributed to the shifting ideal of authority in conservative Protestantism. In recent years, partly as a consequence of feminist pressures within and outside of the conservative Protestant subculture, the ideal of male authority has evolved from one of "headship" to one of "servant-leadership." This discursive innovation allows conservative Protestant men and women to retain their allegiance to the symbolic authority of men even as they adopt behaviors more in keeping with the norms of their non-conservative Protestant friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
Moreover, it allows conservative Protestants to express--symbolically if not practically--their moral superiority over these very same non-conservative Protestant friends, neighbors, and co-workers. In fact, its emphasis on male leadership is precisely the kind of symbolic boundary-work that a lends conservative Protestantism its distinctive religious strength, as Christian Smith argues in his recent book, "American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving."
Finally, this emphasis on male authority is clearly tied to notions of male familial responsibility in this subculture. Conservative Protestantism appears to offer men the symbolic gift of "servant-leadership" in return for demanding greater involvement in the home and more expressive behavior with their wives. In fact, our research indicates that the conservative Protestant couples with the most traditional gender role attitudes art the couples where the wives express the most satisfaction with their husband's empathy and affection.