Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands
by W. Bradford Wilcox
University of Chicago Press, 328 pp. $20 paper
In the imaginations of feminists and their admirers in the media and intelligentsia, there lurks a kind of bogeyman—the conservative Christian man—a neanderthalic creature who, if he does not regularly beat his wife black-and-blue in the name of God, at least keeps her in her proper place, the kitchen, preferably shoeless and perpetually gestating.
We see this monster in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, where a theocratic patriarchy forbids women to read books, and we see him in the movie Kinsey, in which the future sexologist’s pompous, teetotaling, Bible-wielding father (played by the massive-browed John Lithgow) cows his wife at the dinner table and disowns his son for daring to attend a different college from the one where dad teaches. We hear the evangelical Promise Keepers movement de-nounced by Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women as a “feel-good form of male supremacy” designed to “keep women in the back seat.” And when the Southern Baptists issued a statement in 1998 affirming the father’s headship of the family as defined in the New Testament letters of Paul of Tarsus, we heard journalists Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts warning the nation that this sort of thing could “lead to abuse, both physical and emotional.”
Soft Patriarchs, New Men by W. Bradford Wilcox, a young sociologist of religion at the University of Virginia, is a study of the actual surveyed attitudes and practices of the married men of the so-called “religious right” that turns this stereotype on its head. Wilcox reports that Christian conservative fathers, at least the ones who attend church frequently, are actually far more affectionate with and emotionally invested in their wives and children than are their counterparts among either mainline Protestants or the unchurched. They are patriarchs, says Wilcox, with a “traditional, authority-minded approach to parenting,” but they are soft patriarchs (more akin, shall we say, to Ned Flanders in “The Simpsons” than to the Commander in Atwood’s novel). Wilcox concludes—and this is richly ironic—that Christian conservative fathers display many of the qualities of the sensitive, thoroughly domesticated “iconic new man” whom the feminists lionize.
Wilcox has not written a religious or political polemic here but rather a scrupulously even-handed report, basing his conclusions on his statistical analysis of three large-scale national surveys of U.S. adults’ social attitudes conducted from the late 1980s through the ’90s. He frequently cites the work of Frank Furstenburg and Arlie Hochschild, two sociologists of family and gender relations whose views are by no means ideologically conservative, and he avoids value-loaded language, especially when it comes to describing the mainline Protestant churches whose leadership has, by and large, capitulated to the secular-elitist acceptance of extramarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and other practices that conservative Christians view as inimical to moral life and family health.
A polemicist might well have salty things to say about this abdication of moral principles that Christians have held since the earliest days of the faith, but in Wilcox’s mild and irenic diction the mainline churches are simply “accommodationist,” espousing what he calls a “Golden Rule Christianity” that honors tolerance, kindness, and social justice as paramount virtues. Wilcox’s aim is clearly to engage his sociological confreres as well as the public at large; thus he lays out his case in such a careful and dispassionate manner that many lay readers are likely to find his book, with its many pages of endnotes and its numerous regression tables, colorless and dull, although its conclusions are anything but that.
Wilcox seems to have picked Protestants to study because their large number of denominations makes them relatively easy to classify by ideological and theological subgroup. (Catholics, for example, can also be classified as liberals or conservatives, but there is no convenient yardstick, even that of frequent Mass attendance, for measuring where they stand.) Mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the like) and evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants (an umbrella group of conservative churches including the Pentecostal, Baptist, Anabaptist, and Reformed traditions) not only belong to distinctly different kinds of churches, but they generally hold distinctly different views on such matters as theological orthodoxy and the inerrancy of the Bible, upon which conservative Christians are predictably conservative. Through the 1950s, however, all Christians of whatever stripe held to what Wilcox calls “the ideology of familism” that invested marriage, childbearing, and the household with sacredness, and in which, at least since the Industrial Revolution, men were the chief economic providers while the domestic sphere and the welfare of the children were chiefly the domain of women.
All this changed when the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism ushered in easy divorce, the expectation of a career outside the home for married women, ready access to contraception and abortion, and the gay-rights movement. The mainline Protestants quickly embraced the new “diversity,” especially of family living arrangements. The religious conservatives, beset by this sea change in the secular culture, might have been expected to retrench into their conventional media stereotypes: authoritarian, emotionally uninvolved husbands and fathers, a rigidly patriarchal family style, deeply gendered domestic roles that kept women at home—plus, as Wilcox puts it, “high levels of corporal punishment and domestic violence.” Alternatively, many sociologists predicted that, with the increasing emphasis on individualism and the therapeutic in American culture, religion would have an increasingly marginal influence on domestic life, and the traditional family as the 1950s knew it would gradually disappear in the face of “family modernization,” as some theorists called it.
Instead, as Wilcox notes, something very different and unanticipated happened. Conservative Protestantism indeed made an aggressive countercultural push, starting in the 1970s, to shore up the traditional family. Efforts ranged from family ministries in individual churches to “parachurch” pastoral groups such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family to national political organizations such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But it also subtly accommodated itself to such elements of late modernity as the therapeutic culture, increasing numbers of wives working outside the home, and a new expectation that husbands as well as wives should involve themselves emotionally in home life and the well-being of the children.
The idea was, as Wilcox writes, “that conservative Protestantism domesticates men by linking male authority to a demanding ethic of male familial involvement. It offers men a ‘patriarchal bargain’ that accords men symbolic authority in the home in return for the exercise of greater responsibility for the well-being of their families.” One example of conservative Protestantism’s new focus on expressive interpersonal relations, Wilcox notes, is that Fuller Theological Seminary, a leading training ground for evangelical ministers, established a psychology department in 1965.
Hence, the soft patriarch, the “servant leader” who simultaneously negotiates traditional gender roles and an egalitarian ethos with respect to his spouse. The wife submits to her husband, as in the first part of Paul’s dictum in Ephesians5, and the husband fulfills the second part of Paul’s injunction by laying down his life for his wife as Christ did for his Church (which might have been what Paul had in mind in the first place). Wilcox’s extrapolations from the statistics suggest that the new model of emotionally involved fatherhood is paying off.
Active (that is, regularly churchgoing), married conservative Protestant fathers have more one-on-one interaction with their children than do mainline Protestants, conservative Protestants who seldom attend church, or the religiously unaffiliated. They are also more likely to be involved in youth-related activities. At the same time, conservative pastors and parachurch organizations alike urge fathers not to relinquish their parental authority and to set rules (such as supervising children’s television-viewing and monitoring their whereabouts) to counter the morally negative aspects of the secular culture. Churchgoing conservative fathers discipline their children via corporal punishment more frequently than other groups of fathers, but they do so in the context of a religious ideology that urges them never to spank a child in anger. They are less likely to yell at their children than mainline Protestant fathers, and they praise and hug their children more than the other men studied.
On the subject of spousal relations, churchgoing conservative Protestant husbands surpass every other kind of Protestant husband, from mainline to nominal, in making their wives happy in every way, not only showing more love and affection but also socializing more with their wives and understanding them better. (Wilcox does not mention the recent and widely publicized finding that evangelical wives have better sex lives with their husbands than religiously unaffiliated do with theirs, but it seems to follow that this would be so.) This, despite the fact that conservative Protestant households are more gender-traditional in terms of duties than others, with husbands performing less housework than husbands in other categories. Yet, as Wilcox points out, this doesn’t seem to matter to their wives, because as sociologists before him have noted, marriages seem to function in an “economy of gratitude” in which the husband’s expression of appreciation for his wife’s work counts more than totting up who took out the garbage when. Schooled by organizations such as Focus on the Family, conservative Protestant men evidently appreciate their wives highly and find ways to communicate that appreciation.
Wilcox notes that soft patriarchs aren’t just a phenomenon of conservative Protestantism, but are to be found these days in “traditional Catholic parishes, Mormon temples, and Orthodox synagogues.” They can also be found (although not in the same abundance) in mainline Protestant churches, because those churches continue to foster family-friendly activities and because many individual mainliners are more theologically and socially conservative than their leadership. Wilcox’s welcome study makes a strong case that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior—or making an equivalent commitment to an ancient and demanding faith—is the best predictor of marital and familial happiness to be found.
Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (1998).