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The following essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book Dawn’s Early Light: Burning Down Washington to Save America.

“For the Lord sets a father in honor over his children.” —Sirach 3:2

Smash the patriarchy.” That was the rallying cry of many progressives in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 election. They assumed this new president would drag the country back in time to Reagan’s America, or some unspecified sinister time. Women would suffer the consequences. They were wrong, of course, but not just about Trump. They were wrong about the nature of patriarchy and its relationship to the American way of life.

This Father’s Day, I’m especially grateful for my PaPa Pete, a good Cajun man and an archetypal patriarch. But to understand how important he was in my life—and how important men like him are to our country today—you need to understand what Southern Louisiana was like in 1983.

For most Americans, 1983 was the year the Reagan Revolution began to pay off. Inflation was in freefall while employment rates and wages were finally rising. America felt like it was roaring back and sloughing off the malaise and stupor of the 1970s. We were leaving Vietnam, stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, lines at the gas station, and burnt-out cityscapes in the rear-view mirror. 1983 was a great year for America.

It was a horrible year for my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana. I was only nine, but I still remember how the same forces that brought America roaring back devastated Acadiana. Lafayette and its surrounds relied heavily on the energy economy, especially oil and natural gas coming off the Gulf of Mexico. Tens of thousands of Louisianans worked in all the different parts of the oil industry, from prospectors and drillers developing new fields, to roughnecks—like my PaPa Pete—working on offshore rigs in the Gulf, to the equipment operators and engineers at the refineries and petrochemical plants transforming crude into useful products.

When the rest of the United States struggled to pay for gas in the ’70s, Southern Louisiana boomed, as investment capital and new jobs rushed in to boost America’s domestic energy production. Now, with oil prices plummeting, it was our turn to be walloped. Plants closed, energy companies laid off workers by the hundreds, and a deep economic contraction set in. Soon, men whose families lived in the region for centuries packed up to look for work elsewhere.

In the wake of this economic downturn came social collapse. With our local economy, Catholic diocesan schools, and way of life crumbling, the worst parts of Cajun culture came to the fore. The insularity, the family dramas, the indifference to education, the neglect, the divorce, the drinking. It all got worse, and my family was no exception. My parents divorced. My dad, who was suffering from alcoholism, could no longer provide for our family. My mom took a full-time job at Sears Roebuck. We moved into subsidized housing and started receiving free lunch at school.

In the middle of that vortex of chaos stood a patriarch: my grandfather, Mark “Pete” Pitre. A man of deep devotion to God, country, and family, PaPa Pete was born in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, in 1919. He grew up dirt poor, dropping out of school to work at a local mechanic’s shop, but after Pearl Harbor, he answered his country’s call, volunteering to serve as a United States Marine in World War II.

With his outstanding mechanical ability, he was trained as an airplane mechanic and assigned to a base in Southern California, where he met my grandmother Betty French in the engine well of an airplane they were working on. Not even five feet tall, she had found her niche installing radars and other systems in the nose of aircraft. She could easily maneuver where the burly Marine mechanics would be flummoxed.

Their romance blossomed, and they married days after Victory in Europe Day in May 1945. My mom was born the next year. Upon their discharge from the Marines, PaPa Pete persuaded my grandmother to move the family back home to Opelousas.

He worked as a roughneck at Esso, later Exxon Mobil. He’d hitchhike to the coast for a boat ride out to the rig, working seven days on, seven off. It was some of the physically toughest work there is, but he took pride in his job and in supporting his family. PaPa Pete was a man’s man. He had strong, gnarled hands, and was a genius at fixing anything mechanical. He was not stoic, but not especially expressive either. He liked to work hard and to enjoy the company of friends, a cold beer, and a baseball game. We wiled away afternoons together watching the Atlanta Braves on TV. And he took full advantage of living in “the Sportsmen’s Paradise,” fishing with the best of them.

But he was also gentle and faithful. He was an old-fashioned gentleman who believed in taking care of women, my own grandmother first of all. And I remember many a time working in the yard with him on a Saturday afternoon and being ordered to wash up: We were going to Confession. The family never had much, but my grandfather always had an envelope for the offering plate at Mass, which the whole family went to every Sunday. Like many Cajun men, PaPa Pete also had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. He always had his rosary at his bedside. And he remained devoted to his own widowed mother (my great-grandmother), visiting her almost every day of her long life.

For me, PaPa Pete was a role model, a man in my life I could count on. He gave me stability, normalcy, and constant love. As my community fell apart, I clung to him, the way you might lash yourself to a bald cypress in a hurricane. Back then, I didn’t appreciate how deep his roots went, how much I owed the stability I desperately needed to a tradition and a faith that stretched back centuries. PaPa Pete gave me that. 

Another word for what PaPa Pete’s patriarchy gave me is “piety.” The left likes to describe patriarchy as a system of male power that is obsessed with controlling women, like in The Handmaid’s Tale or Barbie. But outside their ivory towers, patriarchy looks a lot more like Little House on the Prairie and It’s a Wonderful Life. In small towns like Lafayette, patriarchy simply means patrimony. It looks like fathers and grandfathers passing down family traditions to their sons and grandsons, teaching them to take pride in where they come from, to steward their family name, and to pass on that tradition to the next generation. Central to patriarchy is piety.

Piety is a weight. It is a sense of responsibility. It is knowing what we owe to others on account of what we have been given. It is gratitude for what we inherited. It is “the wise man” who “knows himself as debtor” and is “inspired by a deep sense of obligation,” in the words of Bertrand de Jouvenel. It is what the Romans called pietas and considered chief of the virtues—the most essential to their republic.

Piety is the principal fruit of patriarchy, and it is the heart of conservatism. Conservatives acknowledge that our lives depend on what we have been given: by God, by our country, by our forebears, by our communities and families. In gratitude, our hearts move us to defend, improve, and pass on what we inherited. We experience gratitude to our parents as a glad calling of duty to our posterity.

As Renaissance scholar and classicist James Hankins explains:

We have obligations we can never repay, and that fact imposes on us an obligation of loyalty to the sources of those benefits. The proper human response to all the unearned blessings we have received is pietas.

In a normal and healthy society, formative institutions help open the eyes of their charges to the magnitude of what they inherited. Indeed, that’s what patriarchy—and Father’s Day—is really all about.

Today, though, even conservatives have abandoned patriarchy, and the piety that it engenders. This Father’s Day, for example, an abundance of conservative think-pieces bemoan the lack of fathers in homes and point out the social-science showing that children who grow up without dads have worse outcomes.

And rightfully so: Nearly one in four (18 million) American children grow up without a biological, step-, or adoptive father at home, making them much more likely to live in poverty, go to prison, abuse drugs and alcohol, and drop out of school.

But few pieces, however, point out that the number of absentee fathers is a direct byproduct of the degradation of patriarchy—the natural form of familial relations—in our culture. Indeed, conservatives and progressives alike point to men’s failures to serve, but they ignore the fact that men are no longer incentivized to lead and take responsibility for their extended families.

To be clear, individual men are ultimately responsible for their own decisions. But in a culture that denigrates patriarchy, we shouldn’t be surprised that more men don’t stick around. Without my PaPa Pete’s example, I’m not sure I would have.

If conservatives continue trying to treat symptoms without getting to root causes, the problem will only get worse over time. That’s why restoring patriarchy, and piety, is central to the conservative project. Without it, people will continue to suffer—as so many in my community did in the 1980s—and our political movement will continue to falter over time.

The left understands this. Their motto was “smash the patriarchy,” after all, not “crush conservatism” or “shatter supply-side economics.” It is time conservatives do the same and make restoring patriarchy a central pillar of their agenda.

What made the difference in my life was faith, hope, and love: the faith of my fathers, hope in God’s plan for my life, and the love of my family and my community. The difference between my life and that of so many lost and broken men in Southern Louisiana was my PaPa Pete. His patriarchal example gave me a deep sense of who I was, of my story, and my culture.

He taught me that there was a place where I belonged and a people I belonged to. He taught me to be deeply grateful for the past, but also to be hopeful about the future. He taught me that our traditions are alive and that our best days are ahead of us.

This Father’s Day, looking at my own son, I’m proud to say that PaPa Pete was right.

Dr. Kevin Roberts is the president of the Heritage Foundation.

Image by Michael Gaylard, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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