Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands
W. Bradford Wilcox
University of Chicago Press
Date of Publication:
I caught a preview of Wilcox’s work in Context, a sociology periodical for lay audiences. When I read that short summary I knew that I was going to have to read Wilcox’s book because I knew he spun the data like a Bush Whitehouse press secretary. After having actually read the book all I can say is: Wow! I think Wilcox should look for work at Fox News…
The basic goal of this book is to argue that conservative Protestant men are actually close approximations of the “ideal type” of the “new man” – they spend lots of time with their wives and children, they are engaged parents, they do a lot of “emotion work,” and their kids turn out great. As a conservative Protestant himself, Brad Wilcox is hell-bent on finding exactly this, regardless of the actual statistical evidence.
To accomplish this, Wilcox first “[examines] the family and gender ideologies produced by conservative and mainline Protestant churches in the second half of the twentieth century” (p. 3). He then explores how those ideologies are related to the attitudes of married men with children (who are the only people examined in this book). Finally, he analyzes the effect of religious affiliation and attendance on a variety of measures of “ideal parenting” that reflect three dimensions: parenting, household labor, and marriage.
Wilcox ultimately finds that frequent church attending conservative Protestant men are, as he predicted, great fathers and husbands. At least, so Wilcox says at the end of the book. But, when you read what he has to say and scrutinize his analysis, the result is a completely different picture. In the sincerest way this is actually a compliment to Wilcox for reporting what he actually finds – by doing so he is giving critics all the evidence they need to illustrate that Wilcox is completely and totally wrong.
One of the better aspects of this book is the theoretical build-up (no sense building a house of cards on a house of cards). Wilcox explains that there are several theoretical arguments one must understand in order to address the issue of conservative protestant parenting. One theoretical position is the “family modernization” perspective which argues that “religion is becoming increasingly marginal as an influence on the culture and practice of family life” (p. 7). This is contrasted with the “gender reaction” perspective which “maintains that orthodox religionists are at war with modernity’s egalitarian and individualistic values and that the family is the primary battleground for this conflict” (p. 8). Wilcox doesn’t agree completely with either of these perspectives. Instead, Wilcox is arguing that conservative Protestants are the embodiment of the new man – they are egalitarian, though not individualistic – and that the influence of religion on the family is not diminishing. To bolster this perspective he draws upon Christian Smith’s “religious subcultures” argument. Smith basically argues that some religious subcultures “thrive on distinction, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat and that the evangelical movement’s vitality is not a product of its protected isolation from, but of its vigorous engagement with pluralistic modernity” (p. 63). In other words, conservative Protestantism is energetic precisely because it is (casting itself as being) under attack by secular society. The result is a pro-family ideology that results in healthy, happy, good fathers.
But what does Wilcox mean by “pro-family”? Or, to use his term, “familism”? “Familism is an ideology that sacralizes the obligations that individuals have toward their family members-children, spouse, and parents-and takes a highly sentimental view of family life” (p. 89). To arrive at a measure of “familism,” Wilcox created an index using seven questions. Some of the questions SEEM relevant to the issue as they measure things like the value of marriage and childbearing and the appropriateness of unhappy couples with children divorcing. Other questions are less relevant, like a measure of the importance of adult children caring for elderly parents. But the serious problem with this approach is that Wilcox is loading the dice: he measures familism in a way that is guaranteed to favor conservative Protestants. Let me give an example to illustrate. Let’s say I want to measure how intelligent my child is, but my child is an autistic savant that can do remarkable mathematical calculations in his head but can’t remember his name or tie his shoes. If I want to show that my child is a genius, I create an “IQ” test that requires people to do enormous mathematical calculations in their heads. I give the test to 100 “normal” kids and, guess what, my kids comes back looking like a genius. Wilcox did the same thing. He created this idea – “familism” – that measures people’s “commitment to family” but it does so using measures that are likely to favor conservative Protestants. A common belief (that is changing, as Wilcox notes) within conservative Protestantism is that divorce is never a good option. If you want to load the dice so conservative Protestants look more pro-family than non conservative Protestants, claim that a good measure of one’s attitude toward families is their resistance to divorce.
Wilcox claims that this pro-familism of conservative Protestants results from the ideology of conservative Protestantism, “The basic logic of conservative Protestant family-related ideology may be characterized, then, as an expressive traditionalism in which efforts to shore up the family have led to an intensive approach to family living for men and women. This leaves open the ironic possibility that in spite of their gender-role traditionalism conservative Protestant men may take an active and expressive approach to family life that makes them, in some ways, more progressive than their nonconservative peers” (p. 73). Wilcox then explicitly claims that conservative Protestantism has positive effects on the family, “In other words, at least when it comes to parenting and marriage, the soft patriarchs found in evangelical Protestantism come closer to approximating the iconic new man than either mainline or unaffiliated men do” (p. 13). This brings us full-circle in a circular argument: a pro-family measure is derived from the ideology of conservative Protestantism which makes conservative Protestantism pro-family. Isn’t that nifty!?!
Of course, Wilcox still has to illustrate that the ideology of conservative Protestantism is pro-family. To do so he reads some of the flagship magazines of mainline and conservative Protestantism and arrives at two “cultural logics”: Golden Rule liberalism and expressive traditionalism. Golden Rule liberalism is the position of mainline Protestants and Wilcox describes it as, “[combining] a progressive emphasis on tolerance of family diversity, egalitarian gender roles, and child autonomy with a familistic emphasis on a Golden Rule ethic of caring, especially in the family” (p. 25). This contrasts with conservative Protestantism’s expressive traditionalism, which “stresses the importance of patriarchal and parental authority, traditional sexual morality, and an ethic of familial duty, but softens these ideals with an expressive interpersonal ethic that suggests personal fulfillment can be found through adherence to traditional social and moral conventions. Golden Rule liberalism is more accommodating of family modernization, while expressive traditionalism is more resistant to the developments associated with family modernization” (p. 25). If you read these descriptions carefully you’ll see exactly what I described above in my discussion of familism – mainline Protestants are more accepting of family diversity (e.g., divorce, second marriages, homosexual marriages, step-kids, etc.) while conservative Protestants emphasize “familial duty.” But Wilcox isn’t done loading the dice; he still needs to teach the dice how to spin.
Having defined an ideology as pro-family if it emphasizes familial duty, Wilcox proceeds to decry the tolerance and acceptance of mainline Protestantism, “Thus, the mainline’s embrace of elements of cultural modernity-tolerance, gender equality, the impulse to inclusion, and the therapeutic ethic-has led it to reject key dimensions of 1950s familism. Its acceptance of unconditional divorce and remarriage and its affirmation of family pluralism contradict the familistic idealization of the nuclear family and lifelong marriage. The mainline positions on sex-related matters have pushed the churches in a liberationist direction that, symbolically at least, stands in tension with the familistic values of sexual restraint and, in the case of abortion, the mother-child bond. The mainline’s commitment to social justice to the exclusion of family matters, its focus on sex-related issues, and its desire to highlight its tolerant acceptance of all families have diminished its capacity to speak clearly to the everyday concerns and moral quandaries that confront all manner of families” (p. 42). Wilcox argues that secular society in general has moved this way as well (see p. 29). According to Wilcox, then, tolerating diversity is anti-family. When you look at it like that, intolerant conservative Protestants suddenly start looking very pro-family. Is your head about ready to explode, too? Hang on, though, Wilcox is just getting started…
Wilcox proceeds to argue that, while tolerance of diverse family forms is bad, one innovation of secular society is good, “The last two decades have witnessed increased public support for a “new fatherhood” ideal, according to which men take an active and expressive role in the lives of their children” (p. 97). But Wilcox claims this “iconic new father” isn’t very common, which flies in the face of the data we are seeing and even Wilcox cites, “…the amount of time fathers devote to child rearing increased 170 percent from twenty-one minutes a day in 1965 to fifty-seven minutes a day in 1998.” But Wilcox doesn’t think that is enough improvement to claim that these “iconic new fathers” actually exist because they aren’t doing as much as mothers. This, of course, is necessary for his argument because if that was sufficient, there would be no reason to argue that conservative Protestant men embody the “new men” he’s talking about. And, ultimately, that is the argument he wants to make, “conservative Protestant family ideology is connected to the warm, expressive style of fatherhood that scholars deem important to positive outcomes for children” (p. 107).
Let me recap, quickly. Tolerance of diverse family forms is bad (because conservative Protestants don’t tolerate them). Being a “new man” is good (hopefully because conservative Protestants score higher here). Everybody got it? Okay, I do too. But now Wilcox throws a wrench into the works, “However, fathers are not encouraged to be warm and expressive all the time. Although in most circumstances the “framing rules” supplied by conservative Protestant ideology guide the emotion work of these parents in the direction of a warm, expressive style, in situations in which the father deems a child’s behavior unwise, immoral, or disobedient, conservative Protestant family experts exhort the father to adopt a traditional approach to discipline largely in keeping with a classical Protestant disciplinary style” (p. 108). In case you don’t see the direction this is going, I’ll give you a hint: Wilcox is setting you up for his finding that the “intolerant new men” of conservative Protestantism are more likely to beat their children and their wives. But, according to Wilcox, that’s a good thing. That is the true embodiment of familism – if you love ‘em, beat ‘em. (The idea of “fostering” obedience in children also has a nice benefit for the money-grubbing pastors of conservative Protestantism – people are less likely to question authority and more likely to continue writing checks to James Dobson and Pat Robertson. Teaching the parents to teach their children to think for themselves is a one-way ticket to honest work, and what pastor wants that? Wilcox even admits this, “Conservative Protestant family experts treat children’s disobedience with particular concern because they view parental authority as analogous to divine sovereignty, and they believe that obedience to parents prepares a child to obey God as an adult” (p. 109).)
With the ideas of conservative Protestantism toward parenting laid out, Wilcox has to make an argument that ideology actually leads to behavior. This argument is always problematic as causal direction can rarely be asserted – people with views similar to those of conservative Protestantism may join conservative denominations while conservative denominations may influence peoples’ views. It’s hard to say which direction this works (it’s probably both). But in order for Wilcox’s argument to work, it has to be ideology to attitudes and behavior, and not vice versa. This leads Wilcox to assert, “Nevertheless, my models indicate that religious factors – especially a conservative Protestant affiliation and theological conservatism – are the most important predictors of familistic attitudes among married men with children” (p. 91). Note there is no discussion of causal direction here. Also, remember what I said earlier about his measure of familism – he is basically using his dependent variable (conservative Protestant views of what it means to be pro-family) to predict his dependent variable (familism). Ironically, I think Wilcox knows this is problematic, as he basically admits it, “given that conservative Protestant institutions are probably the only major institutional proponent of gender traditionalism in the United States and that an active conservative Protestant affiliation is more strongly associated than any other sociodemographic factor with gender traditionalism, we can conclude that conservative Protestantism plays a signal role in fostering gender traditionalism among married men with children” (p. 93). In other words, he knows he is using his dependent variable to predict his dependent variable, but he thinks that is okay.
If we assume it is okay, what does Wilcox actually find concerning the attitudes and behaviors of conservative Protestants relative to mainline Protestants and the unaffiliated? Using survey data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Families and Households, Wilcox finds the following:
- “Both conservative and mainline Protestant fathers are more involved in one-on-one activities than unaffiliated fathers;” mainliners are more involved than conservatives (p. 113; the difference is statistically significant, but tiny and practically insignificant; see p. 115)
- “conservative Protestant fathers spend about 2.0 hours and mainline fathers about 1.3 hours more per week in youth-related activities than unaffiliated fathers” (p. 116; again, the effect sizes are tiny and only the conservative Protestant effect is statistically significant; this also includes time spent in church as time spent with children, which basically accounts for the difference)
- “conservative and mainline Protestant married men with children are significantly more likely than their unaffiliated counterparts to praise and hug their children very often” (p. 118; again, significant, but weak effect sizes)
- “conservative Protestant fathers are significantly more likely than unaffiliated fathers to resort to corporal punishment” (p. 120; the differences aren’t huge)
- “there are no statistically significant differences between unaffiliated fathers and conservative Protestant fathers or between unaffiliated fathers and mainline Protestant fathers” in likelihood of yelling at children (p. 122, though Wilcox is quick to point out that conservative Protestant fathers “are less likely to yell at their children than mainline Protestant fathers” even though it is not a significant difference)
- “The data indicate that conservative Protestant, but not mainline Protestant, fathers are 65 percent more likely than unaffiliated fathers to report that their children have a regular bedtime” (p. 126; Wilcox interprets this as good parenting, but it is, in fact, authoritarian, which translates into bad parenting when you look at outcomes)
- “conservative Protestants are increasingly likely to express egalitarian attitudes about the public, economic and political roles of women, as well as greater openness to mothers working outside the home” (p. 143; notice the framing, they are “increasingly likely,” which is to say this is not a strong point of conservative Protestants – they score lower on this than any other group)
- “conservative Protestant married men with children spend almost one and a half hours per week less on household labor than their unaffiliated peers” (p. 146) and “Husbands with the highest familism scores spend five hours less each week on household labor than husbands with the lowest familism scores” (p. 147; differences are significant)
“the wives of both conservative and mainline Protestant married men with children are slightly more likely to report that their household labor is appreciated, compared to wives of unaffiliated family men” (p. 151; the effects are not statistically significant)
- “4.8 percent of conservative Protestant married men with children committed domestic violence in the year prior to NSFH2, compared to 4.3 percent of mainline Protestant married men with children and 3.2 percent of unaffiliated married men with children. The differences between the results for these groups, however, are not statistically significant. Once religious affiliation is broken out by church attendance, however, the differences between religious groups become statistically significant. Nominal conservative Protestant husbands have a domestic violence rate of 7.2 percent and are significantly more abusive than unaffiliated husbands” (p. 181)
- “Religious affiliation is not related to the amount of quality time husbands spend with their wives; neither does church attendance make a difference on this measure. I find no evidence that active mainline or conservative Protestant men are more involved in this way than their nominal and unaffiliated peers” (p. 183)
So, that’s actually what Wilcox finds. Now here is how he interprets his findings:
- on yelling, “consistent with the literature review, we have modest evidence that conservative Protestantism encourages fathers to approach disciplinary situations in a spirit of self-control that leads them to reject yelling as an appropriate parental behavior” (p. 122).
- on corporal punishment, “These positive outcomes may be mitigated for conservative Protestant children, who are more likely to experience corporal punishment, which research on child well-being links to social and psychological problems. On the other hand, a number of studies indicate that the negative outcomes associated with corporal punishment do not obtain when parents balance spanking with higher levels of parental support, and my findings show that conservative Protestant children do experience higher levels of involvement and positive affect from their fathers” (p. 130; yes, he just dismissed corporal punishment)
- on conservative Protestant men not doing as much housework, “Although these findings do not provide direct evidence about husbands’ displays of gratitude for their wives’ household labor, they do provide strong prima facie evidence in favor of the theory that husbands who value family life are responding to gender asymmetries in their households by displaying heightened levels of gratitude compared to other husbands. There are two alternative explanations for the results documented here. First, it could be that men who are more familistic are generally married to women who are also more familistic and who, as a consequence, have lower expectations of their husbands’ gratitude either because they derive intrinsic pleasure from household labor or because they seek to convince themselves that their husbands appreciate their household labor in order to avoid facing the fact that their husbands are not shouldering a substantial share of the housework” (p. 153; this sounds an awful lot like Stockholm syndrome to me)
- also on not doing much housework, “In sum, the results suggest that churchgoing, theologically conservative, and especially familistic married men with children-particularly those who share faith and a commitment to familism with their wives-are making a strong effort to reciprocate their wives’ “gift” of extra household work with the “gift” of displays of gratitude” (p. 154; saying “thanks” while sitting on your ass isn’t saying thanks at all)
- on traditional gender-role attitudes, “Conservative Protestant institutions also foster inequality indirectly through their support for gender-role traditionalism, which is consistently and powerfully associated with gendered asymmetries in the division of household labor. Thus, we have evidence that conservative Protestantism plays a MODEST role in fostering gender inequality at the level of practice” (p. 155; emphasis mine)
These are just a few of the interpretations (read: spin) Wilcox provides. A few are so astonishing they deserve special attention. The one that really blew my mind was this one, “None of the results reported in this chapter [the chapter in which he found conservative Protestants are more likely to beat their wives] indicate that religion and gender-role traditionalism lead to lower levels of positive emotion work on the part of married men with children or to higher levels of domestic violence” (p. 187). When I read this I seriously couldn’t believe it. Five pages earlier he said conservative Protestant men were more likely to beat their wives, but now he is denying it. He is calling black, white. Astonishing.
I also really liked this gem, “These results suggest that the future of marital quality in the United States depends in part on the extent to which both spouses embrace a familist outlook that makes the husband more attentive to the emotional needs of his wife and the wife less likely to expect a great deal of emotion work from her husband” (p. 189). Basically what Wilcox is saying is: (1) everyone should be a conservative Protestant; (2) men should let their wives talk while they sit on their asses; and (3) women should not expect men to actually be listening. You could call this “Wilcox’s three-step approach to marital happiness” (also known as the “go get me a beer while I sit on the couch and watch Pat Robertson on TV and pretend to be listening to you” approach to marital happiness).
Wilcox isn’t quite done pretending black is white, though. He actually makes a remarkable claim that I’d love to verify with his wife, “Women who are married to active conservative Protestant men probably enjoy high levels of marital quality and are less likely to experience a marital breakup, given the comparatively high levels of appreciation, affection, and understanding, and the low levels of domestic violence, they report” (p. 198). This seems absurd. But then you have to recognize the comparison group he is using, “By contrast, women who are married to nominal conservative Protestant men are likely to experience low levels of marital quality and high rates of marital breakup, given the comparatively low levels of appreciation, affection, and understanding, and the high levels of domestic violence, they report” (p. 198). This is one of my favorite approaches to altering reality. Basically Wilcox is saying, “You can’t hold frequently attending conservative Protestants responsible for the actions of the infrequently attending conservative Protestants. Those two groups of people are completely different.” If only it were so easy and you really could pick and choose which groups you want to be representative of you. Wilcox is trying to distance the “better” from the “terrible” to salvage the “better than terrible” group.
If I alter just a couple words in this concluding paragraph, I think Wilcox has provided an accurate summary of his findings, “Overall, then, these findings paint a striking picture. Churchgoing conservative Protestant family men are soft patriarchs. Contrary to [In line with] the assertions of feminists, many family scholars, and public critics, these men cannot be fairly described as “abusive” and “authoritarian” family men wedded to “stereotypical forms of masculinity.”" (p. 199). Well put, Mr. Wilcox!