Soft Patriarchy, Firm Realities: A Conversation with Bradford Wilcox

Interview with Brad Wilcox

Soft Patriarchs, Firm Realities: A Conversation with Bradford Wilcox

Thinking in Public

November 8, 2010

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Over the last several decades the institution of the family has undergone rather radical transformations.  Then again, maybe it hasn’t.  What about the whole issue of the role of fathers?  Of patriarchy?  What about the institution of the family in terms of its resilience over against the challenges of the modern world.  We need to take a closer look at this.  In order to understand not only the family but what it means to live faithfully in times such as these.

Mohler: W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia where he also serves as associate professor of sociology and as a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University.  He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, his Ph.D. degree at Princeton.  He is one of those researchers, one of those faculty members in one of America’s elite universities who’s doing the kind of work we should all be glad is being done.  Through the National Marriage Project, he is demonstrating why marriage is central to society and why it ought to be central to our concerns as well.  Brad Wilcox welcome to Thinking In Public.

Wilcox: It’s great to be here.

Mohler: You know I have followed your research for so many years.  And have talked about it a great deal, documented it, and written about it.  Thinking now just about something like the anniversary of the Moynihan Report, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that report back in 1965 looking at the issue of black poverty,  African American poverty, he said that family matters.  The title of the report was Negro Family:  the Case for National Action.  Now, Moynihan was immediately charged with blaming the victim and was dismissed by many academics as barking up the wrong tree.  Now you come along decades later and say that really wasn’t the case.

Wilcox: I mean clearly he was very concerned about the welfare of African Americans and particularly looking at the welfare of African American men and how as both employment and marriage kind of collapsed around black men the whole family became unraveled.  So he was clearly trying to help the black family and yet because he made I think some very prophetic remarks about the consequences of family change for black families and for black kids, he was reviled in many different quarters in the culture.

Mohler: And he was reviled and his wisdom was rejected.  And as a matter of fact a recent study has been done just pointing the fact that the kind of pathologies that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was talking about then are now excruciatingly, horrifyingly, more dramatic then when he wrote about them in 1965.

Wilcox:  That’s right.  What’s now the case is that the white rate of out of wedlock child bearing is about 28% which is higher than the black rate was when Moynihan wrote that which was 22% at the time.  So what we see in our culture now is that many of the trends that Moynihan was putting his finger on back then in the 1960’s for African Americans are now working their way up the ladder into white middle class America.  And that I think should be a great concern to all of us.

Mohler: Yeah, one of the hallmarks of your research is that you had taken this into contemporary America.  And quite frankly your analysis is bracing, it’s frightening because you’re really talking about the marginalization of marriage in the larger American culture.

Wilcox: That’s right.  The next report for the National Marriage Project is going to be called When Marriage Disappears that’s looking at precisely this issue that is marriage in many middle class communities, both white, black, Hispanic, whatever, is disappearing.  There’s more non-marital child bearing, there’s more divorce, there’s more cohabitation, there’s more instability in the family.  And you know this is a great concern because middle America use to be the sort of redoubt of religion, marriage, and traditional values.  And a lot of that is coming unglued today.

Mohler: Well, I’m tantalized by your research because you really demonstrate the fact that the very things you just talked about really do usually go together.  And what you’re seeing is not just a marginalization of marriage but a rending of part of the fabric that made marriage central.

Wilcox: That’s right.  And it’s particularly, I think, important for men because in many working class, many middle class communities today, men are getting disconnected from marriage, from the church, and from stable decent employment and all three of these things you know sort of fit together for men.  If they don’t have access to those things they’re going to do well in life in so many different ways.

Mohler: You mentioned that the New York Times Sunday style front page just a couple of weeks ago had a fascinating story about how advertising is shifting its presentation of men in particular it said there’s a shift all of a sudden in these very uncertain economic times from what they called the skinny skate rat look to a look that’s defined in this way, they said the man that now appears in advertising is the man who looks like he actually might hold a job.  I felt that was a very interesting cultural you know kind of symbol going there.  And when you talk about men being alienated from these things you also do a great deal of research talking about what happens when men are present.  So it’s not just that you’re able to point to the pathologies where things are going wrong.  You really take a very close look at where things tend to be going right.

Wilcox: Yeah that’s true.  And men can successfully engage in a church community and in their families we see that their kids flower basically.  Their boys are better able to control themselves, to avoid trouble with the law, but also just to do well in high school and go onto college.  Girls likewise are more likely to avoid becoming pregnant as a teenager and to move onto a successful marriage in adulthood.  So the point simply is that men play a crucial role in helping to civilize the next generation when they engage in their church communities and when they engage in their own families.

Mohler: So let’s talk that through just a little bit.  Let’s talk about why marriage matters and let’s pretend for a moment that we have no theological or moral judgment to bring to this other than just the scientific question what happens when you marginalize marriage?  Or when you seek to displace marriage as an expectation in society talk to us about what’s left in the wake of that.

Wilcox: Well what we’ve seen basically is two different waves sort of hitting this country in the last forty or fifty years.  The first wave was really the divorce revolution when it comes to marriage.  And because of the divorce revolution you know a large number of men become less connected to their families.  The second wave is the cohabitation revolution which is kind of coming up behind that wave.  Where a lot of younger adults who have seen their parents or their friend’s parents or their aunts and uncles divorce, have lost their faith in marriage.  And they think that cohabitation is sort of you know a better way to kind of negotiate relationships and risk.  And of course the irony is that that’s even more unstable than marriage itself you know was and now is.  And so what we’re seeing is that many adults and many kids are getting caught up in sort of this relationship merry-go-round where they’re moving in and out of different households and different contexts.  We know that for both adults and especially for children that this instability is linked to any number of emotional and social problems and is also more likely to put these kids at risk of both physical and sexual abuse as they’re exposed particularly to unrelated males.  So one thing that marriage does on the positive side is it brings a measure of stability and security to adult relationship that helps both the adults and especially any kids that they bring into this world.

Mohler: So if our concern is for human flourishing we would have to look at marriage as an essential factor in what it makes, what is required for children and for families and for women as well as for men to flourish.

Wilcox: Yeah, it is clearly one of the crucial foundations for a stable and successful society.  And you know every major civilization put a premium on marriage.  This is just one of I think signals that is not a religious issue that if you go to China, if you go to Rome, you know if you go to our country, if you go to Britain at sort of their peak of civilizational power what you see is that they tended to place a premium on marriage as an institution and the virtues that are attended to successful marriages.

Mohler:  Now you’ve talked in your lectures and various places and certainly written extensively about what marriage does to men.  In other words it puts men in a very different social position than they otherwise would be.  It requires certain things of men and it cements certain relationships and relational functions that men are called to do.  And without which you have all kinds of pathologies in the society.  Talk about that for a bit.

Wilcox: Sure.  Once men get married we can see this through longitudinal research that tracks men over time but once they get married we see happening basically is that men tend to work harder, they work smarter, they attend church more often, they spend more time with their kin less time with their friends, and less time at the local bar or tavern.  So what’s happening, you know, kind of more concretely here is that men have basically realized that once they get married they have to abide by certain norms of responsibility that we associate I think rightly so with marriage and fatherhood and family life.  And men respond to these norms  particularly when we give status to men for being good husbands and good fathers.  So just to be concrete here I have a colleague in my department who’s looked at men’s pattern of job search and what she finds is that men who are married are much more likely not to quit the job that they currently hold unless they have a new job in hand.  Whereas men who are unmarried and pretty much more likely to quit their current job willy-nilly regardless of what’s waiting in the wings or not that’s just sort of one indication of how men who are married are more likely to sort of act in the kind of responsible and prudent fashion that has implications both for themselves but also for the broader society too.

Mohler: I can actually add a bit of anecdotal evidence for you coming from work as an educator.  And that is that you would think that just to take one example that men who are doing doctoral degrees would be able to get them done more quickly as they are single when actually it is married students who actually are more likely to finish a doctoral dissertation, more likely to actually graduate with a doctoral degree and to do so on a relatively normal time span.

Wilcox: No in fact there’s a good economics paper that finds that very same pattern among grad students in the U.S. that’s completely true.

Mohler: Now what does it have to do with for instance boys and a family.  What is the difference between having a father in the home and not in the home just speaking sociologically.

Wilcox:  Well dads do a couple of things in the home.  One is they have a distinctive approach to discipline.  They tend to be more authoritative, they tend to be more attentive to sort of the letter of the law, and to assert themselves in a physical way, you know a largely constructive way particularly with their teenage boys.  They establish a climate of order in the home so that’s one important thing to note.  But also when it comes to how they play with their kids, they tend to be more physical, they tend to be more surprising, and more vigorous, and they teach their kids how to handle themselves physically with others and to sort of excel on the sports field.  They’re also more likely to challenge their kids to embrace life’s challenges and life’s opportunities and to face life’s difficulties with a spirit of fortitude.  We know for instance that kids who have dads who are engaged in their lives do better when it comes not to just education but also the occupational sector and they’re more likely to embrace….situations and circumstances.  So these are some of the different things that dads do and I think we have to recognize that in particularly in these kinds of difficult economic times when dad may be unemployed for instance that just because a guy can’t bring in a paycheck at this point in time doesn’t mean that his sort of role in the family is null. There still is a variety of ways in which fathers can plug into their kids lives.  Plug into the lives of their families in ways that are really important for the welfare of their kids.

Mohler: You know a good many evangelicals have been paying a great deal of much closer attention to the role of fathers.  Especially with boys in the home and every generation seems to come up with a boy crises.  And we certainly have pathologies to which we can point and the reality is that getting a young man from boyhood to adulthood through the process we call male adolescence that requires a great deal of guidance and dad is almost essential to that just in terms of how it can happen best.  But one of the things you’ve done in your documentation is you’ve also looked at how fathers are instrumental in the lives of their daughters.

Wilcox: That’s right so what I find in my research is that daughters who have a father who’s not just there but emotionally engaged in their lives are much more likely to navigate the…if you will of adolescence, and romance, and sex, and pregnancy, and marriage successfully compared to girls who don’t have an active and engaged dad in their lives.  And what they’re getting is a couple of things.  One is they’re getting someone who’s looking out for them, kind of monitoring who is coming in and out of the household boyfriends, etc.  They’re also getting someone that is giving them the attention that they need to appreciate their own sense of self worth and to have a sense of self confidence to resist the entreaties of boys who don’t have their best interest in mind.  And the third thing, I think, that is most interesting and most provocative is that biologically it seems that dads who are physically present actually retard the onset of puberty or sexual maturation for girls.  So that if dad is in the home girls are more like to have puberty at a later age and less likely to become sexually involved or the object of men’s sexual attention.  So there’s a variety of ways you know sort of socially, emotionally, and biologically that dads play an important role for daughters.

Mohler: Looking at that you just might be tempted to think there’s more than blind nature at work there.

Wilcox: Exactly.

Mohler: You know it’s really interesting to hear a sociologist at work.  It’s very fascinating to hear how these questions are considered and taken apart.  And put within a research environment.  Of course sociology is a very important field of knowledge that’s why I’m glad that people like Professor Wilcox are at this field and are very seriously doing this work.  I’m thankful that he has taken marriage as a central issue of his professional and research concern.  When we come back I want to talk to him a bit more about the new shape of the family.  Or at least the new shape of research on the family as we try to come to terms with what is happening right now and as we look to the future.

Mohler: Professor Wilcox is the author of the book Soft Patriarchs New Men:  How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Professor Wilcox you’ve got a dichotomy in your working research here between authoritarian and authoritative modes of parenting especially looking at fathers. Now help us to understand that distinction.

Wilcox: It’s a good question.  So we know from the literature on parenting is that authoritarian parents tend to give their kids a lot of commands.  They expect instant obedience from their children.  They’re not really responsive to their kids interests or concerns and they don’t tend to be that affectionate toward their children.  So they’re present and but in kind of an overbearing or domineering fashion.  By contrast authoritative parents have clear roles and clear consequences for kids who break those rules.  So they’re authoritative in that sense but they’re also known to be involved and affectionate with their kids.  So kids are getting both the love and support that they need as well as the instruction that they need to really flourish that’s the difference basically.

Mohler: And so you’re actually breaking some of the academic rules here by using words we’re suppose to have an instinct to flee from like authoritative.  And you’re suggesting that there’s a very important sense in which parents needs to be authoritative.

Wilcox: Certainly in fact really the sort of godmother, if you will, of parenting studies done…was at Berkley for many, many years, talked about the importance of authoritative parenting and my own research suggests that in some important respects that evangelical currents in today’s world most embody that authoritative style because on the one hand they are firm and they have clear consequences for their kids when the misbehave so they have that kind of regard for discipline.  But they’re also more likely to be involved and affectionate with their kids compared to more secular parents.  So I think that in many important respects that are evangelical parents and many traditional Catholics as well have kind of an authoritative approach to parenthood that tends to…down to the benefit of their children.

Mohler: You know I also have to say that I recognize bravery when I see it when a man actually publishes a book in an academic context that uses the word patriarch.  Patriarchy is suppose to be one of the things that we can’t even mention and yet you’re talking here about the role of fathers.  And you come up with your own expression here, which in a delightful way actually gets to why we need to talk about this.  You use the expression soft patriarchs.  What in the world is a soft patriarch?

Wilcox:  A soft patriarch is a man who has a sense of his role as the leader in his home.  And that leadership is you know particularly in today’s culture focused on the spiritual warfare of his family and the emotional…of his family.  And so it’s soft in the sense that his approach to the family is attentive to the importance of him being affectionate and emotionally engaged with his wife and his children.  And so in many respects he kind of resembles the iconic new man who has been held up really since the 1980’s as kind of the ideal husband and father for our day and age but of course what makes him different though is he has some sense that he has a unique role in leading the family you know moving forward.

Mohler: I believe it was Christopher Lash who a couple of decades ago wrote a book about the family and he called it a haven in a heartless world.  And there’s a sense in which I think many evangelicals in terms of our own family life and church life feel like the family as an institution, marriage centrally as an institution is under siege in this society.  Can you put all this into a larger social context?  What is actually happening to the family?  What is happening to marriage as we observe it here?

Wilcox: Well, it is true that if you think about the institutions that hinge on marriage and the family that are at stake.  Whether it’s the popular culture, whether it’s the schools oftentimes, those other institutions that impinge on their marriage and the family you know in our day and age don’t either support the marriage and family because their ethos that we would like to see in a kind of active way or they actually oppose it in some important respect.  And so it is the case that it’s more difficult for people nowadays to kind of assume that the broader culture and that the legal world will support their families because they don’t.  I mean divorce law is a great example.  Divorce law does not support lifelong marriage it basically rewards people who want to get out with no consequences whatsoever for themselves.  So the variety of threats to marriage and the family that face us.  Now but I think the danger though is that and this actually speaks to the Lash, the Christopher Lash quote that you just mentioned is that the danger here is that some evangelicals and Christians.  More generally other religious folks and more generally want to retreat to the family and retreat to their own marriages and seek a haven in a heartless world not recognizing that they are still called in their own families to be citizens you know and to be engaged in a life of their local community however that might look.

Mohler: In their local church.

Wilcox: In the local church, etc. and just to engage people outside of the church though.  They might not see the world the same way that they do but there’s a kind of calling we all have to not just live in our own private world.

Mohler: Well, while we’re talking about dangerous things.  Let’s talk about for instance the fact that many evangelicals don’t understand that the family and marriage take place in a cultural, social, and legal context.  So there really isn’t any retreat from these issues in the larger public arena.

Wilcox: That’s right.

Mohler: There’s a sense in which we know we’re going to have to be faithful even if the world rejects marriages entoto but it’s not going to be without consequences and consequences for our own offspring, and children, and generations to come.  One of the unthinkable things that seems to have been taken off the table is the role of economic factors in the family.  And for instance if you go back to the early 20th century all the way through World War II there was a concept of a family wage and such that you paid a man what would be required to sustain a family.  Well, now this economy’s based on a very different understanding of wage earning and a very different understanding of worth, and I guess one of the questions almost anyone would ask a sociologist these days is whether we can afford the family.

Wilcox: Well, I think that’s a great question.  It would seem really since the 1970’s that the real wages of men who don’t have college degrees who actually make up a majority of the adult male population have seen their real wages decline.  And we’ve seen the same time the wages for women who got college degrees actually increase.  So they’re at a kind of relative disadvantage in a sense in their own families, they’re less attractive as husbands.

Mohler: And lately they refer to this recession as a he-cession because 7 out of 10 of the jobs permanently lost have been jobs traditionally held by men.

Wilcox: That’s exactly right.  So kind of the economic position of many men in many families is much more precarious and that’s problematic because men derive a great deal of self worth from their jobs, and they tend to be better husbands and better father when they’re successfully employed.  So I think we are in a difficult place right now economically in our country and we need to think very seriously about how we can renew the economic welfare of…working class and for men in our society if we indeed want to get these men to plug into their families and their churches.

Mohler: You know I think this is something of a question where you’ve got to get the priorities straight because I think we’ve got to be very careful not to buy into the argument that we have to have certain economic conditions to be able to afford the family.  The reality is we have to start emphasizing the importance of marriage and family, child rearing, and then create the economic circumstances in which that can flourish.  I’m not sure it works the other way around.  I don’t think the government is ever going to wake up one day and say we need to completely revise our economy, the tax code.  And I don’t think Wall Street’s ever going to wake up and say you know we’ve run into some things which are really damaging to marriage-let’s reverse that.  I think we’re going to have to rebuild a marriage culture and let the demand come from the culture.

Wilcox: Well, I think, probably I would disagree with you on that score.  I certainly agree that we need to rebuild the marriage culture, but I think we also need to recognize that given these other institutional courses that hinge on marriage and the family that we need to renew and reform our laws and renew and reform our economic policies and the kinds of products that our companies produce. Particularly in the cultural arena because once again what’s produced you know in Hollywood, what’s produced on Madison Avenue leads into the culture that you’re talking about in terms of what happens when people are, how they should order you know their relationships, their sexual lives, you know how they approach parenthood.  So you know I think what we need to work on a number of fronts.  I think what Christians have failed to recognize though is that the primary front is not Washington nor is it their local state capitol.  I would say the primary front to work on this broader public issue is the centers of cultural production because they’re so consequential in shaping the context of our lives.

Mohler: And I will admit I am far less optimistic than you are about that kind of influence because I think what we have here in this culture is a commercial dynamic toward the lowest common denominator.

Wilcox: Sure.  Right.

Mohler: And you know you talk to people who are trying or say they’re trying to escape from that and it’s very difficult.  I think it’s one of the things that plays into this, and I’ll be interested to test this against your sociological expertise.  It seems to me that especially when you look at the centers of cultural production and legal production-the laws, legislation, you look at higher academia, you’re looking at people who by and large, at least ideologically are not greatly invested in the idea of the importance of marriage.

Wilcox: Well but there’s a real irony here of course and you know as I’m sure you’re aware and that is that people who are college educated in American life today actually have the lowest rates of divorce, they have very low rates of non marital child bearing, they don’t want their daughter to come home pregnant, so in the abstract they may be laissez faire about the family but for their own family lives they recognize very clearly that marriage matters.  So the challenge for us as a culture is to get them to translate their personal recognition of the importance of marriage for their own lives and for the lives of their own children into a greater and broader appreciation for how marriage actually considered welfare people who aren’t at the same position or at the same place they are in the society.

Mohler: Yeah, that’s why I said ideologically committed.

Wilcox: Yeah, no I know.

Mohler: Because it is fascinating that just as you said, and you said it very eloquently, even many of the people who are not ideologically committed to marriage actually by their lifestyle are very committed to marriage and they certainly want their children committed to marriage.  And so one of the things I think we have to translate to the elites is the ability of people who do not share their status and share their income and share their cultural opportunities to enjoy the very same things that they by their lifestyles indicate that they know are good, and beautiful, and true, and healthy, and flourishing.

Wilcox: No that’s true.  I think there’s a story I’ve read about Howard Stern and you know for instance not allowing his kids to listen to his own show.  And in some ways that…that there are people in our culture who both in the laws that are passed and the culture that gets produced much like New York and Hollywood are doing things which you know basically erode the quality of family life.  And yet in their own kind of personal private arenas they’re working in ways that protect their kids, buffer their kids from these very same forces.

Mohler: You mentioned an upcoming report from the institute.  Tell me what is your framing issue of research as you’re looking to the future?

Wilcox: Well, I say it’s really two different things that I’m looking at in the near future.  One is the impact that commitment to marriage and sort of the legal sort of structure of marriage has in protecting kids and the stability of family life, and how cohabitation threatens all of that that’s certainly one thing.  And the second theme as I look toward the future is basically how gender matters in the quality and stability of family life.  And you know there’s been a lot of talk in the..about gender roles, about who does what around the house and I think it’s important but I want to go beyond that and talk about kind of masculine and feminine styles of relating and whether or not couples who have those and appreciate those different styles of relating actually are more likely to enjoy a high quality and highly stable marriage.  So kind of go beyond this whole gender role debate which is important, but to understand too how actually sort of masculine and feminine personalities are also kind of implicated in the qualities and stability of family life.

Mohler: One final question.  If someone came to you and asked you, “Alright, you could’ve chosen from any number or almost unlimited number of research topics.  Why in the world at the University of Virginia have you dedicated so much of your time, and attention, and research to marriage?”

Wilcox: Well I was raised by a single mother and I think she did a good job.  But I certainly, you know, felt the loss of not having a father in the household.  And as I became a college student I recognized that the key institutions that helps to increase the odds that kids have access to their father is marriage.  And so my abiding passion in life is to try to figure out how to strengthen marriage to ensure that more kids have an experience of having their own father present you know on a day to day basis in their own lives.

Mohler: The American college and university campus is a remarkable place of cultural conversation.  It’s good to have the opportunity to overhear that conversation.  I’m very glad in my interview with Professor Brad Wilcox, we were able to look at what one university professor is doing in one project to make such a difference.  I’m thankful for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.  I’m glad to have had the conversation with Professor Wilcox.  Now, we need to consider how we think about these things from an explicitly Christian context.

Mohler: The field of sociology as a field of academic concern arose out of an effort to provide an explanation for human social behavior that was not dependent upon the answers that had traditionally been given by the Christian church and by the theistic worldview.  You look at the history of the discipline of sociology and it’s interesting to see that even as that field was seeking to be explicitly secular it had to consider the religious beliefs of those who were the research subjects.  After all these are very real human beings and most of them continue to have very strong theistic beliefs.  The field of sociology has had its own twists and turns but it’s interesting when you look at the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and you look at the work of a sociologist like Professor Bradford Wilcox you come to understand that there can be some very direct relevance from this work for how we understand not only the institutions of our social life and the patterns of our life together but how these things fit within the Christian worldview.  Let’s consider for instance the specific issues of concern in Professor Wilcox’s research issues such as cohabitation, marriage, the role of fathers.  Well, if we were to consider as Christians what we would expect sociologists to find I think we would expect, if we really gave this serious thought, for sociologists to find something like what Professor Wilcox finds and documents in his research.  We need the bigger picture here especially as it relates to our modern contemporary context.  Professor Wilcox goes back to the 1960’s and the 1970’s and tells us what we know but with the assurance of a keen sociological mind and analysis he comes back to say that the moral revolutions of the 60’s and the 70’s in the United States really did affect the family.  It affected the family in profound ways and yet the family is also demonstrated itself to be quite resilient as has marriage.  So looking at it at the other side of this great divide well we come to understand that there have been multiple responses to the challenge of the modern world.

Professor Wilcox in his book Soft Patriarchs New Men:  How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands published by the University of Chicago Press, a very substantial work of academic research, he demonstrates that the responses of people to the challenges of modern world as it relates to marriage and family and in particular to fatherhood come down to three different models.  One is the model of accomodationism.  There are models of the father and of marriage where you see basically an acceptance of the larger secular revolution.  Professor Wilcox says that there are now in and are likely to be in the future a substantial number of fathers who have very little relationship with their children whatsoever.  They are not married to the child’s mother.  And they basically bought into the entire revolution that’s a substantial number of men in this country and of course that decision has a substantial amount of affect on the children.  The problem of fatherlessness, of father absence, of the break-up of marriages, of the absence of marriage and of course the revolution has affected the structure of family life from top to bottom.  This has dramatic affects on children and it’s interesting now that even in the field of sociology there is a recognition of that.

There is a second response and that is something of a middle response.  A response that says we’re not buying into this entire moral revolution but we’re going to have to make the institution of marriage and the larger context of the family fit more naturally within the challenges of modern life.  And so there are those fathers who will be married at least for some period of time to the mothers of their children.  But they’re going to move towards a more egalitarian model that they’re going to issue patriarchy and suggest that they really are not either authoritarian or authoritative.  And there will be a significant amount of fathers who will respond in that way.

But then Professor Wilcox gets to that third model.  He calls it neo-traditional.  These are those men who are more likely to stay married to the mothers of their children.  They’re going to be far more likely to be married in the first place.  He says the vast majority of them will be married and they will assume a role of fatherhood which is actually rather traditional.  Over against the challenges of the modern age they are not driven away from that kind of patriarchy but rather deeper into it.  Understanding the challenges that are perhaps greater than experienced by their fathers or grandfathers they lean into this.  Now where are those men to be found?  Well speaking as a sociologist Professor Wilcox gets right to it when he answers that question in a very profound way by suggesting that we do know where those fathers are going to be found.

In his book Professor Wilcox says this, “finally we can expect that a large minority of fathers, the vast majority of them married, will pursue a neo-traditional model of fatherhood that combines a moderate providership ethic with a strong commitment to family life motivated by a desire to both transmit their faith to the next generation and protect their children from a society they see as degraded and degrading these soft patriarchs will combine involvement and affection with strict discipline and vigilant oversight.  They will also have a strong commitment to marriage and will be unusually attentive to the emotional and familial ideals and aspirations of their wives.  However they will do less household labor than men committed to the new fatherhood partly because they wish to signal their commitment to gender differences.  Neo-traditional couples will also have the lowest levels of divorce both because of their moral traditionalism and because of their emotional investment in their wives and children.”

Where are these fathers going to be found?  He answers that in the next sentence, “these soft patriarchs will be found at conservative Protestant churches, traditional Catholic parishes, Mormon temples, and orthodox Jewish synagogues.  They will abide by an absolutist vision of the family that they believe to be divinely ordained and that attempts to articulate the universal moral principles that govern family life, and all times, and places.

Now one of the things Professor Wilcox makes clear is that there is no accident – there’s a linkage here between religious belief and the way men live out their obligations and fathers and as husbands.  Now we shouldn’t be surprised by that.  And one of the things we should consider when we look at this research is that here we see an affirmation of what we already know, and we should know, and we have to know.  And that is that marriage really does make a difference because we as Christians come to this not with the basic sociological interest but with very deep theological interest-a spiritual interest and understanding that indeed how we are described here is exactly right.  We really do believe that the family is not a sociological accident or experiment.  We don’t believe that it is merely something that is the process of human sociological evolution.  We believe that the family is divinely ordained.

Now there is some fascinating aspects of Professor Wilcox’s research that didn’t come up in our conversation.  Here’s one of my favorites.  He documents the fact that even though main-line Protestants those with a bent toward theological liberalism are far more accomodationists when it comes to the challenges of modernity.  When it comes to the people in the pews, well as he makes a very clear statement, the people in the pews of main-line Protestant churches at least the men, tend to have very traditional understandings of manhood even though their churches and denominations might be saying a very different thing singing a very different tune.

I hope we heard very clearly what Professor Wilcox was warning us about when he talked about cohabitation.  You know the issue of sex outside of marriage and sex before marriage and the kind of sexual privileges that are now given without the benefit of marriage this is something that has brought out a great deal of moral outrage on the part of American Christians and rightly so.  But it should be even more so a source of our moral concern.  Because the persons who give themselves to these patterns of sexual behavior, these patters of non-marital sexual behavior, are actually becoming not only by the statistical formulas that we can see, but by the demonstrated damage to their lives evidence of why God made us to be married and gave us the institution of marriage.  What we see in this sociological research is that cohabitation basically just doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work for those who are involved in it who find out that the level of commitment was far lower than they anticipated.  And it certainly doesn’t work for children because the children of cohabitating couples turn out to be after all rather endangered in terms of their care, their nurture, and sometimes even their selves.

The other issue had to do with patriarchy.  It’s one of those words from which we are supposed to run.  We’re supposed to be conditioned in this post-modern world to think of patriarchy as an entirely negative thing.  And yet as Professor Wilcox makes clear there is an enduring patriarchy that lends itself to faithfulness in marriage, to family cohesion, to very healthy child rearing, and to the perpetuation of the faith from one generation to another.  The distinction between hard patriarchy and soft patriarchy here is as helpful as Professor Wilcox’s distinction between authoritarian and authoritative models of parenting.  It turns out that there have been accommodations made by conservative Christians even in the light of the modern world.  We have come to understand that there are models of patriarchy that we do not want to embrace.  That there are images of the father as patriarch that we do not want to accept but we are not scared to run right against the tide into an affirmation of the fact that God has given us the roles of fatherhood and motherhood, the distinctive roles of men and women and the institution of marriage for his glory and for our good.  You know you put all this together and you come to realize that this sociological research is affirming what we should already know.  As we’ve said already, we should know this because we find out what the family is not by reading a sociological report but by looking at the scriptures.  Because we believe that it is in the scripture that God speaks to us.   The very God who made us in his image and gave us the gift of marriage.  But we should also expect that when good sociological research is conducted it will show as a means of verification and demonstration that what we read in scripture is genuinely true.  Marriage really does matter.  The family really does matter.  And we care about this because we know that children really do matter.  And we care about the children who are alive today and those who will come tomorrow.  But for Christians we can’t stop there because our greatest concern is not just with this life but it’s with the life to come.  And with the ultimate purpose of all things which is the glory of God.  And isn’t it good to know that you can see the glory of God demonstrated not only in the pages of Scripture where God speaks but even in the work of sociology where God’s truth still shines forth.

Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public.  I hope you’ll join me again next time until then you can go to my website at for a wealth of resources intended just for you.  For more information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to  Hope you’ll also want to find out more about Boyce College.  You can do that by going to

I’m Albert Mohler.  Until next time, let’s keep thinking.