Fatherhood and Marriage in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Family policy debates in the United States have assumed a surreal quality as we embark on the twenty-first century. Americans are increasingly likely to live in households that depart from the traditional family of dad, mom, and kids, and our courts now frequently recognize alternatives to marriage, including cohabitation and domestic partnerships. At the same time, a resurgence of religious ideals and family values has spawned nationwide campaigns to promote old-style marriage and paternal authority. The former trend suggests an expansion of the definition of marriage, whereas the latter suggests a return to a more traditional and narrow definition.

Which way are we heading? A sociological analysis shows that increasing diversity in family forms is inevitable and that recent national campaigns to promote idealized father-headed families are misguided and doomed to failure. The putatively troubled institution of marriage is in fact quite healthy. This leads me to wonder whether most Americans would support recent government attempts to idolize fatherhood, make divorce laws more restrictive, and subsidize churches in defining, defending, and enforcing religious-based marriages.


In the late 1990s, a coalition of Evangelical Christian organizations, fathers'-rights groups, politicians, demographers, and family-values advocates mounted a national campaign to reexamine the ground rules for divorce and to promote lifelong marriage. The solution to youth violence, childhood poverty, and most other social problems was simple: If more people would marry and not divorce, children would be lifted out of poverty, adolescent boys would model respectable masculine behavior, teenage girls would avoid sex and pregnancy, family authority would be restored, and America would regain its prominence. The "marriage movement" has been gaining steam as it wages a massive public-relations crusade styled after antismoking campaigns. Through media advertising, political lobbying, and legal reform, "pro-family" and "fatherhood promotion" organizations are attempting to convince the public that marriage is good for men, women, and children (which, according to opinion polls and marriage rates, over 90 percent of Americans already believe). Because America is seen as having lost its moral compass, marriage is offered up as a morally correct panacea for all social and personal ills. Prime targets of the movement are divorce and teenage pregnancy (never mind that divorce rates have been dropping for two decades, and teenage birth rates have been declining for almost a decade).

The movement is having some success. In 1997, Louisiana became the first U.S. state to adopt a covenant marriage law, and Arizona passed one the following year. These laws offer potential newlyweds a choice: If they choose covenant marriage, the union can be dissolved only by a two-year waiting period or proof of fault. So far, these laws are not very popular, with fewer than 2 percent of those marrying choosing covenent marriage, but some churches now say they will only marry those who do. Existing covenant-marriage laws put strong limits on divorce, but the legislation that passed is less restrictive than originally intended. Some proposals -- and most states have pending legislation -- include no option for divorce without proving fault, require the consent of both parties to divorce, extend the waiting period up to seven years, or require coresidency during the waiting period (a recipe for domestic violence). Covenant statutes also include marriage-counseling requirements that can be fulfilled by using " faith-based" counselors. These provisions mimic marriage-saver programs in Oklahoma and Arkansas by requiring couples to complete questionnaires and talk to a priest, minister, or counselor before being issued a marriage license.

The latest buzzword in family values campaigns is "responsible fatherhood" -- a term long on symbolism but short on specifics. …