Divorcees and Social Engineers: Fathers Face off against the Marriage Movement

Article excerpt

IT IS NOW a truth more or less universally acknowledged that children are better off when they have fathers and when their fathers are actively involved in their lives. But where do we go from there? Should the government be promoting fatherhood, marriage, and two-parent families? Or should it simply get out of the way and stop hindering fathers who want to do right by their children? The debate has pitted fathers' rights activists against advocates for marriage and "responsible fatherhood."

The government's fatherhood programs, an offspring of the Clinton era, are thriving under Bush. One Bush-era innovation is marriage promotion: The government has spent millions on programs to encourage poor people on welfare to get married and to help them develop better "marriage skills," an effort that has drawn criticism both from feminists who worry about women being pressured to stay in abusive marriages and from libertarians less than thrilled by social engineering. More recently, some fathers' rights activists have declared the administration's efforts part of an insidious machine that undermines rather than bolsters family and fatherhood.

The first salvo was fired by Stephen Baskerville, a political science professor at Howard University, in a May column for National Review Online that decried "government as family therapy "The government, Baskerville wrote, actively undermines marriage by allowing no-fault divorce and pursuing "one of the most dishonest and destructive policies ever foisted on the public: child-support enforcement."

In his view, government programs aimed at inculcating "life skills" and improving relationships simply serve to bring even more of the family under state control. "Here we see the culmination of a government perpetual-growth machine that has been building for decades: Destroy the family through welfare and no-fault divorce; then evict and criminalize the fathers; then institutionalize the children as state wards through various 'services' to relieve single mothers."

Just a week later, the Notional Review site published an acid response from Tom Sylvester, a research associate with the Institute for American Values (co-founded by David Blankenhorn, author of the much-discussed 1995 book Fatherless America). Sylvester depicted Baskerville as an extremist spokesman for a "small but vocal group" of disgruntled divorced fathers, and went on to laud the Bush administration's pro-marriage programs as a much-needed effort to strengthen families and thus ultimately help the cause of limited government. More recently, in October, the MensNewsDaily site has featured a roundtable discussion between marriage advocates and fathers' rights activists, including Baskerville and Sylvester.

The fathers' rights activists, so often dismissed as angry men, make some excellent points--including some aspects of their critique of the "marriage movement" and the "responsible fatherhood" advocates. Blankenhorn's writings, for instance, are based almost entirely on the assumption that the primary cause of fatherlessness is men walking away from their wives and children. He and other conservatives believe that the answer to father absence is for men to embrace their responsibilities and for society to hold them responsible. In Blankenhorn's striking metaphor, "Men do not volunteer for fatherhood as much as they are conscripted into it by the surrounding culture."

In fact, two-thirds of divorces are initiated by wives. This isn't just a matter of who officially files for divorce: As Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver reports in his 1999 book Divorced Dads, about two-thirds of the time it's the wife who wants out of the marriage. In many cases, non-custodial fathers find their relationships with their children thwarted by their ex-wives.

To some extent, government policies contribute to the situation. Despite nominally gender-neutral child custody laws, in practice fathers are still at a disadvantage. …