Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Patriarchal Bargain

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Patriarchal Bargain

Article excerpt

The Patriarchal Bargain SOFT PATRIARCHS, NEW MEN: How CHRISTIANITY SHAPES FATHERS AND HUSBANDS By W. BRADFORD WILCOX University of Chicago Press 328pp. $20 paper.

IN THE IMAGESIATIONS of feminists and their admirers in the media and intelligentsia, there lurks a kind of bogeyman-the conservative Christian man-a neanderthalic creature who, if he does not regularly beat his wife black-and-blue in the name of God, at least keeps her in her proper place, the kitchen, preferably shoe-less and perpetually gestatmg.

We see this monster in Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, where a theocratic patriarchy forbids women to read books, and we see him in the movie Kinsey, in which the future sexologist's pompous, teetotaling, Bible-wielding father (played by the massive-browed John Lithgow) cows his wife at the dinner table and disowns his son for daring to attend a different college from the one where dad teaches. We hear the evangelical Promise Keepers movement denounced by Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women as a "feel-good form of male supremacy" designed to "keep women in the back seat." And when the Southern Baptists issued a statement in 1998 affirming the father's headship of the family as defined in the New Testament letters of Paul of Tarsus, we heard journalists Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts warning the nation that this sort of thing could "lead to abuse, both physical and emotional."

Soft Patriarchs, New Men by W. Bradford Wilcox, a young sociologist of religion at the University of Virginia, is a study of the actual surveyed attitudes and practices of the married men of the so-called "religious right" that turns this stereotype on its head. Wilcox reports that Christian conservative fathers, at least the ones who attend church frequently, are actually far more affectionate with and emotionally invested in their wives and children than are their counterparts among either mainline Protestants or the unchurched. They are patriarchs, says Wilcox, with a "traditional, authority-minded approach to parenting," but they are soft patriarchs (more akin, shall we say, to Ned Flanders in "The Simpsons" than to the Commander in Atwood's novel). Wilcox concludes-and this is richly ironic-that Christian conservative fathers display many of the qualities of the sensitive, thoroughly domesticated "iconic new man" whom the feminists lionize.

Wilcox has not written a religious or political polemic here but rather a scrupulously even-handed report, basing his conclusions on his statistical analysis of three large-scale national surveys of U.S. adults' social attitudes conducted from the late 1980s through the '90s. He frequently cites the work of Frank Furstenburg and Arlie Hochschild, two sociologists of family and gender relations whose views are by no means ideologically conservative, and he avoids value-loaded language, especially when it comes to describing the mainline Protestant churches whose leadership has, by and large, capitulated to the secular-elitist acceptance of extramarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and other practices that conservative Christians view as inimical to moral life and family health.

A polemicist might well have salty things to say about this abdication of moral principles diat Christians have held since the earliest days of the faith, but in Wilcox's mild and irenic diction the mainline churches are simply "accommodationist," espousing what he calls a "Golden Rule Christianity" that honors tolerance, kindness, and social justice as paramount virtues. Wilcox's aim is clearly to engage his sociological confreres as well as the public at large; thus he lays out his case in such a careful and dispassionate manner that many lay readers are likely to find his book, with its many pages of endnotes and its numerous regression tables, colorless and dull, although its conclusions are anything but that.

WILCOX SEEMS to have picked Protestants to study because their large number of denominations makes them relatively easy to classify by ideological and theological subgroup. …

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