Fathers who regularly attend church have happier and more stable marriages and are more involved with and affectionate toward their children than non-religious or nominally religious males, according to a new study.
A research brief by the Center for Marriage and Families explores the influence of religious tradition and attendance on what has been termed the “male problematic,” the trend toward larger numbers of men becoming disconnected from family life as a result of increased rates of divorce, cohabitation and bearing children out of wedlock during the last half century.
“[F]athers who are religious, and who have partners who are religious, are–on average–more likely to be happily married, to be engaged and affectionate parents, and to get and stay married to the mothers of their children,” said University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, author of the study. “As a consequence, religious fathers and husbands are much less likely to fall prey to the male problematic of late modernity.”
Men who attend church regularly enjoy happier marriages than their non-religious peers, according to the report. Statistics say 70 percent of men who attend worship several times a month report they are “very happy” in their marriage, compared the 59 percent of husbands who rarely or never attend church.
Husbands and wives who regularly attend religious services together are 35 percent less likely than other couples to divorce.
Couples that attend church are also less likely have a child born outside of marriage–a significant factor in a society where more than one in three births is to a single mother.
In addition, the study said, religion “directly foster[s] higher levels of involvement and affection with children for men who reside with their children.”
“Religious fathers who reside with their children are more involved and affectionate than their more secular peers,” wrote Wilcox, author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands.
Compared to dads with no religious affiliation, Wilcox said, religious fathers spend on average two hours more a week in youth-related activities such as helping in Boy Scouts, coaching a team or leading a church youth group. Religious dads are also significantly more likely to engage in one-on-one activities with their school-aged children, such as helping with homework, reading to them or playing a game. They are also 65 percent more likely to report praising and hugging their children “very often,” compared to unaffiliated fathers.
Wilcox attributed the family-oriented effects of religion on family men to three factors:
–Rituals and preaching that men encounter at church, like baptisms and Father’s Day sermons, “underline the moral responsibilities that bind them to their wives and children, endowing them with a sacred character.” He noted that during the last 20 years evangelical churches, in particular, have focused more emphasis on encouraging men to take an active role in their families.
–Religious congregations provide men with multiple opportunities to spend time with their wives and children. Time spent in activities from worship to youth groups, the study said, “often allows men a chance to get to know their family members better and to signal how much they care about them.”
–Social networks in churches offer informal and formal support to help sustain marriage and family life. Fathers experiencing difficulty in disciplining a toddler, for example, can turn to their religious networks in search of advice and encouragement. Studies also suggest that churchgoing encourages sexual fidelity, in part because church-based social networks monitor the behavior of their members. Those support systems also help family men deal constructively with stresses like unemployment, illness and death, which otherwise might undercut their ability to be active and affectionate husbands and fathers.
Though “by no means a silver bullet” in addressing all the challenges facing today’s families, Wilcox said, statistics show that religion plays a strong role in quality of family life.
Religious men–and their wives–“enjoy happier marriages, they are less likely to father a child outside of wedlock, and they are more likely to take an active and affectionate approach to child rearing, compared to secular or nominally religious men,” the study said. “Therefore, any effort to strengthen men’s ties to their children and families must acknowledge and incorporate the important role that religious institutions play in directing men’s hearts toward home.”
The Center for Marriage and Families is housed in the Institute for American Values, a private, non-profit organization for family life founded in 1987 by David Blankenhorn, author of the 1995 book, Fatherless America.
The study was commissioned by the National Fatherhood Initiative with a grant from the U.S. Justice Department.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.