Religion is key factor in connecting men to their families

Written by William C. Duncan

September 23, 2021

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses a trend of decreased college enrollment, noting that “[m]en accounted for more than 70 percent of the decline.” The article notes the challenges that men without college degrees face economically and socially:

They face the simultaneous shocks of lost jobs, disintegrating nuclear families, and rising deaths of despair in their communities. As 20th-century institutions have crumbled around them, these men have withdrawn from organized religion. Their marriage rates have fallen in lockstep with their church attendance.

Tragically, as the article recounts, these challenges are passed down to future generations when neighborhoods and communities lack involved fathers.

The article’s reference to links between the decline of religious affiliation and participation and marriage rates points to an important reality: religion, among other factors, plays an important role in connecting men to their families.

Most basically, religiously affiliated people are more likely to marry: “Even when the analysis is restricted to adults over the age of 30, self-identified atheists, agnostics and those whose religion is nothing in particular are still somewhat less likely than Mormons, Jews, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics to be married.”

Religion has important implications for the other side of the equation: “religious service attendance is associated with greater marital stability—or more specifically, with a lower likelihood of divorce.”

Based on his study of evangelical Protestant men, eminent family scholar W. Bradford Wilcox found:

Men who are religious—especially evangelical fathers and husbands—are more involved and affectionate with their children and wives than are unaffiliated family men. As fathers, religious men spend more time in one-on-one activities like reading to their children, hug and praise their kids more often, and keep tabs on the children more than unaffiliated fathers do. For instance, churchgoing fathers spend 2.9 hours per week with their children in youth activities such as soccer, Boy Scouts, and religious youth groups, and churchgoing evangelical fathers spend 3.2 hours per week on these activities, compared to 1.6 hours for unaffiliated fathers.

In another study, Wilcox and his co-authors tried to understand the finding that religiously conservative and progressive secular wives report being happiest in their marriages. They noted that a key reason was the engagement of men in families: “Both feminism and faith give family men a clear code: They are supposed to play a big role in their kids’ lives. Devoted dads are de rigueur in these two communities. And it shows: Both culturally progressive and religiously conservative fathers report high levels of paternal engagement.”

Religious practice seems to effectively connect men to families by encouraging marriage, discouraging divorce, and promoting norms of involved husbands and fathers. An increase in disengaged men portends negative consequences for families and communities, but religious faith, and particularly religious practice, seems to be a powerful counterforce. Active participation in religion by men leads to greater engagement and commitment to family, which in turn is likely to foster those norms in children and communities.

That is an outcome that anyone – religious or not – can get behind. It is also a real-world example of why it is important for the secular outcomes we all want – engaged husbands and fathers – that we protect religious freedom, including religious expression. When the law discourages religious expression, it discourages meaningful religious participation and weakens one of the main drivers of men’s healthy and beneficial engagement with their families.

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