Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Death of Fatherhood

David Popenoe’s stated purpose in Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (Harvard Univ Pr, 1999) is to provide “an analysis of the American experiment of fatherlessness. Drawing from the social sciences, history, and evolutionary psychology, [the book] examines the nature and meaning of fatherhood and reviews the trend, the evidence, and the social consequences of the removal of fathers from families and the lives of their children. Regrettably, as I shall point out, America is the vanguard of social trends and impulses that are affecting fatherhood and children in all modern societies.”

I find it truly amazing that Mr. Popenoe attempts to prove, through research, what we should already know from tradition, revelation and commonsense: Fathers are necessary. But since we have abandoned tradition, revelation and commonsense, Popenoe tries to fill the void with research.

Is he successful? Well, his research seems convincing to me. But I already believe fathers are essential. I don’t think research is going to convince feminists and our feminist society that fathers are necessary, but necessary they are, according to Popenoe. He cites massive statistics that support the view that children (boys and girls) need their biological father to be present in the home and to be an active participant in the child-rearing process. Children who do not have fathers in their daily lives are much more likely (should this be a surprise to anyone?) to become criminals, nymphomaniacs, drug users, and so on.

In Part I (Chapters 1 & 2), Mr. Popenoe discusses the “remarkable decline of fatherhood and marriage” and the devastating effects the decline has had on our society:
The decline of fatherhood is one of the most basic, unexpected, and extraordinary social trends of our time. The trend can be captured in a single telling statistic: in just three decades, from 1960 to 1990, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled, from 17% to 35%. If this rate continues, by the turn of the century nearly 50% of American children will be going to sleep each night without being able to say good night to their dads.
In Part II (Chapters 3 & 4), Popenoe talks about the father figure in history. He makes many interesting observations in these chapters. For instance, he contends that the father in pre-industrial societies had more moral authority in the home than the industrial age father. From the Victorian age on, fathers began to spend more and more time away from the home. They became breadwinners only. And when their breadwinning capacity was challenged by the feminists in the 1960’s, fathers were seen as superfluous dinosaurs of a bygone era. The seeming strength of the nuclear family in the 1950’s was a mirage. Once fathers were seen as breadwinners and breadwinners only, they were bound to fade out.

In Part III, the author seeks to explain through “evolutionary psychology” why fathers are necessary. In Part IV, he offers his plan for re-inventing fatherhood. In my opinion, these are the weakest parts of the book. Popenoe takes man’s descent from the apes as a given in Part III and seeks to defend fatherhood as an evolutionary necessity. Fatherhood should be defended, but it does not need help from evolutionary clap-trap theories. In Part IV, Popenoe describes his plan for reinventing fatherhood. Part of that plan involves the acceptance of male-female cohabitation as a prelude to marriage. Why? Because in industrial societies, men and women cannot marry till they are thirty when they have had time to acquire technical training for the industrial world, and it is not possible to remain chaste that long. Well, from a Christian standpoint, if certain actions are sinful, they must remain prohibited even if the dictates of industrial society suggest they be sanctioned.

The last example really highlights the weakness of the book: Mr. Popenoe wants more fathers to stay with their families; however, he mentions Christianity only in passing and makes it clear that he doesn’t want a restoration of the Christian, patriarchal family. The question is: Is there any way to restore fatherhood without returning to the Pauline concept of fatherhood? Of course, there isn’t. Popenoe is like the late pope John Paul II in more than name. He, like the Pope, wants the results of a Christian social order without the imposition of a Christian social order. But feminism is a religion, and one religion can only be supplanted by another religion; it can’t be supplanted by research.

A Christian, however, should give the issues Popenoe raises some thought. Why has Christianity in general and Christian fatherhood in particular, done so poorly in industrial society? The answer seems obvious. In industrial society man is seen as a finite object. He is a “steel girder” in the industrial skyscraper. In Christianity, the real Christianity, man is seen as a recipient of God’s grace and a personality of infinite worth.

I was struck by the fact when I was a teacher that so many young men with some masculinity left in them wanted to join the army. They tragically saw no particular virtue in marriage and fatherhood, because they saw only the value our society places on marriage and fatherhood, which is, of course, no value. But it is precisely now, when the barbarians have breached the wall and are among us, that we need Christian men who are willing to fight for the hearth rather than for the neocons. The neocons need mercenaries to fight for their capitalist faith. Christian Europe needs young men who have discovered the moral, counterrevolutionary role of fatherhood.

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