Religious Men Can Be Devoted Dads, Too

Faith, like feminism, sets high expectations for husbands.

By W. Bradford Wilcox, Jason S. Carroll and Laurie DeRose,May 18, 2019

The authors are collaborators on a new report about marriage, faith and families.May 18, 2019

 “Blue” marriages are better — or at least that is the conventional wisdom. Couples who live according to egalitarian values, sharing domestic responsibilities like housework and cooking, have long been seen as superior by most academics, journalists and public intellectuals engaged in the national conversation about the American family.

“We have every reason to believe that new values about marriage and sex roles will make it easier for parents to sustain and enrich their relationships,” the feminist family historian Stephanie Coontz wrote in 1997 in “The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families.” At the end of the last century, Ms. Coontz believed, the arc of American family life was bending toward a better and brighter future — a progressive one.

Today, this view retains considerable currency. A 2016 report from the Council on Contemporary Families suggested that in “today’s social climate, relationship quality and stability are generally highest” in more egalitarian relationships. The Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith has speculated that “maybe liberal morality is simply better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world.”

But consider Anna and Greg, a couple that one of us (Mr. Wilcox) recently interviewed for a book on marriage. When Anna started having children, she had no wish to work full time outside the home. Anna is not alone in this regard: The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that about two-thirds of married mothers would prefer not to work full time — a fact that is often overlooked in our public conversation about work and family, which is heavily influenced by progressive assumptions. Anna says she is grateful that because Greg works hard at his small business, she has been able to make this choice.

But more than Greg’s bread-winning, what makes Anna truly happy with her husband is that he is fully engaged on the home front. Not only does he diligently help with the kids’ nightly homework, he is also a fun father — flooding the backyard with water in the winter so the kids can ice skate, taking them on trail hikes in Shenandoah National Park in the summer. He also takes an active role in the family’s religious life: Every night, Greg prays with the children before bedtime.

“I feel so blessed to have Greg as a husband,” Anna said. “His involvement as a father and leadership in the family only adds to my level of happiness.” As research has shown, Anna’s marriage is illustrative of the experience of many women married to men from evangelical Protestant, Latter-day Saint, traditional Catholic or Orthodox Jewish communities.

It turns out that feminism and faith both have high expectations of husbands and fathers, if for very different ideological reasons, and that both result in higher-quality marriages for women. This is a key conclusion of our new report, “The Ties That Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in the Family?” from the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution. The report looks at relationship quality for women in heterosexual relationships across 11 countries in the developed world, including the United States.

In studying women who report above-average satisfaction, commitment, closeness and stability in their relationships, we find that women at both ends of the ideological spectrum enjoy comparatively high-quality marriages, compared with women in the religious and ideological middle, as well as secular women who lean right culturally. Data from the Global Family and Gender Survey (which Mr. Wilcox helped conduct) indicate that 55 percent of secular progressive wives in the United States — who embrace egalitarian family values and do not attend religious services — report such high-quality marriages.

By contrast, fewer than 46 percent of wives in the religious middle — who attend only infrequently or don’t share regular religious attendance with their husbands — and only 33 percent of secular conservative wives — who think men should take the lead on bread-winning and women on child-rearing but don’t attend church — have such marriages.

And it turns out that the happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives, followed by their religious progressive counterparts. Fully 73 percent of wives who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husbands have high-quality marriages. When it comes to relationship quality, there is a J-curve in women’s marital happiness, with women on the left and the right enjoying higher quality marriages than those in the middle — but especially wives on the right.

When we look just at women’s political ideology using the General Social Survey, another nationally representative survey of American adults, we see a similar curve in marital happiness for American wives. It turns out the bluest and reddest wives are most likely to report that they are “very happy” in their marriages. To be sure, the General Social Survey curve is closer to a U-curve, as the level of marital happiness for the group of extreme liberals and liberals and the group of extreme conservatives and conservatives is essentially the same. Together, these two groups account for about one-third of American wives: about 16 percent on the left and 19 percent on the right.

What explains why wives in the religious and ideological middle, as well as secular conservative wives, are less likely to enjoy high-quality marriages? We suspect that part of their relative unhappiness, compared with religiously conservative women, is that they don’t enjoy the social, emotional and practical support for family life provided by a church, mosque or synagogue. We also suspect that these groups are less likely to have husbands who have made the transition to the “new father” ideal that’s gained currency in modern America — and they’re not happy with their partner’s disengagement.

In fact, in listening to the happiest secular progressive wives and their religiously conservative counterparts, we noticed something they share in common: devoted family men. 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.

So while some may judge men’s advances on the home front as insufficient and inadequate, this generation of fathers and husbands is actually markedly more engaged in the lives of their families than the fathers of two or three generations ago. The average amount of time that dads devote per week to child care has risen from 2.5 hours per week in 1965 to 8 hours per week in 2016.

In this way, at least, the arc of American family life in the 21st century has indeed bent toward a better and brighter place. But for all the arguments between feminism and faith, it turns out that both have had a hand in sustaining and enriching today’s marriages by turning, as the prophet Malachi put it, “the hearts of the fathers to their children.”

Graphs and documentation at:


W. Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP) is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Jason S. Carroll is a professor of marriage and family studies at Brigham Young University. Laurie DeRose is an adjunct lecturer in the sociology department at Georgetown University.