Did you see the newspaper articles about the new study demonstrating that conservative evangelical fathers are more likely to be abusive, detached, and isolated from their families?
That's because that's not the conclusion found by a new study. If it were, one can be certain it would be an above-the-fold headline in the major daily newspapers across the nation.
Instead, the study, reported in the Journal of Marriage and Family, concluded that conservative evangelicals make better fathers than their secular counterparts. The study suggests that evangelical dads are far more likely to read with their children, eat dinner with them, and engage in outside activities together. The Boston Globe reports that, according to the study, fathers in a nuclear family with "strong religious and community ties" are "most likely to show up at dinner and put their kids to sleep reading Goodnight Moon."
Of course, this data leaves some secular academics scratching their heads.
"Evangelical Protestant fathers, including Southern Baptists, are very involved with their children, which I found surprising, given their tendency to embrace traditional gender attitudes," University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, who conducted much of the research for the study, told The Washington Times.
Dr. Wilcox's reaction is predictable. Secular observers seem to wonder how people hold to such "bizarre" understandings of male headship and the complementary roles of men and women in the home. The sociologist asks himself why such "oppressive" views of gender roles and family life shouldn't produce homes seething with resentment and neglect. After all, wouldn't one expect that conservative evangelical dads would dismiss childrearing as "woman's work," while they attend Billy Graham crusades or uproot South American rain forests, or do, well, whatever it is that evangelical men do?
Perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps evangelical fathers are more committed to their children, not in spite of their biblical understanding of the family, but because of it.
Perhaps this counter-cultural understanding of the father as protector and provider brings out something in men deeply ingrained in the warp and woof of creation, something reflecting the fatherhood of God himself (see Ephesians 3:14-15). Perhaps attention to the biblical mandate on gender roles also means attention to the biblical mandate that husbands lavish their wives (Ephesians 5:25-29) and their children (Ephesians 6:4) with love, nurture, and kindness.
Ultimately, it does not really matter what sociological studies conclude, or whether academics and journalists pay attention. What matters more is where evangelical dads actually are, in the neighborhood or in the community barbershop or in the stands of the Little League ball field. The watching neighborhood children matter-those whose fathers prefer the golf course to the front lawn and watching Monday Night Football to reading Goodnight Moon for the 700th time.
Perhaps, also, these unbelieving fathers will find the evangelical dad to be a strange phenomenon. Perhaps they will ask why. And maybe, just maybe, some of them will discover, not just what it means to be good fathers, but what it means to become sons of the only Father who can truly be called "good."
Russell D. Moore teaches Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as executive director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Moore is the father of two new sons, Benjamin Jacob and Timothy Russell.