PREFACE AND PERSONAL CONTEXT
I am honored to be with
you here in Geneva at the World Congress of Families and to have the chance to
share my thoughts and feelings about the many ways religion fosters responsible
and meaningful connections between fathers and children.
One may ask: Why focus on fathers? In all cultures, nearly all mothers have
extremely close connections with and devotion to their children and sacrifice
much for their well-being.
Unfortunately, across cultures, relationships between fathers and
children are both more variable and more vulnerable.
In recent decades,
scholarship has shown a powerful link between father presence, father behavior,
and the well-being of children and families.
However, evidence indicates that economic changes such as
industrialization and urbanization have, in some ways, weakened father-child
connections. In addition, forces such
as individualization, materialism, secularization, increasing occupational
demands, work-oriented technological intrusions into family life, pervasive
media influence, along with increasing out-of-wedlock births and divorce have
adversely impacted connections between fathers and children.
The research with which
I am most aware deals mainly with North American peoples and the religions that
are prominent there. I gratefully
acknowledge that many cultures have not yet been (and hopefully never will be)
so adversely affected by the forces pulling fathers and children apart. I honor the people of those cultures who
have resisted the negative effects of these forces.
significant limitations in my knowledge of the ways that various world faiths
encourage responsible and meaningful fathering. Please forgive me if my comments are not as relevant to you in
your current situation. For you, my
thoughts may serve to confirm the wisdom of your peoples and cultures and as
encouragement to continue resisting certain influences. If you have additional insights on these
matters I would love to hear from you.
I believe that one of
the great benefits of religion is that it allows us to transcend many human
differences and problems and, with the help of God, see eye to eye—see into the
souls of one another. While discussing
with you how research relating to fathering and religion indicates that
religion promotes responsible fathering, I will also share some personal
experiences with you so you know that my belief that religion fosters good
fathering goes beyond academic learning into lived experience.
Since this is a talk
about religion and fathering, I would like to begin by quoting one of my
favorite scriptural passages—one which suggests God’s deep concern with
father-child relationships. From the last two verses of the book of Malachi,
the last book in the Hebrew scriptures:
Behold, I will send you
Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the
Lord: And he shall turn the heart of
the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers,
lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
This passage suggests a
time like ours when father-child bonds would be weakened. The now tragically high rates of father
absence and the well-recognized negative consequences of fatherlessness
(Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996) provide empirical evidence that God knew
such a time as ours would come.
Thankfully, however, the scripture also indicates that God cares enough
about fathers, mothers, and children to send a divine messenger to help them
grow together (Hawkins, Dollahite, & Rhodes, 1993).
I believe the Spirit of
Elijah is now working on earth among all nations to turn the hearts of fathers
and children to one another. In fact, I
believe this very World Congress is one manifestation of that Spirit. Ideally,
a father turns his heart and mind to his child before the child is born and
forever keeps his heart bound to that child.
But, in a world in which many powerful forces pull fathers and children
apart, it is encouraging to hope for divine assistance in this turning the
hearts of fathers and children to one another.
My own father and I have been blessed with such divine assistance in our
In 1948, when my father
was just 14, his father was killed by a drunk driver. Of course the family was devastated emotionally and economically
by this tragic loss of their wonderful husband and father—a kind and joyful man
who provided well for his family and entertained them with his guitar playing
and singing. Soon after this, a kind
and generous Episcopal Priest named Father Ewald came to the home, offered his
condolences, provided spiritual and tangible support, and invited this grieving
family to join with him at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church. My father and two of his brothers became
devout members of Holy Innocents. When
my father was 18, his mother also died and Father Ewald then became the most
significant adult in his life.
Given what I now know
about the spiritual, emotional, and financial tribulations of boys who lose
their fathers—for whatever reason—I am extremely grateful that my father was
blessed to receive the support and direction he did from the Episcopal Church
in the person of Father Ewald who turned his heart and hands to my father. In large part due to this influence, my
father and uncles grew to become responsible and caring husbands and fathers,
as well as responsible members of their Church and civic communities. My father served for many years as a highly
respected police officer in our small town in California and as a lay reader in
Holy Innocents Church. And, one of my
uncles followed in Father Ewald’s footsteps and became a beloved Episcopal
My personal interest and
participation in scholarship that explores the relationship between faith and
fathering likely derives, in part, from my deep appreciation for the tremendous
blessing that one faith community and pastor were in the life of one person—my
wonderful father, Melvin Lewis Dollahite, whom I deeply admire, love, and
honor. I also personally have
experienced the blessing of much divine aid in turning my heart to my own
SECULAR AND SPIRITUAL
Popenoe (1996) argues that if a culture were specifically designed to be
unfriendly to strong father-child ties it would look very similar to
contemporary American culture. It
should not be surprising that cultures dominated by secularism, materialism,
individualism, hedonism, and sensuality will have high rates of sexual
promiscuity, abortion, teen pregnancy, marital infidelity, divorce, abuse, and
One also might ask: Why
religion? Are there not many other ways
to encourage paternal responsibility?
In Western nations, where father absence is increasingly pervasive, many
assume solutions to paternal irresponsibility center in economics, law,
society, culture, employment, and policy.
Based on this assumption, a variety of “solutions” to father absence and
neglect have been proposed and enacted by a mostly secular academy and polity
government solutions (paternity
establishment, wage garnishment, laws to strengthen marriage)
social service solutions (counseling, family
media solutions (public service announcements
promoting responsible fathering, etc.)
work policies (flex-time, paternity leave)
These types of efforts
certainly help and should be encouraged and refined. Much suffering in children is caused by paternal irresponsibility
and whatever means available should be employed to assist fathers in fulfill
their responsibilities. However,
religion has been largely ignored as a possible solution to
fatherlessness. This, in spite of the
fact that recent polls indicate that most Americans believe in God, are
affiliated with a faith community, attend services at least periodically, pray
or practice other religious devotions, and believe that religion has answers to
many serious problems (Gallop, 1997).
RESEARCH ON FAITH AND FATHERING
There is empirical evidence
scattered throughout scholarly research that religion strengthens responsible
fathering. Little research has studied
this question directly, however. In
fact, little or no mention of faith as a source of influence in father
involvement is made in most articles and books on fathering (Dollahite, 1998;
With few exceptions
(e.g., Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999), contemporary family scholars
acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence that fathers matter greatly to
childrens’ well-being. A now
substantial body of research well summarized by David Blankenhorn (1995) and
David Popenoe (1996) show that when fathers are present and meaningfully
involved, children fare better in almost every way (economically, emotionally,
academically, socially, physically, and spiritually).
Research has shown that
the quantity and quality of father involvement—even more than mother
involvement—is strongly influenced by institutional practices, employment
opportunities, cultural expectations, and social support (Dienhart & Daly,
1997; Doherty, Kouneski, & Erickson, 1998; Gerson, 1997).
If fathers’ presence and
meaningful involvement matter greatly to childrens’ well-being and if
father-child connection is strongly influenced by other contexts, it is crucial
to discover what influences are most likely to encourage and support
responsible father involvement.
Because of time
constraints, I will discuss only four major themes and conclusions from
including: (1) religion strengthens marriage which fosters
responsible fathering, (2) religious belief fosters responsible
fathering, (3) religious practice fosters responsible fathering, (4) religious
communities foster responsible fathering.
I’ll mention each of these in turn and discuss why I believe religion
has the influence it does.
Strengthens Marriage Which Fosters Responsible Fathering
father-involvement advocate Wade Horn argues that faith supports responsible
fathering by teaching that marriage is the morally right context to have and
raise children (Horn, in press). Along
these lines, William Doherty and his colleagues= (Doherty, Kouneski, and
Erickson, 1998:286) empirically-based conclusion that “the family environment
most supportive of fathering is a caring, committed, collaborative marriage” is
extremely important. Research has
confirmed the strong positive correlation between religion and marital
satisfaction and stability (Call and Heaton, 1997; Lee, Rice, and Gillespie,
1997). Since the divorce rate of highly
religious couples is significantly lower than that of the general population,
and since marriage strengthens fathering, it follows that religion fosters
responsible, involved fathering.
Why Religion Strengthens
Marriage and Thus Fosters Responsible Fathering
If marriage is entered
into and viewed by a father as part of his religious commitment he will
experience his marriage in sacred—not merely social—terms. Then likely his marriage will be highly
valued, promoted, and supported and he will do all in his power to strengthen
his marriage and family.
Personal Reflections on
Marriage and Fathering
I believe that marriage
is ordained of God. Because I have made
sacred marriage covenants with my wife in a holy place and in the name of God,
my marriage forms the basis of my existence, here and hereafter. My marriage fosters my fathering in so many
spiritual and practical ways that I cannot imagine being a father outside the
sacred bond of my marriage to my beloved wife, Mary.
2. Religious Belief
Fosters Responsible, Involved Fathering
Recent research has also
shown that religious belief encourages responsible fathering. Jason Latshaw’s research (1998) found that
for highly religious fathers, faith provided them with a sacred center of meaning
and identity that they said made it almost inconceivable that they would be an
“uninvolved father” (p. 68). Dollahite,
Marks, and Olson (1998) found that religious belief and practice “influenced
how [fathers] coped, the perspective they took, the way they experienced their
fathering” (p. 87) and helped these fathers stay meaningfully involved with
their children with special needs. This
is significant since the divorce rate for families with special needs children
is higher than average. Numerous other
studies suggest a link between religious belief and responsible fathering. And research has shown that highly religious
fathers are more likely to be both highly involved and more warm in their
relationships with their children than are only somewhat religious or
non-religious fathers (Bartowski & Xu, 1999).
Why Sacred Beliefs
Encourage Responsible Fathering
Whether a father gives
his children the teachings of Buddha, Moses, Paul, Mohammad, or Joseph Smith,
he is teaching them that God cares enough to speak to humanity (Madsen,
Lawrence, & Christiansen, in press; Agius & Chircop, 1998). And, whether the sacred text taught to
children is the Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran, the New Testament, or the
Book of Mormon, it helps ground children in sacred texts, points their hearts
to God, and helps them feel secure in a changing and sometimes frightening
Most religions teach
that the human family is the offspring of God, that marriage joins husband and
wife in a divinely instituted covenant, that children are precious, and that
the family is the most important source of joy and the fundamental social
entity (Madsen, Lawrence, & Christiansen, in press).
In sum, most religious
beliefs encourage the view that human beings and family relationships are
profoundly important—even sacred—and this has significant implications for
If a father believes
that God cares deeply about marriage and children he will likely care deeply as
If a father believes
that God has given him a sacred duty to care for, protect and provide for, and
teach and bless his child, then his fathering is experienced as service for
God, not merely fulfilling a social role constructed by human beings.
If a father believes
that family relationships are divinely ordained, rather than simply the result
of social construction or biological destiny, he will more likely commit to and
work for the continuation of those relationships, regardless of societal
trends, personal cost, or inconvenience.
Personal Reflections on
I believe that my
children lived with God before they were born, and that I have a sacred
obligation to teach my children to know, love, and serve their Father in
Heaven. In addition, my belief that
marriage and family relationships can endure beyond the grave certainly
motivates me to be a better husband and father.
Practices Foster Responsible Meaningful Fathering Involvement
supports a connection between religion and physical and mental well-being (for
summaries see Judd, 1999 and Koenig, 1998; Matthews & Larson, 1995;
Matthews & Saunders; 1997). Many
faiths have dietary or health codes that serve to encourage health, and
religion has been linked with less use of alcohol and drugs (Burkett, 1993;
Perkins, 1987). A physically healthy
and mentally stable father who is not abusing harmful substances is certainly
more likely to be responsibly and meaningfully involved with his children.
How Religious Practices
Encourage Responsible Fathering
brings adherents a sense of meaning and stability that promotes
well-being. Practices such as
participation in prayer, sacred rituals, pilgrimage, scriptural study, and the
retelling of sacred stories can give transcendent meaning to intergenerational
relationships and everyday family life (Browing et al. 1997).
My own research has
demonstrated that some Latter-day Saint religious practices like family prayer,
church attendance, religious naming and blessing of children, Family Home
Evening, and scripture reading give structure and meaning to family life and
helps connect fathers and children (Dollahite, 1998; Dollahite et al., 1998;
Marks & Dollahite, 1999).
Whether we teach our
children to say Allah Akbar, Shema Yisrael, or Our Heavenly Father, we are
faithfully turning the hearts of our children to the ultimate source of
goodness, mercy, truth, justice, and comfort for their lives.
Personal Reflections on
As a child my fondest
family memories are centered around our family dinner table during religious
holidays. My Uncle Gene (at that time a
deacon in the Church) usually came to our home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and
Easter dinners, and my parents always asked him to say grace before the
meal. Each time, he would ask us to join
hands around the table and he would thank God for our many blessings and for
keeping us safe. I felt safe and
blessed during those prayers.
Now, with my own wife
and children, I cherish that time each evening when we gather around our dinner
table. Since my father has lived with
us since my mother died of cancer in 1991, each evening he hears his son, his
daughter-in-law, or his grandchildren offer prayers of thanksgiving to
God. I rejoice that we have the blessing
of having my father be part of that sacred circle. My children and I feel close when we pray together, when we read
and discuss scripture together, when we sing sacred hymns together, when we
worship together in our faith community, and when we participate together in
sacred religious ordinances and sacraments.
Communities Foster Responsible and Meaningful Father Involvement
In a three-generation
study of father-child relationships, developmental psychologist John Snarey
(1993) found that father-child church attendance provided significant
“social-emotional child-rearing support” for fathers (p. 315). Sociologist Steve Nock found that religious
communities strengthen the father-child bond by encouraging men to be committed
to their families and encouraging them to be responsible to their children
(Nock, 1998, p. 88). Faith communities
have also been found to provide fathers with supportive networks and
interactions beyond the family circle (Ellison and George, 1994).
Communities Encourage Responsible Fathering
Whether fathers worship in a mosque, a
cathedral, or a synagogue, they can draw strength from both God and members of
their faith communities that can be used to bless their children. From religious leaders they receive
inspiration, moral guidance, and encouragement to be better husbands and
In sum, to paraphrase a
well-know African proverb, it takes a faith community to raise a child (Dollahite, Slife,
& Hawkins, 1998; Hawkins, Dollahite, & Rhoades, 1993).
Personal Reflections on
As you might expect from
what I said earlier, my father and mother felt strongly enough about the
benefits of faith in supporting their parenting efforts that they saw to it
that I had religious training and involvement.
When I was an infant I was baptized by Father Ewald, who was happy to
see another generation of Dollahites join his Church (although he was not
thrilled that my very strong-willed mother insisted that her best friend, a
Jewish women, be my Godmother). I
served with Father Ewald for three years as an acolyte (altar boy) and have
fond memories of my father, as a lay reader, reading passages from the Bible
during services. And although Father
Ewald, my Uncle Gene, and my father were not overjoyed when, at 19, I converted
to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least they seemed
pleased that I took religious matters so seriously.
SUMMARY AND IMPLICATIONS
practice, and community can provide fathers and other family members with a
sense of identity and purpose, a meaning structure, a set of moral guidelines,
and social support in times of challenge. Of course, I am not suggesting that
non-religious men cannot be responsible, involved fathers, only that fathers
with strong religious commitment have additional resources to assist them and
are more likely to avoid certain negative behaviors that can influence their
Based on findings from
the review of literature along with observation and personal experience about
what religion offers to men, I think it is fair to say that a man with a
serious religious commitment and involvement, on average, is more likely than
one with little or no religious involvement to:
remain sexually chaste before marriage and
faithful to his marriage vows and thus not endanger his wife and children with
sexually transmitted diseases nor father a child out of wedlock;
be and remain committed to marriage and
children even during times of difficulty and thus not bring the trials and
challenges of divorce upon his wife and his children;
be highly involved in the lives of his
children and parent with higher degrees of emotional warmth;
practice kindness and mercy in his
relationship with his children and be less likely to abuse his children;
remain involved with his children in the face
of challenging circumstances such as dissolution of marriage, or disability of
choose to avoid practices that harm family
relationships such as substance abuse, crime, violence, child abuse,
pornography, gambling, and idleness.
In fact, based on the
evidence of the research I’ve cited, and my own observations and experiences, I
believe that religion provides the only power on earth that can reverse the
powerful trends that are breaking fathers and children apart.
Because of the many
societal problems that stem from father neglect and father absence
(Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996), I think leaders of nations should protect
the ability of religious communities to worship freely and for fathers to
transmit religious values to their children.
This will strengthen families and benefit children.
One of the ways God has
helped turn my heart to my six children is through the Latter-day Saint
practice of fathers naming and blessing their infant children. A father takes his newborn in his arms and
gathers in a sacred circle that usually includes the baby’s grandfathers,
uncles, and local Church leaders. The
father presents the newborn to God, names the child, and, through the Holy
Priesthood, blesses the child as directed by the Holy Spirit. As I have blessed Rachel, Erica, Camilla,
Kathryn, Spencer, and Jonathan, I have felt the Spirit of God seal my heart to
each of them.
However, the blessing of
our oldest son, Spencer, now four years old, was especially meaningful to our
family since he was born with significant visual limitations, the extent of
which we were uncertain of since he was yet to have the eye surgery that was
then scheduled. As we held that
precious boy in the midst of a circle of men who love him, through our united
faith, I blessed Spencer that he would be able to see well enough to accomplish
whatever the Lord desired of him. I
also blessed him with all those things he would need for a joyful, productive
life. From what was spoken in that
blessing, our family learned that Spencer was a special person and that the
Lord would watch over and protect him so that he would not walk in darkness.
Many of the earth’s
peoples (including Jews, Christians, and Moslems) consider themselves to be the
literal or spiritual descendants of Father Abraham. With this in mind, I would like, in closing, to refer to the
scripture in Genesis 28:14 where the Lord promised Father Abraham that “. . .
in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Gen.
28:14, italics added). This passage
shows the universal and sweeping breadth of Gods’ love for all people and all
families whenever and wherever they live and his desire that all families—all
husbands and wives and all children—be blessed.
I rejoice at the chance
I have had and will have to gather with you around these tables in Geneva and
join hands in an effort to strengthen marriages and families throughout the
I believe that God is
pleased that people from so many nations of the earth are gathered here to try
to serve as His hands in blessing families.
I pray that God will
guide and bless us in our efforts. I
hope that we will fervently seek that guidance and blessing.
For all you have done,
for all you are doing, and for all you will do to bless and strengthen all the
families of the earth, I thank you most sincerely.
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Paper presented at the World
Congress of Families II, Geneva Switzerland, November 14-17, 1999. I thank my wife, Mary, for helpful comments
on this paper. I also thank my friends
and colleagues Alan Hawkins, Kathleen Bahr, Loren Marks, and Mike Olson for
their influence on the ideas reflected in this paper. My thanks to Laura Gilpin and David Brewer for editorial
Associate Professor of Marriage,
Family, & Human Development. School
of Family Life, and Adjunct Professor of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young
University. 1044 Kimball Tower, Provo
UT 84602, firstname.lastname@example.org
The reference list at the end of
this paper contains many studies which support the linkage between faith and
responsible and meaningful father involvement. For more information on this see
Dollahite, Marks, & Olson, 1998; Marks (1999); Marks & Dollahite (1999)
or see the Faithful Fathering web site at
http://faithful-fathering.byu.edu (annotated bibliography in the “Resource” section done by my student, Loren