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Faithful Fathering: How Religion Fosters 
Responsible and Meaningful Father Involvement

 

 [1]

 

David C. Dollahite, Ph.D.

[2]   BIO

Remarks to The World Congress of Families II, Tuesday Morning - November 16, 1999 

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.

I acknowledge 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.  (Malachi 4:5-6)

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 lives.

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 Priest.

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 children.

SECULAR AND SPIRITUAL SOLUTIONS

Sociologist David 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 father absence.

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 including:

  1. government solutions (paternity establishment, wage garnishment, laws to strengthen marriage)

  2. social service solutions (counseling, family life education)

  3. media solutions (public service announcements promoting responsible fathering, etc.)

  4. 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; Marciano, 1991).

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 research[3] 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.

1.  Religion Strengthens Marriage Which Fosters Responsible Fathering

Research

Psychologist and 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

Research

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 world.

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 fathering:

If a father believes that God cares deeply about marriage and children he will likely care deeply as well.

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 Religious Beliefs

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.

3.  Religious Practices Foster Responsible Meaningful Fathering Involvement

Research

Extensive research 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

Religious practice 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 Religious Practices

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.

4.  Religious Communities Foster Responsible and Meaningful Father Involvement

Research

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).

How Religious 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 fathers.

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 Religious Communities

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

Religious belief, 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 fathering.

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:

  1. 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;

  2. 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;

  3. be highly involved in the lives of his children and parent with higher degrees of emotional warmth;

  4. practice kindness and mercy in his relationship with his children and be less likely to abuse his children;

  5. remain involved with his children in the face of challenging circumstances such as dissolution of marriage, or disability of a child;

  6. 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.

CONCLUSION

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 world.

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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Endnotes

[1] 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 assistance.

[2] 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, dave_dollahite@byu.edu

[3] 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 Marks).

 

 

 

 

 

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