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Reviewed by:
  • Soft Patriarchs and New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands
  • Darren E. Sherkat
Soft Patriarchs and New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands By W. Bradford Wilcox University of Chicago Press, 2004. 328 pages. $20 (paper)

Soft Patriarchs is the latest in a series of works by conservative Christian devotees reinterpreting social institutions from the lens of their distinctive faith. Here, Bradford Wilcox argues that liberal Protestant groups embraced an egalitarian family ideal, influenced by feminism and humanistic psychology. In contrast, conservative Protestant groups held on to [End Page 614] gender and family traditionalism. As a consequence of egalitarian orientations, Wilcox argues that family became less salient for liberal Protestants and that it has failed to serve as a civilizing institution for men.

Wilcox's review of the literature on empirical connections between religion and family is limited, and sweeping generalizations are often supported with references to activist commentary rather than scientific inquiry. Wilcox's main thesis offers top down mechanisms; nefarious liberal Protestant elites infected with feminism and social justice construct anti-family messages promoting divorce, abortion, homosexuality and childlessness. In contrast, sectarians cling to the gods-given vision of a male-headed household, female subordination, and child-centered. Catholics are ignored, which is odd given their strong family orientations and large share of the American religious market.

Wilcox's thesis gives primacy to the causal power of beliefs, yet he does not provide a systematic rendering of conservative or liberal Christian belief structures regarding family. Sectarians believe that human nature is generally evil and must be monitored by authorities to assure salvation. Liberals believe that humans are basically good, and require positive conditions to assure their deliverance. Wilcox pays lip service to Nancy Ammerman's discussion of "golden rule Christianity," but he does not examine how belief structures rooted in liberal Christianity may lead to different visions of family relations. Wilcox dismisses non-patriarchal family forms as anti-family, and the potentially negative impact of inegalitarian orientations and behaviors are deemed inconsequential "soft" patriarchy.

Wilcox examines data from three separate national datasets, and analyses focus on differences between active sectarians from active mainline affiliates. The omission of Catholics makes this is a much less useful book for sociologists. Wilcox typically limits his subjects to those married with children. While Wilcox argues for profound differences between liberal Protestants and sectarian Protestants, the differences are often small. Still, Wilcox convincingly demonstrates that active sectarian protestants hold negative views of women with children in the labor force, they believe laws against divorce, and oppose premarital sex.

Wilcox does not critically assess the implication of these findings. Even sectarian Christian women have high rates of labor force participation, thus, male co-religionists think less of them for working. This is likely to cause considerable conflict within families. Opposition to premarital sex is partly responsible for sectarians' early ages of marriage, which Wilcox extols as being pro- family. This is exceedingly odd given that age at marriage is one of the strongest negative predictors of divorce. Not surprisingly, sectarian Protestants have the highest rates of divorce – a problem Wilcox grudgingly admits in the conclusions. Opposition to divorce makes sectarian communities less able to provide coping resources for families who have experienced divorce.

On childrearing, sectarian Christians are found to spank more, yell less, monitor behaviors, and spend more time with their children. Most of the differences are small, but the finding about supervision and time could have used additional elaboration. Sectarian Christians monitor and discipline their children more closely because they believe this is necessary – if humans are inherently corrupt and prone to sin, then children cannot be trusted. Liberal parents trust their children to do what is right. Notably, American prisons are not full of Episcopalians and Presbyterians whose parents failed to monitor their television or shadow their every move. Also, the age structure and high rates of participation in sectarian churches enable them to front more programs for children, while liberal groups do not have as many opportunities for generating parental involvement with children – belief differences are less important.

Wilcox's argues that there is an "enchanted economy of gratitude" in sectarian households. While sectarian men shirk...


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pp. 614-616
Launched on MUSE
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