Fatherhood and Families

David Blankenhorn, Horizons, 5/1/1999

Parents, children and families don't live in a vacuum. They very much depend on, and in turn help to shape, a range of other character-shaping social institutions and cultural norms, such as schools, churches, civic and voluntary associations and our shared moral ideas about what it means to live a good life. In short, they depend on and help to shape what scholars call "civil society." There is a growing debate today on the definition and importance of civil society, particularly the importance of moral truth as an anchor of civil society. As we put it in our recent report, A Call to Civil Society, a fundamental requirement for democracy is "the belief that moral truth exists and that it is accessible to people of reason and good will."

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Subjects: Civil Society, Family, Fatherhood, Marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn

As I was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s and early 1970s, probably the biggest influence in my life, outside of my immediate family, was the Fondren Presbyterian Church – Wednesday night potluck suppers, youth group meetings on Sunday night, childhood friends that I will always remember, grownups who taught me in Sunday school and who still, after all these years, regularly ask my parents how I am doing up in New York City. I suspect I'm not unique, and that many people can tell similar stories about the churches that helped to make them who they are.

In 1988, working with several university professors and writers, I started a New York-based think tank, which we grandiosely named "Institute for American Values." Our goal was, and still is, to reason together and speak out publicly on the state of our culture, especially regarding issues of parenthood and child and family well-being. From the beginning, we ignored the labels of "left" and "right," seeking instead to bring together good people from across the political spectrum and across the human sciences. We've worked hard to influence national debate, especially in the areas of fatherhood, marriage and civil society.

Our work at the Institute is often scholarly in origin, based in large measure on the academic research and interdisciplinary deliberation carried out by our board members, affiliate scholars and academic advisers. At the same time, so much of what we do seems to be little more than an elaboration and reflection on what I learned as a child at Fondren Presbyterian Church.

Fatherhood

Tonight, about 40 percent of all U.S. children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live. Before they reach the age of 18, more than half of all American children will spend at least a significant part of their childhood living apart from their fathers. Scholars who study this issue increasingly agree that fatherlessness is a root cause of many of our worst social ills, from crime to teen pregnancy to children living in poverty. For example, one recent study finds that the absence of a father is the single most important predictor of criminal behavior by young men – more important than income, race, educational attainment or quality of neighborhood. Yet 10 or even five years ago, few policy makers or opinion leaders were calling attention to the problem of fatherlessness. A few people were doing good work, but these pioneers were largely isolated and unrecognized voices in the wilderness.

Today, the world looks quite different. Across the country, we are witnessing the emergence of a fatherhood movement – a diverse and expanding group of leaders, organizations and grass-roots initiatives that cuts across ideological, political and racial lines, all aimed at reconnecting men to their children.

Marriage

Although divorce rates have slackened a bit since the late 1980s, the United States remains by far the most divorcing society in the world. Current rates of divorce and unwed childbearing – never-married mothers now account for one of every three childbirths – mean that only a minority of children today are likely to spend their entire childhood living with their two married parents.

Surrounding these statistics of divorce is a continuing culture of divorce – a widely embraced set of ideas about the acceptability and even desirability of divorce. Consider a recent ad from a company that wants to buy your jewels. Under a picture of a diamond ring, the ad reads: "Don't think of it as a reminder of your lousy ex-husband. Think of it as a down payment on a Porsche."

And yet, as our divorce revolution continues, a small but unmistakable counterrevolution is also beginning to emerge. For the first time since California adopted the world's first no-fault divorce law in 1969, policy makers and citizens in a number of states have mounted serious challenges to the system of quick, no-fault divorce. Even more important, in many churches across the country, a "marriage savers" movement is quietly being born. This important new effort strives for comprehensive premarriage education, better church-based marriage enrichment programs, and new community-wide church policies aimed at strengthening marriage and reducing divorce.

Call it spiritually based divorce-busting. Thanks to this new trend, many more couples will now receive the practical help, moral guidance and community support that will make their marriages more likely to succeed. The question is no longer whether we like the current trend. The question now is whether we are prepared to do something about it.

Civil Society

Parents, children and families don't live in a vacuum. They very much depend on, and in turn help to shape, a range of other character-shaping social institutions and cultural norms, such as schools, churches, civic and voluntary associations and our shared moral ideas about what it means to live a good life. In short, they depend on and help to shape what scholars call "civil society." There is a growing debate today on the definition and importance of civil society, particularly the importance of moral truth as an anchor of civil society. As we put it in our recent report, A Call to Civil Society, a fundamental requirement for democracy is "the belief that moral truth exists and that it is accessible to people of reason and good will."

Does talking publicly about morality necessarily foster judgementalism? Does affirming moral truth mean neglecting tolerance? We have tried to argue that it does not. As one member of our Council on Civil Society, Don Eberly, has written: "Tolerance itself depends on a moral grounding; it is not what rushes into the void created by the absence of moral truth. For if moral truth does not exist, all that is left is power: Whatever we can do, we may do." In sum, morality and tolerance are not opposed to one another; the latter cannot exist without the former.

In our work at the Institute, my colleagues and I often quote from recent academic studies and cite current statistics. Yet to me, these basic themes of fatherhood, marriage and civil society are very close to what I learned in Sunday school 30 years ago at Fondren Presbyterian Church.

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