Men of the church (National Post February 24, 2007)
In the early days of feminism's ascendance, a certain joke made the rounds -- its theme remained constant, although the particulars varied -- that never failed to raise a knowing chuckle. In it, a man and a woman explain the secret to a happy marriage. The wife, feigning subservience, says: "My husband makes all the big decisions, and I make the small ones." The amiable schlemiel of a husband then adds (ba da boom), "Yes, I decide whether God exists and where the universe ends, while my wife decides where we live, who our friends are, and what schools our children attend?".
Get it? Fathers -- the butt of the joke -- think they are important because their minds are filled with stupid abstract notions like the Meaning of Life, but in fact they are irrelevant to their loved ones' happiness, which depends on practical domestic choices that women are more competent to make.
On its face the joke is reality-based. Because yes, as soon as children enter the picture, mothers exert disproportionate sway over the family's accretion of social and educational capital. But are habitat, schools and friendships the only significant factors in guiding children into their full human estate? Hardly. Children's spiritual and moral development -- the formation of bedrock cultural values --is equally important. And thereby hangs a tale.
A statistical report from Switzerland in 2000, "The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland," reviewed the results of a 1994 survey of Swiss religious practice, and arrives at a fascinating conclusion about the impact of mothers' vs. fathers' church attendance on the future religious observance of their children.
The detailed survey indicated that if the father attended church regularly, and the mother was non-practising, then 44% of their children
became regular church-goers. But if the mother attended regularly, and the father was non-practising, then only two per cent of their children became regular church attenders.
Even when the father was an irregular attender and the mother non-practising, a full 25% of their children became regular attenders, while if a mother was a regular attender and the father irregular, only three per cent of the children became regular attenders.
In short, if a father does not attend church, it won't matter how dedicated the mother is in her observance, only one child in 50 will become a regular attender. But if a father is even somewhat observant, then regardless of the mother's practice, at least one child in three will become a regular church-goer. The disparity is too stunningly wide to be culturally insignificant.
The logical response to such conclusive figures would have houses of worship scrambling to create an ambience conducive to men's psychological comfort. But as any regularly attending member of a non-Orthodox congregation can attest, Jewish and Christian houses of worship have become quite feminized. Feminist thought privileges the flexibility, sensitivity and inclusivity (gay rights-deferential) that has characterized liberal pulpits for a generation. The "soft" PC template of emasculated liturgy and the "writing-in" of postmodern sexual values, however, do not offer men the "hard" authenticity they typically seek in religious observance.
The result has been a drop-off in church attendance, which, we can now predict, will continue into the next generation. As Anglican Vicar Robbie Low noted in reaction to the Swiss survey, "A Church that is conspiring against the blessings of patriarchy? flies in the face of the sociological evidence! No father --no family --no faith. Winning and keeping men is essential to the community of faith and vital to the work of all mothers and the future salvation of our children."
As it turns out, then, those "big decisions" about God and the meaning of life that preoccupy fathers in the joke are nothing to laugh at after all. The Swiss survey's results can reasonably be interpreted to suggest that in moulding a child's sense of communal and ethical identity -- for civic purposes the most important consideration of all -- it would seem that more than simply significant, a father's role is crucial.
© National Post 2007