In an issue of The Atlantic not long ago, journalist Pamela Paul seriously asked, "Are Fathers Necessary?"
Christians can point to a whole body of evidence showing the importance of "Dad" at home. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, "Children who live without their biological fathers and are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health and emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents. Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior and avoid high-risk behaviors." Fathers, the research seems to prove, are not only necessary. They are essential.
Not so fast, Paul might rejoin. This kind of research, she says, is skewed, because it compares households with a mom and a dad to those headed by single women—in other words, we have been comparing apples to kiwis all this time. Paul says that when we look at households headed by two adults—whether man-woman, man-man, or woman-woman—the supposed advantages of fathers melt away like an ice cream cone at the county fair.
She concludes: "The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there's nothing objectively essential about his contribution. The good news is, we've gotten used to him." Score one for "Heather Has Two Mommies"?
And indeed, the culture often seems to agree. It's true that President Obama has strongly supported the role of fathers for strong families. But in his recent Father's Day address, the president muddled his message by extolling the contributions not only of fathers, but also of social arrangements with "two fathers." Isn't that an inherent contradiction, like a circle with four corners?
Gone are the days when the media could be expected to lionize "traditional" fathers. Instead of the wise patriarchs encountered in programs such as "Father Knows Best" and "Bonanza," we mostly get ignorant goofs in "Married, with Children," "Family Guy," and "The Simpsons." When was the last time you saw a TV dad who wasn't the constant butt of jokes for his ineptitude? The Cosby Show's solid, if imperfect, Cliff Huxtable seems like a quaint anachronism now.
And while male DNA is still necessary to propagate the species, growing numbers of would-be mothers are opting for anonymous sperm donors rather than conception with a husband. About 1 percent of all children are now conceived via sperm donation in the United States. Further, we are legitimizing what used to be known as illegitimacy, at unprecedented rates. Forty percent of all American children are born today without benefit of married parents.
So is the culture right? Are fathers unnecessary after all?
People who end up—for one reason or another—in households with no father often turn out just fine. I had a pastor whose father died when he was young and was raised well by his mother and grandmother, as well as by some key male role models in the community. Barack Obama himself grew up to be president, despite the fact that his biological father was a scoundrel who abandoned him and his mother. It is also true, to the grief of untold moms and dads, that kids from homes with fathers present often go terribly awry.
Yet those who support the role of dads as essential have a much more impressive body of evidence, as well as basic common sense, on their side. According to just one study, infants lacking a father's name on the birth certificate are over twice as likely to die in the first year of life as infants with a father's name on the document. Given the fact that families headed by men have been the norm since time immemorial, the onus of proof is on those who would dismantle them to make a political point.
Those with eyes to see will note all around us the moral and psychological debris of people who have never connected with a father. If you doubt this, come visit some of the largely father-absent neighborhoods on Chicago's west side during the sweltering evenings of summer. But bring a bullet-proof vest. Unfathered, unmentored gangbangers in the city have murdered more people over the same period than the number of American soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. The city has lost three police officers to the carnage just in recent weeks. We dispense with fatherhood, a basic building block of family and society, at our peril.
So why all the momentum to undermine fathers? I wonder if our discomfort with the idea of human fatherhood is a sign of a problem deeper in our souls. Bible scholars say that God is a mysterious Trinity of three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In his sovereignty, God the Father runs the universe and has set in motion the only sure plan of redemption.
Maybe we devalue our earthly fathers because we are estranged from our heavenly one. We prefer to walk Buddhism's Eightfold Path, obey Islam's Five Pillars, or practice our own atheist morality than answer to a heavenly Father. We'd rather invent our own salvation than acknowledge his.
Maybe we evangelicals, who do a good job of emphasizing Jesus the Son, haven't done as well talking about his Father and ours. It was Jesus, after all, who told us not only that the Father is holy and able to cast us into hell, but that he loves us and knows our every need even before we ask. Far from a ridiculous bumbler, this Father combines wisdom, power, and grace.
Are fathers necessary? Yes, on earth—and in heaven.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of the forthcoming All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books). Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.