Take up the cause of the fatherless.
America currently has the largest percentage of children raised without two parents in the world (23% compared to 7% for the rest of the world). We also have the highest-ever number of children living without fathers in America (same web source). Our children and society will experience the drastic implications of our worship of autonomy in the foreseeable future.
Of course, those of us who have mentored, coached, or taught young, fatherless children already know the negative implications of this problem firsthand—although the figure from this recent study can help those without that experience understand one important negative effect of this tragedy.
Throughout the ages, it was always understood that fatherlessness is a tragedy and deprivation, even when others needed to step in to take these roles through tragedy or the sinful choices of parents. Indeed, it is a tragedy that needs special attention. Orphans (James 1:27) and the fatherless (Ex. 20:22; Dt. 24:17, 19-21; Dt. 26:12-13; Job 31 17, 21) receive special notice and protection throughout Scripture. One characteristic of God is that God, as the Psalmist declares, “is a Father to the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5; see also Ps. 10:14, 18; 146:9; Hosea 14:3). Churches, as God’s representative on earth, should be a strong support to fatherless children and single parents.
Yet, certain American elites today want to argue that fatherless children, if fatherlessness is a result of choice instead of a result of misfortune, is not a tragedy. One would think that thoughtful academics would band together and resist chosen fatherlessness for at least three reasons: 1) its implications for the common good; 2) the well-known fact that modeling is the best moral pedagogy (and missing a gender-based model would then be problematic); 3) one would never make this kind of gender argument in a contemporary university today with regard to the composition of an academic department (i.e., “the men in our all male department can provide anything a woman can, and the genders are interchangeable, so we do not need more women in our department for modeling and relationship reasons even if most of our students are female”).
Christian academics in particular should also recognize a fourth problem. Fatherless children are more likely to struggle with God. The idea that a child growing up without a father does not lose something, including an increased understanding of God the Father and God’s natural revelation imparted by the father-child relationship, is one of the more tragic consequences of welcoming chosen fatherlessness.
The irony is that we may find those children understand their loss clearly. I remember talking to one young male student in my class who was raised by a lesbian couple. He shared that he was currently living with his fiancé’s family, because he realized he had to learn what it was to be a man and a husband from her father. He hadn’t learned these things in his fatherless home. He knew more than many that fatherhood involves more than sperm.
Christian scholars used to be more attuned to this reality. C.S. Lewis, who understood the tragedy of his own poor relationship with his father, could see the positive effects in others. Referring to the author George MacDonald, he wrote, “An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.”1
I received this gift of wisdom from my own father. After a recent Sunday School lesson about wisdom, my wife asked me who I would consider a person of wisdom in my life. The answer was easy. My father who had modeled God’s wisdom to me. Yet, it is only after growing older that I came to appreciate how hard-earned was the wisdom he passed along to me. I thought his wisdom came from growing up with a pious Mennonite father and mother. Only later did I learn that this assumption was not true regarding his father (both my father’s parents died before I was born). My father gained his wisdom from his father in two other ways.
First, he grew up differently than other kids. His father was 58 when he was born in 1939 (my dad’s mother was 39). He told me that he felt as if his father was more like a grandfather than a father due to his age. By that time, like most South Dakota famers, my grandfather had lost everything in the Great Depression. When my father was six, his family moved from the farm into a small town, since my grandfather was still farming with horses and could not afford to make the switch to mechanical farming. My father grew up poor. He remembers choosing one piece of clothing from the Sears catalogue for a Christmas present. He later became a food insecure first-generation college student.
In addition, I only learned when reading the family Bible at my aunt’s house in my forties that my father’s father was not a Christian until a few years before his death (which occurred when my dad was in college). Additional conversations with my father made me realize for the first time that my dad grew up going to church with only his mother and sister. His father did not go with them. It astounded me because my father is one of the most faithful church attenders and contributors to Christ’s body (as related in chapter three of this recent book). He likes to say there are two things for which he is never late–church and the ballpark (i.e., any sporting event).
Not long after that time, my father and aunt surprised everyone with a singing number at a family reunion. Since my aunt played piano at church throughout her life, we expected an old hymn. Instead, they sang the 1947 classic, “Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette.” All the grandkids were astounded and laughed heartily (as did the children). I asked my dad why he had grown up liking that song. He said it was because his dad smoked (something I had not known), and it had bothered him growing up because he knew their family did not have a lot of money for things like that. Some wisdom about church, money, and life, my dad acquired from doing things differently than his father. That is true for many Christians. As those who have done it know, there is a sad and significant percentage gap between those who relish talking about and celebrating Mother’s Day versus Father’s Day–no matter whether speaking in Sunday School or prison.
Yet, there was also plenty of wisdom my dad acquired from his non church going father. He proudly told me this past year about how he rarely if ever heard his father speak negatively about anyone (I never had heard this story). According to my father, my grandfather simply did not do it. I then understood part of how my dad acquired his wisdom. My dad has exemplified throughout my life what it means to control one’s tongue. My brother and I did not grow up hearing my dad constantly gripe about the latest church, political, or work problem. Nor did he gossip about or judge the misdeeds of others. Instead, my father, a pharmaceutical sales representative, usually told funny or insightful stories (indeed, he is one of the finest story tellers I know). Often, the stories passed along profound wisdom in a way that never felt preachy (which to a young boy is important because a mother’s wisdom can often feel like medicine–not always welcome even though you know it’s good for you). He also rarely offered critique or advice, and thus when he did, I listened. Fatherless children miss learning both kinds of wisdom.
Today, there are those who call for less focus upon fathers and more focus upon “parenting.” After all, what matters in their minds (but not in reality) is that a child has one parent or perhaps two (and perhaps in the future three) same-sex parents (but not a father). In fact, Parents Day was established in 1994 by then President Bill Clinton as the fourth Sunday of July to accommodate the new family revolutionaries. In the future, perhaps Parents’ Day will become a more prominent and important celebration than Father’s Day, although I doubt its significance in the long term.
As Soviet Communists found after their 1917 revolution, even extraordinarily powerful social revolutionaries, who can take over the largest country in the world and wield enormous political power, cannot easily replace fathers with other caretakers from the state or one’s love life. Their country, now scarred with the results of their social and family revolution, such as inordinate divorce, alcoholism, sexual and physical abuse, gender alienation, and more, has born the fall out. Not surprisingly, Russia has the third highest number of children parented by single parents (behind the U.S. and the U.K).
When doing my dissertation research in Russia, I heard one Western marketer speak about how he asked Russians to identify pictures of gender relationships in Russia. He said it astounded him that they never choose a picture with warm relations between the genders. He had never seen anything like it in his study of dozens of countries. Demeaning the importance of fathers had likely contributed to massive gender alienation. May God help them and us. And let us thank our heavenly Father for the wonderful gift he gave us without our choice—our fathers.
Please read this e-mail reply to my post from Allison Ruark at Wheaton College. It provides helpful nuance regarding my first sentence, the Pew source I used, and the situation in Southern Africa (reprinted by permission).
I’m a professor of public health at Wheaton College, and I’ve studied marriage and family structure as it relates to HIV in southern Africa, so am familiar with data from that region.
Fatherlessness is a critical issue in many areas of the world, and in southern Africa, far fewer children live with fathers that in the U.S. Here’s some data from South Africa (from a 2019 report), but the situation is similar in neighboring countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland):
The share of children living with both parents decreased from 39% in 2002 to 34% in 2018. Forty-three percent of all children (8.5 million children) live with their mothers but not with their fathers. Only 3% of children live in households where their fathers are present and their mothers absent. Twenty percent do not have either of their biological parents living with them…. Less than one-third (29%) of African children live with both their parents [in this case “African” means black South Africans] http://childrencount.uct.ac.za/indicator.php?domain=1&indicator=2
In the Pew report cited in this article, a single-parent household was defined as children living in a household with only one adult present. By this definition, the prevalence of single-parent households in southern Africa is low, but that doesn’t mean that the father is in the household. In other words, lots of children are living with extended families, in households with multiple adults, but not with a biological father (and in a lot of households, as seen in the data above, not with the biological mother either).
I think that southern Africa, and not the U.S., may have the highest prevalence of children not living with a biological father in the world.
Dr. Allison Ruark
Sent by e-mail and reprinted by permission:
I often enjoy your columns. You may be interested in the following article [https://www.anabaptistwitness.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Erdel-Prenkert.pdf ] that springs from the fact of fatherlessness in Jamaica. In the mid-1990s, 87% of children were born in Jamaica without a father of record on the birth certificate. The problems that ensue are almost beyond description.