WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama’s plans to develop ways to strengthen fatherhood in America are receiving mixed reviews from family experts.
Change.gov, the website of the office of the president-elect, states that Obama will “work to remove some of the government penalties on married families, crack down on men avoiding child support payments, and support domestic violence prevention efforts.” It says Obama has re-introduced the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act, which would address these issues.
Earlier, during a Father’s Day 2008 speech in Chicago, Obama had strong words about fathers who “have abandoned their responsibilities.”
“We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception,” he said. “We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it’s the courage to raise one. We should be making it easier for fathers who make responsible choices and harder for those who avoid them.”
Steve Bollman, founder of That Man Is You, a men’s leadership apostolate based in Houston, agrees. But Bollman also stresses the need for consistency in the message.
“If you’re trying to tell them fatherhood doesn’t end at conception, somehow you also have to tell those men that’s a life worthy to make sacrifices for,” he said. “Abortion sends men the opposite message. If you tell them it’s inconvenient for them, you’re not going to get men to step up to the plate.”
While it sounds good to say we can reconnect fathers with their children, we have to realize there are two models of sexuality in play and two very different models of the family going on, said Patrick Fagan, senior fellow and director of the Center for Family and Religion at the Family Research Council in Washington.
“In order to have the intact married family, you have to have chastity and monogamy,” said Fagan. “You shape, train, mold and form the children in that. That’s how you get a husband and wife, and particularly, a father attached to his wife and his children. The only way you get men like that is to cajole, train and coach them to be chaste. That’s a lot of work.”
But the dominant model in American culture right now is “sex without consequences and commitment, and we start that with our children in high school with giving out condoms,” Fagan said. “It’s a cover-up for not wanting to make men chaste. Most men fall down on that, but you want them to get back up again. This throws the ideal out the door.”
Fagan argues that the single most important virtue to be cultivated in society is chastity because of its massive natural consequences in its presence or absence. “You have the monogamous family or the breakdown of the family and an increase in everything we don’t want.”
He points to the plan for expanded health-care coverage, especially proposed in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as S-Chip, stressing it removes parental supervision in the areas dealing with sexuality. He explained that programs that “essentially feed the Planned Parenthood model of shepherding the children into a Planned Parenthood model of adolescent health” get heavily funded, and blocking parental control is built into the legislation. “That is a direct attack on the family, the parents and religious belief,” he said.
Patrick Kelly, vice president of public policy for the Knights of Columbus, knows fatherhood. The Knights have just started their own fatherhood initiative.
He said Obama’s opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) could undermine his stance for fatherhood.
Kelly believes that children are raised most effectively in a home with a mother and father and that opposing DOMA would weaken the family. “You learn how to be a father by growing up in family where there is a father — not two mothers, not two fathers,” he said.
While Kelly finds good things in Obama’s fatherhood initiative, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and a better system to deal with “deadbeat dads” (which was also part of the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act which Obama cosponsored), he describes them as “merely a Band-Aid on a much larger problem, and that can’t be fixed by legislation. The larger issue is how to take young men and teach them about responsible fatherhood.”
One avenue to teach boys about responsibility is through abstinence-only sex education, Kelly noted. “If the Obama administration opposes abstinence-only sex education, then you’re back to the ideas that boys will be boys and they can’t control themselves sexually,” he concludes. “That’s not teaching responsible fatherhood.”
Fagan sees a glitch in Obama’s plans because many “deadbeat dads,” mostly in the poverty range, have been formed in the “hook-up” culture of easy sex that produces children out of wedlock. He sees proposed initiatives to deal with deadbeat dads locking them into poverty forever rather than helping them into chastity, monogamy and marriage.
As a companion initiative to help fatherhood, the new administration wants to strengthen domestic violence laws. But according to Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill., and author of several books on the family, the domestic violence issue “is primarily dominated by feminist ideologues who misplace the emphasis.”
He claims there is much less violence in families than with cohabiting, live-in boyfriends, where more focus needs to be. He believes dealing with this problem is going to fall under the sway of feminists and “it will probably weaken fatherhood.”
“If you step back and look at the big picture on the fatherhood problem,” Kelly said, “you see that the real way to strengthen fatherhood is to shore up a culture of life.”
All the policies have to come together to build responsible fatherhood, he concluded. “Supporting fatherhood is an integrating whole.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is
based in Trumbull, Connecticut.