Research covered in a 2013 report by Elizabeth Marquardt, Charles E. Stokes and me on faith and children of divorce answers that question with a resounding "Yes." Not only do fathers matter, but fathers could play the most definitive role in shaping the future faith of their children, especially divorced fathers. When we support the faith lives of the fathers in our religious communities, especially those who are divorced, the fruits of that investment are born in the faith lives of their children.
Some background: The National Study of Youth and Religion showed us that the greatest predictor of the religious lives of youth remains the religious lives of their parents. But what happens when divorce compromises that critical role? From logistical standpoint, the immediate upheaval of divorce followed by years structured by common variations of joint custody challenges parents to maintain stable religious practices like worship attendance, completing faith formation education classes, or participating in youth group fellowship opportunities. Children often begin juggling a mom's church and a dad's church, a mom's belief system and a dad's belief system. Children absorb the beliefs and practices of their moms and dads, with the absence of belief or practice speaking the loudest and carrying lifelong reverberations.
For example, in a national study conducted by Norval D. Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt on the moral and spiritual lives of adult children of divorce, adults from intact families (families in which parents got and stayed married) are more likely than children of divorce to attend religious services almost every week, to be a member of a faith community and to say that they are fairly or very religious in their beliefs. Children of divorce are far more likely to say that they are "spiritual, but not religious," echoing the growing trend in young adults who claim "none" as their religious preference. But the results are not all negative, sociologist Melinda Lundquist Denton's research shows that the change in religious expression and practice of children of divorce is more nuanced though a change almost always occurs.
And here's where the role that mothers and fathers play in influencing the religiosity of their children comes into play. Elisa Zhai of Miami University and colleagues found that the link between parental divorce and a lower likelihood of the grown children's regular practice of a religion appears to be explained by lower levels of father's involvement in the religious lives of these children. Divorced fathers are especially influential in whether their children will continue to have a life in the church. They note that in terms of religious identity, spiritual identity, religious service attendance and frequency of prayer, it is paternal religious characteristics that remain significant in the life of an adult. And in terms of disaffiliation from religion, in other words being a "none," having a father with no affiliation seems to matter more than having a mother with no affiliation, though both appear to be important. The faith of our mothers is of course still important but they suggest that "as young adults develop a religious identity apart from their parents, or as their religious identity changes, their father's religious characteristics become more important than their mother's."
As I read these observations from my perspective as a pastor and youth group leader, I was inspired to pay closer attention to the fathers of our church's youth, especially children of divorce. Do we provide as much support as we could to fathers -- including divorced dads? A frank one-on-one conversation with a father or creating a men's Bible study that specifically recruits divorced dads could impact not only the faith of that father but the future faith of his children. These children are watching their father's lives of faith closely!
In a recent on-line symposium on faith and children of divorce, Rev. Michael Karunas reflects on how Joseph's choice to stand by Mary and be a father to Jesus can be a Christian faith example for fathers. He writes:
If we fathers want children who are expert marksmen when they are 30, we should take them hunting every chance we get. If we want them to be championship weightlifters when they are 30, we should hit the gym every time the doors open. But if we want them to be believers when they are 30 -- committed to a faith community and enjoying the incredible gifts that come from it -- we need to set the example of being active in a religious community with them now.
True power, as Joseph shows us, is choosing not to do something, even though we may be fully capable and justified in doing it, because it's not what's called for at the moment. When Jesus was arrested the night before his death, he said to the arresting soldiers, "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" He could have saved himself. He didn't "deserve" to die. He would have been justified in retaliating. But it wasn't called for at the moment. And because Jesus didn't do what he could have done, he exercised a power so great that it offered salvation to the whole world. Who knows? Maybe he learned this from Joseph, who set a similar example as his father years earlier.
As we celebrate Father's Day, we will be wise to remember that the faith of fathers matter!