The 2019 World Family Map report outlined how religion could both promote and constrain father involvement with children. On the positive side, religion tends to foster familism and can provide role models, accountability, and support for good fathering. On the negative side, religion’s contribution to traditional gender role attitudes can enshrine men’s breadwinner role, and thereby limit the time men devote directly to their children.
Gayle Kaufman and Molly Bair’s article published in Journal of Family Issues last month brought nationally-representative data to the question of whether religious support of traditional gender roles actually translates into attitudes supporting men’s overwork. Their analysis showed it does not: people who attend religious services more frequently were actually more likely to agree that work-oriented fathers are harmful to families.
As a religious person, this finding does not surprise me because I’ve heard and seen involved fatherhood preached, practiced, and supported in many different conservative congregations over the years. But it nonetheless came as a relief, because I’ve also experienced the kind of teaching that can contribute to men’s overwork in the name of fulfilling religious duty.
When my husband was nearing 60 years old, he was suffering from multiple health issues and began thinking about cutting back to part-time work. We prayed about it together. He also decided to meet with our pastor to get his counsel on the issue. Our pastor told him that a man who did not provide for his family was worse than an infidel (an argument derived from 1 Timothy 5:8) and encouraged my husband to continue working full time.
I’ve told this story to family sociology classes at Georgetown University and at the more conservative Catholic University of America. On both campuses, the students were shocked. Despite many of them coming from religious backgrounds, none of my students knew that a proposal for going part time could generate a quote from scripture referencing an infidel. The truth is that I did not expect this kind of reaction, either. Before my husband’s lunch with our pastor, I had never experienced religious gender conservatism as limiting. Now that I have, the theory that enshrining the male breadwinner could lead to overvaluing paid work doesn’t strike me as a straw man argument. I know it is real in some circles.
Through my story, you can likely see the reason why Kaufman and Bair’s finding makes sense: even though male workism in the name of religious duty exists, many religious people find it bizarre. Other research on work-family trade-offs confirms that religious men often make pro-family decisions.
I suspect that there is greater temptation for the religious to make an idol out of family than to make an idol out of work. Even 1 Timothy 5:8 derives its punch from saying that anyone who does not provide for their own family is worse than an infidel. In other words, work gets a good share of its worth from what it does for our relatives—quite a bit different from workism, which is "the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work."
It was also a relief to learn from Kaufman and Blair’s analysis that over half of all Americans agreed that men who work too much hurt their families. Further, it isn’t just the more the religious that are even more likely to find men’s overwork costly to the family: three other subgroups that hold disproportionately conservative gender role attitudes—men, older individuals, and Hispanics—were more likely to agree that both working mothers and work-oriented fathers are harmful to families.
Together, this means that neither gender conservative America nor America as a whole has sold out to workism. Similarly, Kaufman’s earlier work on “Superdads” found family-centric men to be more common than work-centric men; it also affirmed that men’s desire to spend time with their kids was real—not simply politically correct egalitarian ideology.
This doesn’t mean that the majority are free from the religion of workism. The General Social Survey that Kaufman and Bair used tells us nothing about whether people think the cost of men’s overwork to the family is worth it, plus even those who value family over work can make side trips to the alter of this lesser deity.
Nonetheless, it is encouraging to find widespread criticism of workism among Americans—and not only because families can benefit. Scholars have suggested that the gender revolution has stalled because of the rise of intensive motherhood and because familistic egalitarianism is an egalitarianism with limits—the emphasis on the family necessarily limits women. How? By keeping them from becoming ideal workers who are always able and willing to put work above family. That ideal seems to be receding (at least from the worker’s side), and that can help combat women’s general disadvantage in the workplace. Moreover, the rise of intensive fathering will contribute in the same ways: benefiting individuals who enjoy their kids and helping level the gendered playing field in the public sphere. Thus, further criticism of workism could combat gender inequality and, ironically, this recent research reveals that those who hold conservative views on gender are contributing more than others to this end.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.