Father's Day this year is more than a holiday designed to make it Christmas year-round for greeting card companies. It's even more than a holiday designed to boost sales of neckties and aftershave lotion. The holiday should remind all of us that when a father walks out on his children through divorce, he is not only heaping up for his children a pile of negatives that will last for a long time, but removing the positives.
Maybe I can get at this by quoting from a few papers by my University of Texas students on the formative influences in their lives. One obvious positive influence of fathers is material, of course; Student Angela Curran wrote, "My father worked two jobs most of my childhood just to ensure that my brother and I had everything we needed."
But fathers can make an even bigger difference in attitudes. Sheila de La-Cruz wrote, "My father never let me go anywhere with my friends unless I had finished my studies and chores, and had a valid reason for going. Violation of my strict curfew or academic grades below an A resulted in severe punishment-no friends were allowed to visit me and no telephone privileges. As an adolescent, I hated my father; today, I am his No. 1 fan because he instilled within me a strong work ethic and the value of education. My father's influence has led me to believe that if you want something badly enough, you can always take the time and make the effort."
And fathers can make an enormous difference spiritually. Stephanie Rodrigues wrote, "My first memories of God were of curiosity and wonder. I remember being in church.... I didn't really understand the concept of God, I was too busy fighting with my brother and being scolded by my mother. But when my father would get down on his knees, clasp his hands, and bow his head, I would squeeze up next to his side and try to imitate him. Through squinting eyes I would peek a sideward glance at the man I'd never seen bow to anyone. I would strain my ears to listen to the whisper of words he mouthed to this 'Father who art in heaven,' that could bring my daddy to his knees. Today that same God brings me to my knees as I mouth the same words of faith my father did so long ago.... I can't explain the wonders of the universe or reason for life, but I pray to God and follow his teachings."
Even fathers who are taken away, not by their own choice, serve their children. Penny Pehl's father died from cancer when she was 11, but she wrote, "My father gave me not only a strong belief in God but also inspiration.... Watching my father fight against cancer, I never heard complaints of the pain or of the treatments. I never witnessed a loss of faith, nor did I ever see him allow the cancer to prevent him from accomplishing any task. After his death, I recognized his enormous strength and transformed a version of those silently expressed characteristics to my own life."
The message from many students is personal: Any man who is thinking about leaving his wife and children should think twice. But the student responses this year also implicitly send a message about two hot public-policy questions: repealing the "marriage tax" and reducing the ease of no-fault divorce, especially when children are involved.
The marriage tax and no-fault divorce are disincentives to entering into and sticking with marriage vows. Some disincentives are good: Christians should marry only other Christians, and go through good pastoral counseling in the process; husbands or wives whose marital partners commit adultery should be free to leave the marriage after they receive the blessings of a proper church court. But the government should not be in the business of forcing men and women who both work to pay more in taxes if they get married. Nor should the government say that marital contracts can be broken for any reason by just one of the parties to the contract. (Courts do not view other contracts so lightly.)
Father's Day should also be called Marriage Day, because fathers who are not married to mothers before or after children are born rarely have a positive influence in those children's lives. The chief incentives to get married and stay married are personal, of course, but what God has wrought government should not undercut.