Are Fathers Necessary?

This Sunday is Father’s Day. Millions of people will buy gifts, make phone calls, secure dinner reservations, and devote considerable time and thought to making sure their fathers know how much they are valued and appreciated.

Presupposed in the whole tradition of Father’s Day is the notion that dads are important. They matter. They are not expendable. Our president seems to agree with this. He said, “To be a good father is the most important job in a man’s life.”

A recent article in the New York Post supports this contention by making the case that the importance of fathers is “deeper than we realize.”  According to various studies, children with fathers who interact with them have fewer behavioral problems at school; fathers apparently play a larger role than mothers in a child’s vocabulary development; and the presence of fathers in a household leads to a decrease in “sexual risk taking” in daughters.

For most people, I am simply stating the obvious here. Everyone knows that fathers are important, right? Well, that depends on how committed you are to other convictions.

It’s no secret that President Obama has voiced his support for same-sex marriage. And yet at about this time last year, the president was featured in a Father’s Day ad in which he said:

No matter how advanced we get, there will never be a substitute for the love and support, and most importantly, the presence, of a parent in a child’s life. In many ways, that’s uniquely true for fathers.”

In a Father’s Day address last year, the president made sure he did not overlook the fact that gay people are parents too. He said that being a good parent, “whether gay or straight, a foster parent or a grandparent,” is not an easy job.

So President Obama is affirming that fathers are uniquely important in a family, and at the same time, that two women should be able to get married and be parents. My guess is that this is becoming the majority opinion in our nation, and yet the incompatibility of the two sentiments should be obvious. If two women are married and are entrusted with children to raise, does this not necessarily exclude a father from the picture? How can a person hold that there is something uniquely important about a father in a child’s life, and at the same time hold that it’s acceptable for two women to raise a child in the absence of any fatherly presence?

There is no question that fathers are important (and mothers too). It’s one of the reasons we celebrate Father’s Day every year. And it’s also one of the reasons why the question of same-sex marriage is not just a matter of private religious conviction, but an issue that will most certainly have far-reaching social and civil implications for our society.