According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as reported by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 18.4 million children, 1 in 4, live without a biological, step, or adoptive father in their home. “That’s enough children to fill New York City twice or Los Angeles four times over,” the initiative states. 

That sobering statistic came to mind after I read a recent piece by Delano Squires of the Heritage Foundation on what he calls the “Prodigal Father” — fathers who have left their responsibility to their children and their mothers behind to seek what they believe to be personal pleasure and riches. He surmises that many of these men have abdicated their responsibility and become “prodigal fathers” because society has told men that their “manliness” is toxic and needs to be eradicated. Thus, they have no purpose or sense of commitment to invest in and stand for their families. 

Edmund Burke, the great British parliamentarian and philosopher, once said that the greatest cultural achievements of Western civilization were the advancement of Christianity and the concept of a gentleman.  

Burke believed a true gentleman made the best citizen because he made countless excellent contributions to his family, church, community, and country through self-sacrifice, personal discipline, and internal strength, all while exhibiting a tender heart. 

While not every man has been or is a gentleman, the concept was an ideal for men to emulate. Unfortunately, over the past several decades, that concept has fallen into disfavor. The result is men who have no idea of what it takes to become a gentleman, much less a responsible or involved father. 

Prodigal Fathers Beget More Prodigal Fathers 

The result has been generations of men who not only no longer honor their responsibilities, but also have no idea of what those responsibilities are in the first place. Instead, they wander around aimlessly without any purpose or sense of duty other than to themselves. American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt has written a compelling book about what has happened to millions of men in America as a result of our cultural moment. 

If these men do have children, they have no moral or ethical grounding in place to settle down and become committed fathers. The result is the “prodigal” father, who takes off for the next exciting vista — the next set of “riches” to pursue, while leaving behind those he should be taking care of and nourishing. 

The important contribution well-grounded fathers make is the healthy preparation of the next generation of boys, men, and fathers. 

And alas the opposite is true too: Prodigal fathers begat new generations of prodigal men because these boys have no idea what a committed father is. 

Government Can’t Sub for Dad 

Our culture suffers as a result. Squires asks, “What happens to a country when men trade the nuclear family and a multi-generational legacy for intentional co-parenting and multiple-partner fertility? What happens to women and children when men drop their God-given responsibility to provide for their offspring onto an ever-expanding government that is more than willing to take up residence — and exercise authority — in their home?” 

The outcome is a sad trail of broken and bitter lives, alienated youth, and cultural chaos and destruction. Too often, we are bereft of the gentlemen Burke described. 

Instead, we have an overabundance of men who — like the prodigal son that Jesus describes in his famous parable — take their share of the inheritance, leave their responsibilities behind, and then waste their life pursuing what they believe to be pleasure. In the process, they not only often wreck their own lives but also the other lives to which they are connected and biologically committed. This is the grave social reality in 21st-century America. 

Government cannot fix prodigal dads; government cannot tuck children into bed at night; government cannot be a substitute father. 

Men Lead a Cultural Transformation 

If we are going to heal the numerous negative manifestations of prodigal fathers in our society — aimless boys, sexual promiscuity (both sexes), government dependence, and violent crime — we must start by calling men back to their God-given responsibility to be the protector, provider, and tender leader of their homes. For millions of wayward fathers, these may sound like a series of radical and foreign ideas. 

This will demand of those men enormous restoration, renewal, and regeneration — the grace to restart rooted in measurable, authentic repentance and forgiveness. In my book, “American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal a Nation,” I discuss how that restoration can take place by calling men back to what it means to be a gentleman — a man who first and foremost honors his responsibilities to his family, faith, and country. 

If that happens, I believe some women and children, even those who are rightfully bitter and angry about their prodigal fathers, will ultimately accept them back with a commitment to start afresh. Taking personal responsibility is the first major step. 

These transformed prodigals will then have the opportunity to become the gentlemen that Burke commends — ones who make great citizens after passing through the rising waters — and start the process of healing the wounds their actions inflicted upon the smallest of all civilizations, their own families. 

Great citizens, in turn, bring about cultural transformation — starting first in their homes, then permeating all aspects of society. We need a generation of men who will welcome responsibility and seek to perform their roles with seriousness, earnestness, excellence, piety, patriotism, courage, duty, and self-sacrifice. 

As a society, it is time that we turn away from the policies and cultural arguments that have enabled prodigal fathers to exist. It is time that, instead of enabling their pursuit of folly and lack of responsibility through government bailouts, we enact policies that bring them back home — or face personal and societal consequences. 

The successful return of the prodigal father to his rightful place will result in the reaping of a great inheritance of faith, family, and freedom not only for himself, but for his children, and for our society in this fraught yet hopeful moment.