Over the last several years I’ve worried about the underappreciated critical value of fathers to families, but a recent experience has multiplied that concern exponentially.

Up until now I’ve been concerned about two situations:

1. In societies where multiple current wives are permitted, the problem is the competition between the children of the various wives, all vying for the attention and approval of the aloof father. Some are pegged as winners in this contest, and others as losers. In our society, where multiple current wives are not yet allowed, we reach almost the same situation with children from sequential wives through divorce, or from sequential girlfriends when marriage is not included. It is dangerous for any society when children, and particularly young men, enter the culture weighed down by the baggage of their father’s characterization of them as either losers or winners, after bouts of constant competition with siblings, with whom one should instead hope to be close.

2. Absence of the biological father, either by multiple divorces (predominant in the white culture), or by multiple girlfriends (predominant in the black culture), creates a terrible void in the lives of the children. Despite what some would have us believe, when the father is present, he exerts a strong influence on his children. Our society suffers immeasurably with girls who have never experienced the affirming love of a male who aspires only to create the best for them. And with boys who have no mature role model and no counterbalancing governor to their natural attraction to power, the group, and domination of others.

Both of these results have of course always been present in a relatively small number of families, due to death, divorce, or abuse. But never before has the absentee father, with all of its negative consequences for families and society, been the norm that it now appears to be. How will our society survive without everyday role models for responsibility, loving authority, grace, forgiveness and, yes, doing the right thing?

But recently through friends at City of Refuge I learned of an even worse consequence of there being no father at home.

Imagine that you are a thirteen year old boy living with your mother, who has children by three boyfriends. You and your older sister share the same father, but your two younger half-siblings were sired by other men, and the last of them now sleeps with your mother. To assert that he is the “Alpha Male” in the house, and to promote his own youngest son, he physically abuses you by beating you and depriving you of food. Worse, he not only sleeps with your mother, but he sexually abuses your sister. You have only seen your father once or twice, and you have no idea where he is. How are you to protect your mother and your sister from this man?

The only potential countervailing force in the neighborhood to whom you can turn for help are the slightly older young men on the corner. The ones with money, guns and cars, who sell drugs. A couple of them you know from growing up, and from school. You can’t stand what this man is doing to your sister, but you are not powerful enough to stop him, and so you go to the older teenagers on the corner and ask for help. The next day four of them pay a visit to the house and confront the man. They show him their guns and tell him that if he touches you or your sister again, or otherwise misbehaves, they will kill him. In a few days, after much arguing and threatening, he leaves. There is peace in the home again, at least for a while.

But now you owe a debt, and you are drawn to the toughs on the corner because they have helped you, the oldest male in the family. They introduce you to their gang, and despite your mother’s pleas, you are soon a full member.

A few years later, if you are not dead, you have sired two children of your own and are living with the second woman and her other children. In the interim a great deal of violence and drug trafficking has filled your days. The cycle repeats itself, and soon you are the older man whom another young man hates, and looks for a way to threaten.

In this very real and increasingly true situation, the gang, rather than the father, becomes the protector of the children, at least for a while. The family no longer exists. The individuals and our society are clearly at great risk of utter destruction.

I must ask: How has the American family been so threatened, and in many cases destroyed, in just the last fifty years? And how do we turn our society around?