When my son was eight years old, I took him to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Many of the exhibits are interactive, and most focus on the achievements of basketball's greatest players and teams. But off in a corner, in a room that had few visitors the day I was there, one can find a modest exhibit on the origins and early history of basketball.
The photos and memorabilia told a story that I had often heard before. In the winter of 1891-92, Dr. James Naismith was a young "physical education instructor" at Springfield College. As one pamphlet puts it, his "bored students were young men suffering through a required gymnasium class." Determined to end the boredom, Naismith set out to invent a new winter or indoor game that would be as exciting for his student-athletes as football in the fall or baseball in the summer. So he thought up some rules, nailed two half-bushel peach baskets to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one at each end, and basketball was born.
But as I reimmersed myself in this great old story, one odd detail in one photograph in the exhibit caught my eye. The photograph shows the building in which basketball was invented. Almost all the literature refers to this building as "Springfield College." But the sign above the main entrance of the building in the photograph clearly says "School for Christian Workers." What's that? Looking more carefully through the exhibit, and searching the footnotes and fine print in the main literature on basketball, one can also find occasional references to this building, the forerunner of today's Springfield College, as the "International YMCA Training School."
It seems that there is a story behind the story of basketball's origins—or more precisely, an actual history that has been largely displaced by a sanitized, official history. Dr. James Naismith, it turns out, was an ordained Presbyterian minister. In 1891, he was just beginning a ministry that was to evolve into a lifetime of service to the church. His job at the School for Christian Workers was not simply to instruct "bored" college kids in "physical education." His job was to help train young men to become professional leaders of the then-burgeoning Sunday school movement and the similarly growing YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) movement. The goal of those two closely allied movements, both led by large and denominationally diverse groups of pastors and church-based volunteers, was to build character and inculcate Christian virtue in young people.
Yes, Naismith invented basketball. Moreover, the entire early history of basketball is part and parcel of the YMCA movement. The first basketball league, for example, consisted of YMCA clubs playing one another. But for Naismith—and for his students, and for his fellow faculty—basketball was not an end in itself. Playing basketball was one pathway toward solid character formation, one good activity for young men who aspire fundamentally to spiritual fitness.
The YMCA movement in Naismith's time promoted "the fourfold program" for fitness: physical, social, mental, and spiritual development, with the spiritual (or strength of character) being the highest and ultimate form of personal fitness. Accordingly, the emphasis on physical development was understood to be directly connected to the cultivation of civic and religious virtues. For example, YMCA leaders first opened gymnasiums largely to give young men an alternative to socializing in saloons. In 1895, this concept of balanced or integrated character development was altered slightly, and was symbolized by the Y in the form of a red triangle, which denoted the Y's holistic focus on the three sides of a man's nature: physical, mental, and spiritual.
The key idea is that building character in children and young adults is a multidimensional task, requiring a focus on "the whole man" that integrates various aspects of personal development, but also a task that culminates in the "spiritual condition" (YMCA). This religiously informed view of character-building reflects one important way in which evangelical Protestants in this era sought to introduce and bring young people to Christian faith and to influence the larger society on behalf of Christian principles.
Most of this, of course, is ancient history. Today, the Y is about as centered on spiritual goals as McDonald's or Starbucks. Indeed, YMCA facilities in most communities have become virtually indistinguishable from any other mildly upscale private health club. The Sunday school movement still remains, but has been in decline for at least several generations. Basketball today has become largely integrated into our growing entertainment culture, driven by money and focused on international celebrity-athletes such as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.
But for those who worry about the crisis of fatherlessness in the United States, perhaps this little piece of basketball's social history is less ancient, and more relevant, than we might first imagine. For it seems likely that the renewal of fatherhood in our society, if it is to occur at all, will be premised in large measure on what Don Eberly and others call a renewal of "God-centered masculinity."
For nearly a decade I've been active in what has come to be called the fatherhood movement: a broad coalition of leaders and organizations committed to reversing the trend of father absence in our society. The task is certainly enormous. The United States has the world's highest divorce rate. About one of every three babies today is born to a never-married mother. Tonight, about 40 percent of all U.S. children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live.
So we do what we can to reverse this terrible trend. Some of us join or launch organizations that reach out to individual men, helping them to become better fathers. Some of us work with children and young people. Some of us write books, hold conferences, issue appeals, appear on talk shows. Our main idea is that every child deserves a father.
Ten years into this effort, here are the key questions from my perspective. How does religious faith help us to understand the meaning of fatherhood? Is caring human fatherhood ultimately a religious ideal, or is it best expressed in purely social terms? What is the role of the church—what should be the church's role—in this emerging movement?
At the turn of the last century, the character-building movement in our society, led by Dr. Naismith and his colleagues at the Y and in the Sunday-school movement, was based explicitly on moral and religious ideals. The YMCA did not improve the lives of millions of young people and place its stamp upon the American character merely because its leaders believed in the ideal of guys playing basketball. It did not even achieve its remarkable (if historically short-lived) success because its leaders upheld a secular or purely civic ideal of character formation. Yes, the character-building movement successfully taught the liberal and civic virtues of good citizenship, compassion, patriotism, and duty to community. But the movement's success in transmitting these social values to young people—and here is an irony that we see often in the history of social reform—clearly hinged upon its ultimate aspiration toward something much greater.
Successful social movements frequently, in this sense, point beyond themselves. Their core values run deeper and aim higher than the movement's immediate worldly goals. Why do successful movements so often possess this trait? One explanation, for people of faith, is divine providence. Another, more sociological explanation is that big changes in individuals and in societies—a troubled child who decides to get her life straightened out, a society that decides that every child deserves a father—come from big changes in our hearts and in the way we think, not small changes.
For these reasons, as we enter the next century, a successful movement to reverse the trend of fatherlessness in our society is not likely to draw its essential inspiration from the worlds of professional social work, interest-group politics, or legislative lobbying, or from any other set of principles confined solely to the existing material world, the current social is. If it is to be successful, this new movement's underlying inspiration will almost surely come from elsewhere: from the larger moral ought and from principles of life that are essentially spiritual.
Consider the case of Dr. Wallace O. McLaughlin, the young executive director of the Father Resource Program in Indianapolis, Indiana. This recently established community-based organization works primarily with young, unmarried, poorly educated African-American men. Echoing Dr. Naismith and the earlier character-education movement, Dr. McLaughlin's project is multidimensional, focusing on "the whole man": employment skills, job opportunities, parental skills, whatever is needed to help the father reconnect with his child and the mother of his child. With his Ph.D. in family studies, and informed by several years of practical experience in working with young fathers, McLaughlin particularly emphasizes what he calls the "mental health dimension" of fatherhood-building. For this reason, the young fathers in his program often begin by discussing their own fathers. Was he there for me? Did he hit my mother? If I was not properly fathered, how can I break the cycle with my own child?
But in addition to holding his academic degree, Wallace McLaughlin is an ordained pastor. His work with fathers is essentially a ministry. Many of the men enrolled in the Fatherhood Resource Program visit or join his church. McLaughlin observes that many of these young fathers are in "spiritual arrested development." So he is their pastor, helping them discover for them selves the integral connection between being a good father and being spiritually fit.
Wallace McLaughlin and James Naismith are separated in time by about a century. They are also separated by race, region, and, no doubt, any number of theological and denominational fine points. And for all I know, Wallace McLaughlin may not even play basketball. Yet I am certain that these two men—and their two movements—are much more alike than different. They are kindred in spirit because both are ultimately anchored in things of the spirit.
Moreover, Wallace McLaughlin is no anomaly. Across the country, in today's emerging fatherhood movement, many (though certainly not all) of the leaders are people of faith, and much of the movement's energy and most effective grassroots activity is based in churches, synagogues, and other faith-based organizations. Surely this is more than coincidence.
Of course, some of the influence of the faith factor in today's fatherhood movement can be explained in practical and institutional terms. Years ago I worked as a community organizer. Whenever we wanted anything done, my first step was to contact at least some of the local churches. After all, they had social halls to meet in. They regularly took up collections of money. They were often led by clergy who were sympathetic to community concerns, and sometimes by pastors like McLaughlin who themselves were known and admired as community leaders. Most of all, the churches had people: people who were already organized for a collective purpose; people who tended, on the whole, to be decent, self-respecting, neighborly, and compassionate; people who tended to show up when something important was happening. Church people, in short, will tend to support any worthy social initiative, from coaching Little League to building houses for the poor.
But with fatherhood, just as with character education, the faith factor in the movement is not primarily a matter of convenience, logistics, or available leaders. It's also and most importantly a matter of first principles. For here is the basic anthropological reality: hands-on human fatherhood is a spiritual calling, intimately linked to the search for transcendence.
As many scholars have pointed out, nurturant fatherhood is not a necessarily predictable or even likely result of male sexual embodiment. Instead, social or responsible fatherhood in any society is largely a cultural creation, particularly the creation of a culture's basic ethical system. Put differently, what we might call true fatherhood is not a natural fact. It becomes a material reality only when viewed with a moral squint. In this sense, fatherhood is a metaphysical idea, decisively dependent on things unseen. Fatherhood is especially dependent on norms of male submission and self-donation that are usually honored by flesh-and-blood men at least as much in the breach as in the observance.
Responsible fatherhood moralizes natural masculinity. It leads adult males toward loving intimacy with at least a few other people, and more broadly, encourages them to put other people's needs before their own. It guides men toward understanding certain acts of obedience and submission as acts of heroism. It fundamentally transforms aggression—what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "drum major instinct," or the desire to lead the parade—into servanthood, an ethic of demonstrating strength through sacrificing for family.
In short, true fatherhood teaches men, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that they are taller when they bow. Surely such a root-and-branch moralization of male behavior can finally be understood only in spiritual terms—as the fruit of a spiritual vocation or calling, or perhaps even better, as grace, a spiritual gift. The core mystery of fatherhood, in my view, is that a bare biological act can produce such a transforming personal reality. For this reason, I believe that the faith factor in today's fatherhood movement ultimately will be the most important factor of all.
David Blankenhorn is president of the New York-based Institute for American Values and was the founding chairman of the National Fatherhood Initiative. He is the author of Fatherless America and a coeditor of The Fatherhood Movement. A version of this essay appears as the foreword to The Faith Factor in American Fatherhood, edited by Don Eberly (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).
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