What Joe Biden and Paul Ryan Can Teach Us About Fatherhood

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Less than four years ago, we watched Joe Biden and Paul Ryan debating each other as their respective parties’ nominees for Vice President of the United States. This week both were back in the spotlight as Biden wrestled with the decision to run for President (he said no) and Ryan with the decision to stand for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (he said yes). Along the way, both men reminded us of something we should know: what it means for a man to prioritize his family.

The nation grieved with Biden this year, even those of us who disagree with him on some important political questions, as his son Beau died from brain cancer. This is especially true given his history, a man who lost his first wife and his daughter in a horrific car accident just weeks after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. With his two sons in intensive care, Biden contemplated resigning his office. He didn’t, but he stayed by their side through their recovery, and then took the train home to Delaware every evening from Washington, to be with them as they grew up.

Biden concluded that “time was up” to mount a presidential campaign, but that time was spent shepherding his family through the grief of losing a son, a brother, a husband, a father. Time well spent.

Ryan was reluctant to be a candidate for Speaker, for many good reasons, but the primary concern was, like Biden, time. Even as he agreed to serve, he made it clear there was at least one thing more important to him than his political career. “I cannot and will not give up my family time,” he said. “This is a job where you are expected to be on the road about a hundred days a year,” he said. “Our kids are ten, twelve, and thirteen, and I’m not going to do that.”

These two decision points resonated with me, I suppose, because I’m the father of five sons while at the same time in a high-stress job that requires a lot of travel. The same is true of many people. I’ve had scores of truck drivers, Air Force pilots, and traveling sales representatives in churches I’ve served, all of whom face this tension. Many of them worked hard to keep their family first, and many succeeded. I’ve also known many men who stay at home every night of the year but who “decompress” every night by escaping into a television screen.

The Biden/Ryan cases ought to remind us to think about the relationship between ambition and fathering. One does not need to aspire to be President or Speaker to be blinded by ambition. One can aspire to be assistant head clerk at the discount store or the best golfer among one’s peers or the sharpest “coach” of fantasy football. Ambition, rightly defined and channeled, is good. But most ambitions are cultivated in front of an audience, waiting to see how one performs on a task or in some calling. Very few people are watching to see how a man trains up a new generation, to worship or to spurn the God of his fathers.

And yet the stakes of fathering are far higher than that of our jobs or our reputations. Human fatherhood, after all, pictures the Fatherhood of God (Eph. 3:14). We rear our children to perceive something of God in the way that we guide and teach and discipline (Deut. 6; Heb. 12:7-11).

I was chastened by this one day when one of my sons, at that time, so young he was barely talking, hugged me and said, “I’m glad you’re really Daddy and not Dr. Russell Moore.” He said it with delight, as though he knew a secret others didn’t know: that I’m, underneath it all, really his Dad more than anything related to my ministry or my work. And he was right. A trillion years from now, I will care much less about many of the most “pressing” things I face now—but I will still love these beautiful little image-bearers entrusted to my wife and to me. That’s what matters.

There’s no legalistic set of rules for you to follow to prioritize your family. But it is a crucially important question to ask and to keep a close watch on your heart and your priorities. If God has given you children, make sure your ambition is toward them, not away from them. And make sure they know that you’d rather be their parent than president—of anything.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.