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Religion Runs in the Family

Deuteronomy 4:9 admonishes parents to "teach what you've seen and heard to your children and grandchildren." But while many sons and daughters receive this teaching gladly, others respond with indifference or rebellion. So how do faithful parents raise children who become faithful adults?

For Vern Bengtson, a longtime scholar at the University of Southern California, this question has driven a career's worth of research. Thirty-five years ago, Bengtson began examining the religious beliefs and practices of more than 3,500 grandparents, parents, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. These efforts have culminated with his forthcoming study, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations (Oxford University Press). The book, co-authored with research assistants Norella Putney and Susan Harris, looks at how parents seek to reproduce religious faith in their children amid an increasingly individualistic society.

Amy Ziettlow, a scholar with the Institute for American Values, spoke with Bengtson about the cross-generational resiliency of American family faith patterns, the importance of a flexible and loving approach, and the hope available to parents whose children have wandered astray.

Your research on faith and families began in 1970. Are parents today more or less influential in passing on their faith?

Surprisingly, about the same. Our study tracked the degree of religious similarity between parents and young adult children in 1970 with that of young adults and parents in 2005. We measured this degree of similarity in four dimensions of religiosity: intensity of faith, frequency of religious service attendance, agreement with a literal interpretation of the Bible, and agreement with the importance of religion in civic life.

Despite the many societal changes that have lurched us towards greater individualism and away from a more collective family focus, over half of young adult children are following in their parents' footsteps, in that they are affiliated with the parents' religious tradition. (To a lesser extent, their religious practices and beliefs also align with those of their parents). This number is the same now as it was in the 1970s. In today's culture, one that often disparages family continuity and assumes that families are not doing a good job, our research reflects a basic resiliency in American families over generations. Good news for the church.

However, quite unexpectedly and unique to our modern times, we found that many religious "nones" (the almost 30% of Americans between the ages of 18-40 who say they have no religious affiliation) have also been successful in passing on their faith. These kids are not rebelling from their parents, but instead following their parents' influence in having no religious affiliation. After all, a child's lack of religion is often no less an example of intentional religious formation on the part of parents. We noted that non-theistic families pass down strong moral and ethical standards just as consistently as pious Catholic or evangelical parents try to pass down their own values and religious standards.

What factors help to explain why some parents are successful in passing on their faith while others are not?

One fairly obvious thing, more obvious than I expected, lies in parents who provide consistent modeling. If the parents aren't consistent, the kids won't have religious role models to emulate. In other words, don't just send your children to church, bring them!

The second thing we found was that the quality of the relationship between the child and the parent affects the success or lack of success in transmission. Warm, affirming parents, especially fathers, tend to be the most successful. For example, we followed a very religious father who comes from a long line of Mormon patriarchs, a stalwart of the church who allowed for no tampering with tradition or slippage in his five children's devotion. His son, Austin, goes away to a mission where he has a nervous breakdown and is sent home. His father is furious, and Austin leaves the church. Again and again, we saw that fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant, inflexible dad. Being a role model is irrelevant if the child doesn't feel the parent's example is worth following.

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Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations
Oxford University Press
2013-11-06
288 pp., $31.33
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Religion Runs in the Family