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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.

Your research shows that flexibility and tolerance play a big role in successful transmission of faith. That sounds like quite a challenge, especially for today's "helicopter parents."

True, but we found that allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity. A "hard-nosed" approach that says, "This is our faith, you will follow it, you will practice it, and you are prohibited to experiment with any other faith," tends to be less successful. A better approach says, "We want your faith to be your own, we believe we have found the faith that is meaningful to us and our family, but we don't want to impose it on you. Feel free to experiment." In evangelical families, the latter soft-minded approach by the parents was much more successful than prohibitions on straying or experimenting. It's a degree of tolerance you don't always associate with more fundamentalist religious groups, but it does seem that a closed-fisted approach is not nearly as effective as a more lenient approach.

You also stress that parents should not underestimate the religious influence of grandparents.

Due to increased life expectancy, grandparents today can and want to have a greater religious influence in the lives of their grandchildren. Almost 4 in 10 of the grandchildren were in the same faith tradition as their grandparents. In part, this number can be attributed to grandparents who are raising grandchildren full-time. In 2008, 2.5 million grandparents were primarily responsible for the care of one or more grandchildren.

However, sometimes there is a "skipped generation" effect, where grandchildren emulate the faith of a grandparent instead of a parent's example. For instance, we studied the Sabelli family, whose great-grandfather Leo was a warm, charismatic figure. Though his children had rocky marriages and were not strong faith role models, the grandchildren remember him as the strength and rock of the family. Granddaughter Shari Sabelli, now 58 years old, recalls sitting in the pew with her grandpa, a red carnation in his lapel; the same ritual week after week made the church a place where she felt secure. That kind of grandparental influence that reaches back five decades is quite dramatic.

In the September issue of Christianity Today, Karen Swallow Prior's article about religious prodigals notes that "churches do not always know how to minister to religious prodigals or to those who love them." What advice does your research suggest?

First and foremost, love them. Keep a loving, open relationship. This is going to be very difficult, because chances are there is a lot pain on both sides. Well, love them anyway, and remember that people change; kids grow up and grow old. Have some faith in the course of life. Frequently, a rebellious, antagonistic stance in an 18-year-old mellows considerably by the time that 18-year-old marries and has children. Prodigals do return to the fold, and some of it is simply a consequence of aging.

Finally, for parents of prodigals, recognize that religion and love are not the same things. A lot of parents personalize the rejection of religion as a rejection of them as parents. That's easy to do, because religion means so terribly much to these devout parents. They want their kids to have the benefits of a faith life that they have enjoyed. They want to see their children in heaven. But don't confuse religious conformity with love, and don't confuse a lack of religious conformity with a lack of love.

Looking back on your research on faith and families, how has it impacted your own religious journey?

I was born into a highly religious family with a tradition of devotion that goes back to at least the 16th century. My father was a pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and I have fond memories of reading his subscription to Christianity Today as a teenager. I've spent my entire life wondering why some families are successful in passing on their faith while others are not. Despite my strong religious heritage, I consider myself a religious prodigal. For many years, my own mother worried that she would not see me in heaven.

After being involved in the church in a minor way most of my adult life, I had a spiritual reawakening about four years ago. I woke one Sunday morning missing choir music. As I walked in the door of a massive Gothic church in downtown Santa Barbara, the choir was roaring away and the congregation was shouting praise. Light from the stained glass windows filtered down on the congregation and reflected back up into the great barrel-vaulted ceiling. I was overcome by emotion. To borrow the language of C. S. Lewis, I was "surprised by joy," and I haven't been the same since. That was a religious reawakening in which, after 65 years of searching, I found a faith community that meant something to me profoundly. Prodigals can come home.

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Religion Runs in the Family