One of the realities of Christianity is that the church has always been forming and reforming. This evolutionary phenomenon goes back to the church’s earliest days, when believers identified themselves in various ways, such as followers of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. The divisions were so evident that the apostle Paul urged the church in Corinth to remember that they were united in Christ! This organic aspect of religious belief remains real: Look at the forming and reforming of denominations over issues like same-sex marriage. It is easy to get discouraged over the squabbling when, perhaps, this is just an inherent reality within religious systems.
Vern L. Bengtson, professor emeritus of gerontology and sociology and research professor of social work at the University of Southern California, has spent much of the last four decades looking at religious systems. From 1970 through 2005, he conducted the Longitudinal Study of Generations, specifically examining how religious beliefs move from one generation to the next. Along with his research colleagues, Bengtson has tried to answer three fundamental questions, which he puts this way in Families and Faith:
1. To what extent are families able to pass on their religious faith to the next generation in today’s rapidly changing society?
2. How has this changed over the past several decades, in the context of remarkable cultural, familial, and religious change in American society?
3. Why are some families able to achieve their goal of transmitting their faith to their children while others are not?
Bengtson’s research certainly identifies some of the evolutionary aspects of religious systems. For example, we learn about families whose descend-ants shirk the values of previous generations. They do so by rejecting their family’s faith altogether, becoming more zealous than their parents in their religiosity, or becoming prodigals who eventually return to the faith or something close to it.
The rebels essentially have too much religion in their upbringing; the zealots become far more intense in their adult years; and the prodigals wander home often because of a warm parent, families giving them latitude, and/or a strong religious foundation from the beginning. These are the types that react to the traditions of their families. And we probably all have seen them. But what is counterintuitive about Bengtson’s findings is the degree to which families still pass on their religious beliefs (or lack of them) to the next generation. Many of us may find it surprising, given the common perception that Bengtson describes:
In the eyes of many, families have lost a disturbing amount of their moral and religious influence, seemingly a consequence of parental divorce, excessive individualism, and a breakdown in traditional social structures.
The data he and his crew have unearthed challenge that view. They discovered their findings through looking at “linked lives,” which are the social networks that include parents and even grandparents. Their research examines seven generations that span nearly 100 years. The first group of interviewees came from the World War I generation that was born as early as the 1890s. The last set belongs to the millennial generation, born in the 1980s.
Across that long arc, Bengtson and his fellow researchers found that the familial part of social networks remains critical in transmitting religious beliefs-—-or a lack of such. “Religious momentum across generations” remains a reality, Bengtson contends. Bengtson’s study especially found “momentum” with Mormon, Jewish, and evangelical Protestant families. Each had a fairly steady transmission rate, as the sociologists call it, between 1970 and 2005. Here are a few key data points:
In 1970, 67 percent of Mormon parents had young adult children who shared their religion. By 2005, 85 percent did.
In 1970, 70 percent of evangelical parents had young adult children within the same tradition. By 2005, 62 percent did.
In 1970, 94 percent of Jewish parents had young adult children who shared their religion. By 2005, 82 percent did.
Obviously, Mormons did the best. But the slippage in evangelical and Jewish transmission rates was not very great, especially when compared with the drop-offs for mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. The so-called parent-child similarity rates for mainliners dropped by 33 percentage points between 1970 and 2005, while they declined 41 percentage points for Catholics.
Interestingly, the parent-child similarity rates were also strong for the religiously unaffiliated—or the nones that we read so much about today. In 1970, 40 percent of parents with no religious affiliation had children within that same tradition. In 2005, 63 percent did. In short, the notion that the nones are a new category is not accurate: They are simply growing, which is a reality that religious leaders increasingly are coming to grasp.
Established institutions may never reach those who reject any sort of religiosity; but can they find common ground with those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”? That is one of the major challenges for today’s houses of worship. Which gets us to the “how” part of the transmission process. Religious leaders and parents, especially, should delve into this part of the findings. In short, various factors come into play, but two especially stand out—or at least they should for those of us who profess a faith.
First, parental warmth matters. Parents who best transmit their beliefs are the unconditionally supportive ones who consistently model religious practices and don’t force their beliefs on the next generation. Fathers, especially, are key, the researchers found. But talk about a tall order for those of us in the hurly-burly of raising children! My wife and I have active 11-year-old twins, and it’s hard to pass that warmth test day-to-day. I am going to have to hang on to Bengtson’s admonition to take the long view that religious beliefs often play out over time.
Second, grandparents are a surprisingly important factor. About 40 percent of grandparents and grandchildren share the same tradition. Some of this is due to grandparents stepping in to raise a child; some is due also to the longer lives many Americans now experience, allowing grandparents more time to be there for their grandchildren. Whatever the reason, this finding is reassuring: Grandparents can be a backstop.
Bengtson himself mirrors some of these findings. He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in the Midwest. Then he stepped away from it for many decades.
Serendipitously, he decided to attend an Easter service in California a few years ago. The music and beauty within the church overwhelmed him. Soon, he was rediscovering Christianity, although in a different form from that of his parents and grandparents.
My own religious “journey” started as a child in a Presbyterian church in Fort Worth and then included involvement with several evangelical groups and churches in high school and college. Finally, I rediscovered the Presbyterianism that my Scottish forebears passed on to my grandparents and my father. Mainline Protestants such as Presbyterians are down in numbers, but I love the services at my Dallas church, especially because I understand that somehow they connect me with a distant clan.
So, many of us still are evolving, like those in the early church. As Bengtson puts it, we experience continuity and change. Those two realities—faiths are transmitted but also evolve over time—matter beyond our own homes. Religion and families are two of the most stabilizing forces in society. For that reason alone, this book and Bengtson’s findings are worth examining. The charts and data tend toward the academic at times, but the degree to which religious values are handed down suggests a greater cohesion within families than may sometimes be apparent.
William McKenzie, a Presbyterian elder, is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.