What are the beliefs that guide religious parents as they attempt to pass their faith down to their children? When sociologist of religion Christian Smith, collaborating with doctoral students Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo, interviewed over 200 of America’s more religious parents, his team expected to find diverse answers to this question. Instead, they discovered surprising uniformity.
Although there are many differences between, for example, a white, conservative Protestant and a Thai Buddhist immigrant, when asked about their beliefs regarding the meaning of life, how the world works, their hopes for their children, and how all that informs their approach to parenting, the answers were remarkably similar. It was as if they had been indoctrinated in a particular way of thinking. There were occasional disagreements, of course, but mainly over matters the parents themselves considered secondary.
In Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, Smith and his co-authors summarize the de facto American religious parenting catechism this way:
Parents are responsible for preparing their children for the challenging journey of life, during which they will hopefully become their best possible selves and live happy, good lives. Religion provides crucial help for navigating life’s journey successfully, including moral guidance, emotional support, and a secure home base. So parents should equip their children with knowledge of their religion by routinely modeling its practices, values, and ethics, which children will then hopefully absorb and embrace for themselves.
Each chapter summarizes a key cluster of parental beliefs (“The Purpose and Nature of Life,” “Religion’s Value and Truth,” “Children, Parenting, and Family,” and “The Whys and Hows of Religious Transmission”). Within each summary, the authors dive into more specific ideals and practices, illustrating the high degree of consensus with extensive quotes from their interviews.
The book concludes with a chapter that draws on the surprising uniformity in how Americans think about religious parenting to propose a revised understanding of how cultural influence works. As it turns out, ideas really do matter, but the beliefs and assumptions that parents actually live by are much harder to change and often less orthodox than religious leaders might hope.
From the perspective of congregations and religious traditions, the book’s findings are a mixture of good and bad news. Religious parents take their responsibilities seriously and do not believe in delegating their children’s faith formation solely to local congregations. (This contradicts some claims made by leaders in the evangelical family-ministry movement.) Parents appreciate congregations that provide appealing youth programs and some instruction in the faith, but they do not expect much beyond that. As a result, many religious parents don’t invest much in their congregations.
In the interviews, some parents mentioned the importance of prayer, the Bible, or distinctive doctrines relating to salvation and the afterlife, but for the most part their concerns were rooted in the here and now. As the book’s findings suggest, parents tend to value religion for its assistance in navigating the journey of life, being happy, having “good values,” and becoming one’s “best self.”
More than anything, parents seem to fear that their children will come under the influence of bad messages or bad people, or that they will rebel against their religious upbringing because the parents push too hard. So parents tend to ease off—focusing, for instance, on setting an example rather than actively initiating conversations about faith.
Perhaps because they were so fascinated by the commonalities they found, the authors were too often guilty of neglecting to inquire further into underlying theological beliefs. After all, their theory of culture would suggest that even if religious parents don’t readily converse in well-articulated theological concepts, this doesn’t mean that theology is absent from the way they think and act.
Smith and his colleagues have given us a revealing picture of what parents in the pew actually believe. There is a broadly consistent American culture of religious parenting, and this book tells us what it is like. The next step is figuring out how the church can help parents build on its strengths while correcting some of its weaknesses.
Thomas E. Bergler is professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana. He is the author of The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans).
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