“Families and Faith”

Here are some snippets from an article in the Wall Street Journal. After 40 years of ministry my conclusion is that there is significant mystery about faith transmission from one generation to another. The Calvinists have a quick answer – unconditional election. The rest of us have to struggle a bit longer for an explanation. It seems to me that the factor that has more explanatory power than any other is a genuine faith on the part of the father and his warm and caring relationship with the children. Where this is present, youth attachment to faith goes up exponentially. Religion as mother’s work, which is the case in most homes, doesn’t cut it with the kids. The fact is that our behaviors and relationships incubate incipient faith in children. All are individually responsible for their decisions, no matter their background. Romans 1 makes this abundantly clear. No confusion there. And parents need to understand that God has not stopped drawing their children just because, in their view, they botched the child-rearing years. And his drawing is powerful and continual.

Following are parts of the article Here is the link. WSJ is behind a pay wall, so you might not have access to it.

The authors of “Families and Faith”— Vern Bengtson, Norella Putney and Susan Harris, all professors at the University of Southern California—draw on a four-decade study of 350 families to reveal the ways in which faith is, and is not, passed down from generation to generation. Grandparents, it turns out, have more influence than you might think; they live longer lives these days, which means that their grandchildren know them longer, even—thanks to Skype and other marvels—when they live far away.

The authors found that, in the study, the religious affiliation of grandparents and grandchildren was the same about 43% of the time, and when it was, the nature of the affiliation—measured by intensity, participation, biblical literalism and civic religiosity—was similar, too. One Generation X woman told the researchers about going to Mass with her grandfather each week. “We sat in the same seats. It was really predictable. And most of what was going on in my family life just wasn’t really that predictable. . . . He didn’t just go to church or talk about it; he actually lived the tenets of the faith. . . . He was like a rock for me.”

Of course, parental influence is an even greater force. Of the study-participants old enough to have adult children, six in 10 had the same religious affiliation as their own parents. Remarkably, this ratio has barely changed since Mr. Bengtson, the lead researcher, began collecting data in 1970. Whether it will remain so steady is far from certain…

faith continuity depends, in part, on the relationships that parents have with their children independent of faith. The authors found, for instance, that a “warm” relationship with parents will make a child more likely to identify with the religion of their childhood when they reach maturity. “Setting a good example, teaching the right beliefs and practices, keeping strictly to the law,” the authors write, are not in themselves “sufficient for transmission.” What is also needed is “emotional bonding.” Meanwhile, too much zealotry can result in religious rebellion: The authors find evidence that converts to a faith, who are often more intense in their beliefs and more closely observant, were more likely to produce adult children who left it.

The authors’ research also suggests that, while religion in America is often considered the women’s realm (women are more likely to go to church, volunteer in religious activities and initiate religious ritual in the home), a father’s participation is far from superfluous. Among evangelicals the study showed a 25-point greater likelihood that a child will claim the same religion as his parents if he is emotionally close to his father. There is only a one-point difference for those who report being emotionally close to their mothers. Roughly the same general correlation exists for other religious groups.

If, as is often reported, the millennial generation is particularly close to its parents (calling and texting every day), what accounts for the spike in young people claiming no religious affiliation at all? The rise of the “nones,” write Mr. Bengtson and his co-authors, is primarily the result of parents who had little or no interest in religion themselves. “Nearly 6 out of 10 unaffiliated young adults,” they write, “come from families where their parents were also unaffiliated.”

Take the family of Ted, a labor-union leader who moved his family to California during the Depression. His son, Victor, now 78, says that his father was a nominal Catholic but really a “social democrat.” Victor “is not antireligious” today, but he claims no particular affiliation. His daughter, Dawn, had some exposure to religion through her mother and grandmother but gave up religion after she became involved in an abusive relationship. Dawn’s daughter, Gina, describes both herself and her husband as atheists. When viewed in this way, “the rise of the nones” does not seem to be a sudden phenomenon so much as a gradual evolution.

The sample analyzed in “Families and Faith” is not big enough to represent the country as a whole—it is important not to generalize from it too freely—but it does reveal some of the circuitry of religious transmission. It may often seem as if religion, in modern America, is a purely individual choice. But the authors’ research reminds us that family and faith are deeply entwined and that strengthening the bond of one may strengthen the continuity of the other.

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