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Faith in the family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

On Easter Sunday three years ago, Vern Bengtson opened the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, Calif., and felt a religious feeling he hadn't experienced since his youth.

"I was just struck by the sound of the choir and the organ, sunlight radiating through the stained glass windows, vaulted stone ceilings reaching to the heavens," he said. "I just sat down in the pew and started crying. I felt the spirit."

For more than three decades Bengtson had strayed far from his Christian upbringing in rural central California, where his father was pastor of a small Evangelical Covenant Church. A sociology professor at the University of Southern California and noted scholar on the dynamics of aging, Bengtson had compartmentalized his faith from his academic work until he began delving into how and why religion is passed down from one generation to the next.

"It's interesting and you could say coincidental that my religious reawakening coincided with this research project of intergenerational transmission" of faith, he said.

His examination of religious rebels and prodigals, cohesive and conflicting faith across generations and the role parenting styles play in transmitting belief from one generation to the next was in some respects an examination of his own life. And of the many lessons learned from his study of 360 families stretching across four generations, Bengtson said parents and clergy shouldn't panic or despair when a young adult leaves the family faith.

His team found the transmission of faith has remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years with six out of 10 parents with young adult children today who report having the same religious tradition as their parents compared to seven in 10 in 1970.

"There is a strength about religion that’s not going to go away especially among youth. There is a life course trajectory by which a lot of young people leave religion and then come back," he said, referring to his findings recently published in the book "Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations." "My hypothesis is that in the next decade or two you will see a resurgence in church attendance as baby boomers retire and return to church."

Religious transmission

Bengtson's first inkling that his generation felt differently about faith than the one before came as a University of Chicago graduate student in the 1960s. He recalled that he and a Mormon classmate were among the few still clinging to their families' faith traditions.

"We felt like strangers," Bengtson said. "Young people everywhere were rebelling against their elders. Yet in my family, my 32 cousins on my father’s side and 22 on mother’s side, all of us were still Bible believing Christians. So I wondered why is it that in some families there were so many faithful followers and in other families there was this chaos?"

The question led to a landmark research project that began in 1970 with 2,000 people belonging to 360 families. Bengtson tracked his multi-generation sample for more than three decades, which produced more than 260 scholarly articles and 16 books about the psychological and social impacts of aging on family relationships.

He asked family members about their religious beliefs and practices. But he didn't see much use for those responses until about 2005, when he took notice of other surveys finding a growing number of so-called "nones" — people who said they weren't affiliated with any organized religion, but some of whom described themselves as spiritual.

"I was looking at our data and saw we had all these questions about religion that I hadn’t analyzed yet," he said. "We had data on these families at different points of their lifespan and tracking how they were staying the same or changing. I thought, 'How about this issue of religious transmission?'"

With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, Bengtson supplemented his sample with an additional 25 families that created a cross-section of religious traditions. He notes, however, that his updated sample of 3,500 people over a 35-year span is from Southern California and not representative of the United States in all aspects.

Family tradition

Bengtson and his team launched into their analysis of the religious data assuming that the transfer of religious tradition from one generation to the next had declined from 1970 to 2005. They based their assumption on changes in family structure — such as rising rates of divorce and single-parent households — and the influence of numerous cultural changes.

They were wrong, he wrote, as they found the religious similarities between parents and their children in 1970 were not much different in 2005. In fact, in the areas of religious intensity and importance of religion in public life, the correlation between parents and children was higher in 2005 than in 1970.

"These results suggest that family influences on the religiosity of the younger generation have not weakened to the degree that has been widely reported," Bengtson wrote, and that the influence within the home can be more powerful than forces at church, school or in society at large.

Based on the responses, some faiths had a better staying power between generations than others. In 1970, parents from all faiths reported high levels (59 percent among mainline Protestants to 94 percent among Jews) of their young adult children embracing their same religious tradition. But in 2005, only Jews and Mormons stood out with more than 80 percent of parents reporting their children have carried on the family faith.

Catholics and mainline Protestants reported dramatic declines in religiosity between generations. In the middle were evangelical Christians and those reporting no religious affiliation at 62 percent and 63 percent, respectively.

His sample also found the "nones" had the highest growth of any group between 1970 and 1985, at 23 percent.

The growth of religiously unaffiliated young adults would appear a paradox to Bengtson's findings that intergenerational transmission of faith is higher than expected. But he concludes it confirms the power of familial influence as the "nones" are simply carrying on a family tradition.

"The parents are transmitting those values … with just as much rigor and care as in the highly religious families," Bengtson said. "That’s where the religious 'nones' are coming from. It’s not just rejection or religious rebellion."

Warmth and affirmation

There is no single factor for success or failure in whether a family can pass along a tradition of faith or of no faith, Bengston said. But his team's interviews with multiple generations did reveal some common traits among families that reported the children had carried on the traditions of their parents.

"What was most intriguing to me and stood out in my mind was that parental piety doesn't make up for a distant dad," he said.

In other words, fathers who lack warmth, affirmation and unconditional love for their children, who may question or leave religion as a young adult, are less likely to see those children return and carry on the family's faith tradition.

The Rev. Amy Zeitlow, a Lutheran pastor and affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, explained that parents modeling how to practice their faith by attending and serving in the church is important, but that influence can be blunted if either parent doesn't have a close relationship with their children.

"The two have to go hand in hand: both quality of the relationship with your child and how you practice your faith," she said.

In many, but not all religious traditions, mothers are typically the keepers of the family faith and known to take the children to church more often than the father, according to a large body of sociological research. But Bengtson's sample showed a stark difference in the religiosity of young adults who had a close relationship with their fathers and those who didn't.

For example, of those who had a close relationship with dad, 67 percent had carried on the family's religious tradition. Meanwhile, of those who weren't close to their dad, just more than half (51 percent) practiced the same faith they were raised in.

Melinda Lundquist Denton, a sociologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies the religious lives of adolescents, said the research is ongoing about the role fathers play in their children's faith. But it makes sense that having both parents engaged in the same faith would increase the odds of their children doing the same.

"Fathers matter more may be an oversimplification," she said. "What we might be looking at is where just moms alone or just fathers alone isn’t successful. The most likely scenario where faith gets passed along is where mothers and fathers are participating."

In either scenario, interviews with family members in Bengtson's sample showed that parents who gave their adolescent children room to question, doubt and work out their faith identity were more successful at passing along the family's religious tradition than those who overreacted to or shut down questioning and doubt.

Denton said that in her book co-authored by Lisa Pearce, "A Faith of Their Own," they told a story of a mother who was so distraught over her son questioning his faith she refused to talk to him about it.

"The parent tried to control too much his questioning of faith," she said. "In the end that led to rejecting (his family's faith) altogether."

At the same time, parents who don't protest but simply disengage and let their children figure it out entirely on their own aren't doing their children any favors, either.

"Parents need to build scaffolding around (their children) where they don’t feel over-controlled but not under-supported," she said.

Role of the church

Families also need that same support from their religious institutions, said Bengtson and others interviewed for this story.

A common concern they voiced was how religious institutions can inadvertently make parents or grandparents obsolete within the walls of the church.

"We tend to be segregated by age," Zietlow said. "You have your Sunday School classes by grade level, you have your youth group, you have your young adult group, you have the older ladies who come and quilt in the morning."

Denton said those segregated environments can create a culture, particularly in youth ministries, that makes parents antagonists rather than partners in the process of religiously socializing teens and young adults.

"We find parents can be incredibly influential in their teens' lives so churches need to harness that and work with the parents rather than in opposition," she said.

Bengtson notes the Jewish faith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as being the most effective at integrating the influential role of families and home life into their beliefs and practices.

"In Mormonism, the very idea of heaven itself involves family at a profound level," said David Dollahite, an LDS convert and professor of family life at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the LDS Church.

He explained the faith's emphasis on connecting with ancestors through genealogical research and parents passing on their religious traditions through weekly family home evenings, where they pray and discuss their beliefs.

"It's a powerful religious ritual that gets parents and children talking to each other about their faith," he said.

For thousands of years, Jews have adhered the biblical admonition in Deuteronomy to teach the children God's statutes through time-honored rituals and traditions observed in the home and integrated into daily life.

"You are looking at a core Jewish value," said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who leads an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago and is president of the Rabbinical Council of America. "For much of Jewish history, the education of children was fully the responsibility of parents. … The idea of family traditions is so significant that sometimes (historically established) traditions can even trump some aspects of Jewish law."

Multiple generations are involved in the teaching of children, he said, recalling how he learned his first Jewish prayers from his grandparents who lived nearby.

A mobile society where several generations live across the country rather than in the same neighborhood is straining the ability of Orthodox Jewish families to enlist grandparents in the religious instruction of the children.

"The question today is how many people are able to still preserve the ability to be multigenerational," Matanky said. "Having multigenerational families together is very powerful, having grandparents present when grandchildren are being raised."

Hope for the future

Bengtson's research found parents who push religion too hard and clamp down on doubt were the main cause of young adults rebelling and leaving their families' faith.

But he also found some, like himself, came back.

His father died before Bengtson joined the Presbyterian Church and later left religion altogether, but he believes his dad would not have reacted the same way as his mother, who was distraught over her son's flight from faith and the two struck an awkward truce not to talk about religion the rest of her life.

"He was a warm, jolly charismatic type. He wasn’t much of a preacher but everybody loved him," Bengtson said. "My mother had a lot of fear and my dad didn't. I think those barren spiritual years I had were a reflection of my mother being afraid. My dad was joyful in spirituality and maybe that’s what I was longing for."

He said when he walked into the church in Santa Barbara, the gothic architecture reminded him of the windows in the much smaller and modest chapel where he heard his father preach in Hilmar, Calif.

Bengtson predicts other baby boomers like himself will undergo a religious reawakening in the next 20 years as they experience the trials of aging and begin pondering the spiritual. Gallup predicts the same trend based on polling going back to 1940 that found as people age they become more religious.

But Bengtson's experience and that of the thousands of people his team had interviewed confirmed that young adults who reject religion of their parents and then come back are those who likely had a close relationship with their parents, saw them consistently living their faith and had the freedom to find their own religious identity.

"The values of the sacred and the profane is what we pick up from our parents in the home," Bengtson said. "That is why I feel the primary locus of influence of religion and spirituality is in the family."


Twitter: @deseretbrown