Jenny Morrison loves God. When she fell in love with the man who became her husband 20 years ago, she prayed hard for God’s blessing. She was, and is, a devoted Catholic who was pondering marrying a man who wasn’t really religious, though he’d agreed their future children would be raised in her church.

Being raised Catholic barely touches what she hopes God and faith will do for her sons, Sebastian, 13, and Jack, 16. She believes God is stability and comfort that endures, a loyal and powerful companion in life’s storms. She wants her boys to have the gift of faith; she’s always had it in abundance.

John Morrison now regularly attends services with Jenny and their sons in Moscow, Idaho. She says her husband, a physicist, has decided God must exist; the world has too much order for it to be otherwise. But he was raised nominally Lutheran and never converted to Catholicism. “There are some things he doesn’t necessarily agree with,” she says.

John and Jenny Morrison with their sons Jack, 16, and Sebastian, 13. Jenny Morrison is a devoted Catholic who hopes her sons will find the same comfort and confidence in faith that she has. But it’s never a sure thing that parents and children will share the same faith — or both have faith, the American Family Survey finds. | Jana Joyce for the Deseret News

She’s glad John came around some. With their boys, though, she’s less casual and more concerned. She yearns to know her faith will continue to be strong in their lives.

“It’s always been really important to me. We’ve raised them with that understanding that God’s presence is here.”

A plea in her voice speaks to me as one religious mother to another. We are strangers who share a fierce protectiveness and a particular vulnerability.

I am Protestant, but have that same longing for my children to know God as I do, on a deeply personal level. For me, it’s not about denomination, but core beliefs that include a God who listens to my needs and loves me individually despite some of my nonsense. When the world shrieks and tilts, faith is a pillar that holds me upright.

My daughter Alyson is convinced God exists but that religion sometimes feels more like ritual and regulation and less like faith.

My other daughter Jenifer is not certain God is even real, though when a friend struggles, she sometimes asks me to pray, holds my hand while I do and quietly mouths her own, “Amen.” That makes me happy; I can tell myself she’s not really disconnected from God, just wandering a slightly different path that eventually meets the road I’m on that leads to heaven.

I wish faith was as easy to pass down as wide-set eyes because the stakes are so much higher.

There’s zero comfort knowing Jeni’s doubts put her in great company.

More than 4 in 10 parents who say they are affiliated with a religion have at least one child who doesn’t share that bond.

The 2022 American Family Survey, released in October, suggests organized religion in the United States is going through a difficult time, especially among young people, says Christopher F. Karpowitz, study co-author and political science professor at Brigham Young University, who directs the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The Deseret News and the center co-sponsor the nationally representative poll, now eight years old.

Sharing the faith

On August 8-15, YouGov surveyed 3,000 American adults about family life, including faith and religious practice. The error margin is 1.9 percentage points.

The survey asks if people consider themselves spiritual, religious, both or neither. About one-third of Americans don’t consider themselves either religious or spiritual. “They’re sort of more secular,” Karpowitz says when I ask if America still loves God. Another quarter say they’re spiritual, but not religious. About 42 percent describe themselves as religious and usually spiritual, too.

The survey asks if parents share the same religious affiliation with each other and with their kids. More than 4 in 10 parents who say they are affiliated with a religion have at least one child who doesn’t share that bond.

“This is a very common experience when it comes to religious life and family,” Karpowitz says. He cautions, though, that parents report their own religious affiliation and what they think their kids believe. “We don’t know whether that number would be bigger or smaller if we talk to the children.”

This was the first time the survey included this question, so there’s no trend data.

Interestingly, the survey found when parents and children claim the same faith affiliation, shared religious practices are really important to them. When some children don’t share that connection, the specific religious practices seem less important. 

Not surprisingly, when parents themselves are of different religious minds, the chance some of the kids won’t be the same increases. When parents are united on faith, there’s greater chance their children will be, too.

The survey doesn’t show how many kids don’t believe in God or any kind of “higher power.”

“The child’s level of religious belief — Are they different because the child is opting out of religion or choosing something else? — isn’t known,” says Karpowitz.

He thinks a lot of the kids probably do reject religion, depending on their age. Teens frequently opt out and often later opt back in.

Watch: Diving into the findings of the American Family Survey
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Keeping congregations alive

But to that question, does America still love God?

The survey found what Karpowitz calls “meaningful percentages” of those families with children at home who have spiritual practices: Four in 10 read religious or spiritual texts regularly, more than half talk about God, almost six in 10 pray together, while a similar number discuss moral or ethical issues. The numbers are all “a lot higher,” says Karpowitz, if the parent is affiliated with a specific faith or denomination. But even among those without a specific religion, three in 10 talk about God with their kids and almost half talk about living a moral or ethical life.

Those tied to a specific religion are more likely to go to services at least monthly. “Being unaffiliated but spiritual, it does seem you talk about God more than if you’re just not affiliated at all,” he says. “It doesn’t get you all the way to the same level of discussion of religion and prayer as if you’re affiliated.” 

He notes some will be distressed numbers aren’t higher, “but they’re not zero. I would say yes, many Americans still love God. There has been a decline, but the majority of Americans profess some religious belief.”

Morrison hopes her children’s beliefs will be specific — and Catholic. If they choose different faiths, she would respect it, she told me. She just wants them to love and know God in a meaningful way.

Karpowitz thinks any weakening attachment to religious institutions could have effects in future years, including making it harder to keep specific religions alive.

That’s something the Rev. Tom Baynham, pastor at Friedens United Church of Christ in St. Charles, Missouri, ponders as he notices fewer young people stepping up to do for churches the tasks their parents did, like serving on committees, evangelizing and even just showing up, not to mention giving money.

The Rev. Baynham says the prosperity gospel and white Christian nationalism have not attracted young people. And scandals in various congregations have been devastating.

He knows folks are busy, but nationwide some churches wither from congregational neglect. “Do you want to be a church on hospice?” he asks. 

The survey suggests that religious institutions should ponder how to be what Karpowitz calls “vibrant, compelling places for people to be.”

The survey notes moderate Democrats are among the most religious, likely because many Black and Hispanic Americans identify that way politically. Conservative Republicans are religious, too. 

There are compelling reasons to want to keep congregations alive: It’s hard to calculate how much of the social safety net is woven by religious communities, members comforting each other in loss and providing support to meet dire needs.

“I don’t think people fully recognize the level of that,” says Karpowitz. “When hard times come, religious congregations can pick you up and help you in a whole host of ways, so declining participation has many effects. And it’s not just on religious faith, but can be on the physical, emotional and economic well-being of families.”

Why they come back

The survey notes moderate Democrats are among the most religious, likely because many Black and Hispanic Americans identify that way politically. Conservative Republicans are religious, too. 

Political tensions can be a factor in driving congregants away from a church that doesn’t align with their views.

But the Rev. Baynham and the Rev. David Anderson, founder and senior pastor at the two-campus Bridgeway Community Church in the Washington, D.C., area, see other patterns: Church drops in priority if there’s something else going on, like youth sports on Sunday morning. The pandemic made attendance worse as people became comfortable watching online from home.

The Rev. Anderson describes a third who came back, a third online and a third “in the wind.” But he’s also seeing new faces in his large two-campus congregation, with between 6,000 and 9,000 regular worshippers including online. He said many came back, longing for the church community. 

The Rev. Jeff Uskoski’s Bible-believing church in Soda Springs, Idaho, has grown aggressively, with people thirsting for hope and community post-lockdown. In good times, he says, people tend to forget God, but recent years have been challenging and many have started searching for deeper meaning and purpose. Church is a natural haven for seekers.

The Rev. Amy Ziettlow, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, Illinois, sees renewed commitment particularly by parents of young children to connect to a worshiping community.

“During the lockdown, worshipping at home was hard if not impossible to do with young children.” She sent worship kits for kids home, but “for those under five, being physically in a worship space is so important to understanding sacred time and sacred space,” she says.

Life’s end is where people long most for the structure and practices of religion, she adds. The rituals of her faith — anointing with oil, prayers, communion, the hymns — “can speak to our faith in a way that feelings or thoughts cannot. Those rituals and practices carry us through the darkest and most difficult of times.”

Jenny Morrison feels that same pull to beloved Catholic rituals and would like them to bind generations of her family together, though she can’t force her faith on her boys. “It’s not my place to say they can’t worship God the way they want.”

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides its teenage members with a booklet, “For the Strength of Youth: A Guide for Making Choices,” designed to strengthen adolescent faith and its practice. During the church’s October general conference, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles talked about changes that put the focus on “values, principles and doctrines instead of every specific behavior,” the goal to teach young people “how to make righteous choices based on these eternal truths.”

I am clinging to the hope that my children will go back to what they believed around age 13. Adolescence is an important time for faith, and my daughters believed then.

The Rev. Anderson says my Jenifer might be like many that religions reach now. They are not just finding “the lost” who hadn’t met God. They often reach the “found” who somehow got lost again to the world and need to be retrieved.  

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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