By David Ney

Noted American sociologist Christian Smith teamed up with two of his doctoral students, Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo, to investigate how American parents conceived of the task of intergenerational religious transmission. To this end they interviewed 235 parents living in 150 households across America in order to ask them what they thought. The results of this rigorous program are distilled in Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America.

Since they interviewed parents from a wide variety of religious traditions (Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) and ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, the researchers anticipated that their findings would be idiosyncratic. What their interviews produced, rather, was a startling homogeneity. The consensus that emerged from the interviews was that parents overwhelmingly sought to pass religion on to their children as a tool to help them successfully navigate the journey of life on earth (pp. 156; 265).

This conclusion appears somewhat generic at first, but Smith, Ritz, and Rotolo show that it is not sleight of hand, or a generalized abstraction masking distinctives within the data. Religious parents have this particular conviction in common, the authors contend, because they share beliefs which compel them to see specific aspects of intergenerational religious transmission in the same way. The authors divide these beliefs into three categories: convictions about the purpose of life (Chapter 1), convictions about religion’s value and truth (Chapter 2), and convictions about the roles and responsibilities of children, parents, and families (Chapter 3). Religious parents hold that religion should be passed on to children to help them succeed in life because they take for granted that (1) the purpose in life is to live a happy and good life (happy because it goes well and good because it is well lived), (2) the positive use of religion is to help people live a happy and good life, and (3) children innately possess a best and true self, which parents must labor to cultivate, with the transmission of religion directed towards this end.


A number of pressing parental concerns appear: worries about the dangers of a hostile world, concerns about children’s ability to navigate difficulty, desire for family cohesion, and awareness that religion needs to be authentic, embraced by choice rather than by force. It is only in working through these and other details that the reader will come to appreciate the force of the claim of the researchers that religious parents tend to regard the task of religious parenting similarly regardless of their specific religious affiliation.

The researchers highlight common beliefs held by religious parents in America which will be sure to trouble the devout, and especially religious professionals. This includes a surprising lack of concern for the particularities of inhabited religious traditions. “Most religious parents,” they find, “tend toward an inclusive, ecumenical, and sometimes relativistic view of religious pluralism” and were therefore at pains to emphasize, during the interviews, that they were not religious fanatics, and that they were tolerant and respectful of other religious traditions (pp. 57, 89). Religious parents also tended to express a highly individualistic view of religion which proposed that “religious traditions are primarily resources from which to benefit, not authorities that help to define what one should be and want in the first place” (p. 99). According to this perspective, the primary responsibility of intergenerational religious transmission belongs to parents rather than institutions. Parents tended to downgrade what the researchers call the “specifically ‘religious’ aspects of congregations” — things such as “theology, liturgy, and doctrinal teachings” — as “not especially important when it comes to parenting” (p. 177). They displayed a strong emphasis on the importance of modeling the faith rather than teaching it (p. 188).

There is no doubt that the kinds of things parents say about religious transmission is an important aspect of what the authors call the cognitive culture of parenting for religious transmission. We might ask, however, whether knowing about such a culture, especially if it is understood as a “cognitive” one, is really what a broadly-religious American public needs the most. The heart of the matter, after all — and this is something the parents that were interviewed reiterated again and again — is not what parents say about religious transmission, but what they do.

In 1998 C. Kirk Hadaway and P. L. Marler published a groundbreaking article in The Christian Century entitled, “Did You Really Go to Church this Week? Behind the Poll Data.” This article highlights research the authors performed which calls into question not merely the findings of sociologists regarding church attendance, but also the method they have pursued in going about this research. In short, Hadaway and Marler had the good sense to actually go and see how many people showed up in church on Sunday. Their research, which was corroborated by follow up studies, focused on Church attendance in Ashtabula County, Ohio. This research confirmed, in the end, that while 40% of Protestants reported having attended church on a weekly basis, only 20% actually did, and that while 51% of Catholics reported having attended church on a weekly basis, only 24% actually did.

Hadaway and Marler emphasize that this incongruity does not necessarily imply that Americans are liars, discussing several possible explanations for it. They point out that for a small minority of respondents “going to church” denotes activities such as Sunday school, choir practice, and even mowing the church lawn. They also observe strong evidence that the answers respondents gave reflect the values they hold and the kind of person they believe themselves to be. In short, if you ask me, as someone who values church and regular attendance, whether I was in church last week, I will likely answer affirmatively. To say “no” in this case might trigger cognitive dissonance, since I might feel, in giving this answer, that I was denying my convictions and my identity.

This all points to the existence of a distinct culture the interviewing process creates with its own set of practices, protocols, etiquette, mores, boundaries. While it reflects the ideas and praxis of those who partake in it (both interviewer and interviewee), it also reflects larger cultural realities — familial, local, regional national, international. All of these are in play, and so must be acknowledged as possible sources of the data culled from the interview experience.

When it comes to Smith, Ritz, and Rotolo’s study, we might ask whether it is possible to detect and distill these larger cultural forces at play in the interviews. For instance, when respondents claimed that they wanted their children to learn about other religious traditions, was it because this sentiment reflected their actual parenting practice, or because they assumed, within the culture of the interview, that this was the right thing to say? This is a pressing matter when applied to the central finding of the book, the existence of a homogeneous culture of intergenerational religious transmission. We cannot say, within the parameters of the study, that religious parents in America share common practices in order to facilitate such transmission. Nor can we even say, with certainty, that they share the same thoughts and beliefs about such transmission. All we can confidently say is that, within the delimited space of the interview experience, they speak in similar ways when they are invited to bring matters which had seemed to them to be private and personal out into the open.

The burning question thus remains: why did they speak with one voice? The answer, no doubt, is multivalent. It has to do with similar ways of thinking as well as similar ways of interacting with children. But it also attests to similar life experiences and similar ways of engaging American culture. Getting to the bottom of this would have been easier had the authors told us more about their control group, the non-religious. We learn, in an appendix, that 20 non-religious parents were also interviewed. But this is all that we are told. We are not invited into their conversations. To my mind this reduces the value of the study, as the data from these interviews is essential if we wish to learn whether there is something unique about religious parenting.

It is reasonable to suppose that some of the non-religious parents differed from their religious counterparts in the answers they gave to the questions outlined in chapter two, “Religion’s Value and Truth.” While religious parents affirmed that “Religion provides feelings of peace, comfort, protection, and belonging,” for instance, we might suppose that non-religious parents would say otherwise (p. 58). But there are other answers that we might expect the religious and non-religious to equally affirm, including “Humans have a natural tendency to stray and misbehave in self-harming ways” (p. 67) and “religious exclusivity, superiority and fanaticism are bad” (p. 89). Furthermore, there is reason to believe that at least some non-religious parents would have been quite willing to sign off on every summary statement which is given in chapter one, “The Purpose and Nature of Life,” and chapter three, “Children, Parenting, and Family.” If religious parents say that “Good lives must be self-determined and pursued in ways that are true to each unique individual self” (p. 19) and that “Good lives achieve a certain quality of life in this world” (p. 26), we might expect non-religious parents to say the same. And if religious parents opine that “Children are unrealized bundles of personally unique ‘ideal outcomes’ that need to be prepared and cultivated” (p. 107) and that “parents must never violate their children’s ultimate self-determination” (p. 118), so too might the non-religious.

Had the study pursued such comparative analysis, we might probably have been led to believe that the homogeneity that exists among religious parents extends to non-religious parents as well. In this case we would have been compelled to conclude, not that there are important demarcations which establish the contours of a specifically religious culture of intergenerational transmission, but rather that powerful cultural forces in America today incline religious and non-religious parents alike to describe their job similarly. I am left with the question I brought with me to the study: are religious parents any different?

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He currently serves as associate professor of Church history at Trinity School for Ministry, in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

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