[Editor’s Note: Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and the Director of the Global Religion Research Initiative (GRRI). He is the author of Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, which came out in December. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the new book.]
Camosy: As a father of four children with a wide range of ages (college to 19 months), I’m always thinking about different ways to pass on the Catholic faith to my children. Your work, even before this new book came out, has been important for me in thinking through this challenge. But can you say a bit more about your personal story and how it led to you investing so much time producing absolutely essential research on adolescent spirituality?
Smith: I was born into a non-religious family, the youngest of three boys, but my parents both became Christians when I was a baby, so I was raised in a moderate evangelical Presbyterian church. The church had a superb youth minister and youth group when I was a teenager. Christian faith stuck with me, although I spent much of my life questioning and exploring what genuinely faithful Christian life and church ought to look like in this day and age.
Much later in life, when I had my own kids, I paid a lot more attention to how our culture and society treats children. There seemed to me to be a lot of bad faith and hypocrisy in the ways we actually lived about how important children and teenagers and their needs were in the way we structured our lives and institutions. At a certain point, I was finishing up a major research project and thinking about what I wanted to study next. I realized that sociologists of religion back then paid very little attention to children and teenagers, more normally studying adults and institutions. I also realized after a little digging that sociologists of adolescence paid very little attention to religion in their lives, focusing instead mostly on things like schools, the media, peers, and so on.
So, there was a huge black hole of knowledge about the religious and spiritual lives of children and teenagers. It seemed like a black hole worth jumping into, to understand not only that important subject itself but also to use it as a unique window to understand what is going on in our larger culture and society more broadly.
Probably the most famous term you’ve coined, at least in my world, is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” I’m sure you get asked about it a lot, but could you summarize what it is for our Crux audience and also why it is so problematic when it comes to passing on the faith?
Sure. We call this MTD for short. MTD is what I realized, after interviewing hundreds of American teenagers about their religious and spiritual lives, is the actual, functional, tacit religion of the vast majority of American youth (and often young adults and even parents). It can be summarized as belief in five “doctrines”:
1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
From a Catholic point of view, there is obviously no Jesus here, no Gospel here, no transformation here. It is all about behaving well and feeling happy under the watch of a deistic god. So, I’m saying, most American teenagers are not actually substantively Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or whatever else formally they associate with — they are de facto Moralistic, Therapeutic Deists. And yet almost nobody realizes the differences or their implications.
Let’s get into your new book, Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, just out last month. Can you say something about your research methods and what kinds of people you spoke with for this project?
This book is based on 235 in-depth, in-person interviews that a team of researchers and I conducted with religious parents in the U.S. in different parts of the country.
These were parents who had some ties to a religious church, temple, synagogue, or mosque, although those ties might have been strong or weak. We sampled parents who are white Catholic, black Catholic, black Protestant, white evangelical Protestant, white mainline Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu. So, we are talking about parents from a wide range of religious traditions but also different socioeconomic backgrounds, races and ethnicities, regional locations, and immigration experiences. We also interviewed 20 non-religious parents for an informal comparison.
From all of these we wanted to know how they approached the task of passing on their religion to their children, why and how much they cared about that, and how they attempted to socialize their children religiously.
What are some things your research has shown tend not to work for parents who want to pass on the faith to their children?
There is a lot that does not work. Being either too passive or too authoritarian doesn’t work — parents need to be proactive but not overbearing. Only modeling religious faith and practice for children without also recurrently talking with them about why as a parent one believes and practices one’s faith does not work — children need to hear parents talking about it, not just living it. Expecting church to do the primary work of religious socialization does not work — parents need to be the leaders here.
Obviously, hypocrisy and double-talking and legalism does not work. It also does not work for parents to employ other positive non-family influences — such as Catholic schooling, service and mission trips, or religious summer camps — when those are not backed up and reinforced by the core influence of family-based religious formation. Without the key shaping by parents, those other valuable influences make little difference.
Well, that’s sobering but important food for thought. Let’s end on a hopeful note: What are some things your research has shown tend to work?
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. The challenges are immense. But what seems to have the greatest positive influence is not rocket science either, although it does require real intentionality and effort on the part of parents.
First, parents have got to really want to pass on their religious faith and practice to their children. That has to be a priority in their lives. Parents have to walk the talk, modeling in their own lives what they wish their children to embrace.
Absolutely essential, in addition however, parents need to talk with their children about religion, not just once a week but regularly, during the week. Talking or not talking with children about religious matters during the week is one of the most powerful mechanisms for the success or failure of religious transmission to children. When parents never or rarely talk about their religion in personal terms, that sends a strong message to their kids that it’s really not that important.
Also, parents practicing what is called an involved and demanding “authoritative” parenting style (as opposed to authoritarian, permissive, or uninvolved style) makes a real difference — meaning, parents need both to maintain and enforce high standards and expectations for their children while simultaneously expressing a lot of open warmth and connection to their children and confidently giving them enough space to work out their own views and values. In the usually minority of cases when American parents successfully pass on their religion to their emerging adult children, those are the kinds of influences that appear to be operating.
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