“Faith of our fathers, living still . . .” are the first words of an old hymn that isn’t sung too frequently these days. The fathers, in this case, are our ancestors in the Christian faith rather than our biological fathers. But that phrase came to mind, with a question mark added at the end of it, when I read this recent article in the New York Times about the passing of religious beliefs from parents to children: “Book Explores Ways Faith Is Kept, or Lost, Over Generations.”
Vern L. Bengtson is a professor at the University of Southern California, where he teaches social work. From 1969 to 2008, he studied 350 families, interviewing them on a regular basis over several generations. His most recent conclusions from that project are related to religious beliefs and are explained in a new book entitled Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, which he wrote with two colleagues. Some of those conclusions, as noted in the article, are common sense. But here’s the part that caught my attention:
Professor Bengtson’s major conclusion is that family bonds matter. Displays of parental piety, like “teaching the right beliefs and practices” and “keeping strictly to the law,” can be for naught if the children don’t feel close to the parents. “Without emotional bonding,” these other factors are “not sufficient for transmission,” he writes.
Professor Bengtson also found that one parent matters more than the other — and it’s Dad. “But what is really interesting,” he writes, “is that, for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother.”
There are some interesting exceptions. Transmission of Judaism, for example, depends more on a close bond with one’s mother than with one’s father — perhaps because Judaism has traditionally held that the faith is inherited from the mother. Among Jews with a close maternal bond, 90 percent considered themselves Jewish, versus only 60 percent of those who weren’t close to their mothers.
In general, however, “fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad.” Over and over in interviews, Professor Bengtson said, he found that “a father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid does not have kids who follow him in his faith.”
Professor Bengtson is himself a living example of this. His father was a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. More importantly, both his father and his grandfather exuded the kind of “paternal warmth” that his book describes. But his embrace of their faith didn’t happen immediately. Here’s what happened:
In graduate school and after, Professor Bengtson abandoned his faith. His despairing mother once wrote to him, “Vern, if I have to choose between you and my Jesus, I will choose Jesus.” Recently, however, too late for his mother to know, Professor Bengtson has found his way back to church.
“By golly, I had this religious experience when I was about 67 years old,” said Professor Bengtson, now 72. Easter morning of 2009, he woke up and decided to check out “this Gothic-looking church down on State Street” in Santa Barbara. He entered church a bit late, after the service had started.
“The organ was roaring,” he recalled, “the congregation was singing, the pillars were going up to heaven, the light was sifting down through the stained-glass windows. I was just overwhelmed. I found my way to a pew and started crying. . . . I haven’t been the same since.”
Professor Bengtson now sings in the church choir. His return — albeit to a progressive Episcopal church — has, he says, made him a better scholar. . . .
Parents aren’t just trying to pass on to their children a checklist of beliefs, he said. Better than ever, he grasps “the kind of passion these parents had for wanting their children to achieve the peace and the joy and the hope and the inspiration they had found for themselves.”
That’s what I want my two boys to experience in their own lives, not only during childhood but also as adults. What do you want your children to experience?