Getting or Not Getting Religion: A Review Article

John R. Muether

Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 254 pages, $24.95.

Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations, by Vern L. Bengtson with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 267 pages, $29.95.

When sociologist Christian Smith published his 2005 study of contemporary teenage American spirituality, his term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD) entered the vocabulary of Christian educators and youth ministers as the dominant idiom for assessing the crisis of faith among the church’s children.[1] Each of the two studies under review devotes some attention to this term and the phenomenon it describes, as they examine the ways in which today’s youth get (or don’t get) religion.

In Families and Faith, Vern Bengtson and his associates at the University of Southern California tackle the heart-breaking scenario of parents watching their children abandon the faith. Since the sixties, the expression “generation gap” has been employed to describe the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between parents and children. However, the research in this book, based on a four-decade survey of 350 families, suggests that generational continuity tends to exceed, and often significantly, the presence of any “gap.”

Why then do we commonly perceive a crisis in both institutions? The authors suggest several factors, including secularization and the rise of the “ethos of individualism and self-fulfillment” that has eroded our sense of belonging to a community. Increases in interfaith marriages and sky-rocketing divorce rates have proven particularly disruptive to religious socialization. But Bengtson adopts the prevailing scholarship and counters that under these conditions, the family is not in crisis; rather, it is changing. We may object to definitional elasticity that describes any amicable social arrangement as a “family.” But we should acknowledge the dangerous extremes to which Christians tend to romanticize and privilege the nuclear families at the expense of the extended family and especially the church (the family of God).

Bengtson argues that the sum of these social disruptions does not render inevitable the failure to transmit religion to our children. Contrary to popular impression, “something about religion seems to ‘stick around’ families over generations,” far more so than political loyalties or social views (192). Sixty percent of adult children in this study had the same religious affiliation as their parents, a percentage that has remained fairly steady since Bengtson began his research in 1970. The term that Bengtson employs to describe this faith transmission is “intergenerational religious momentum,” and he outlines conditions under which this momentum is most successful. Most often it takes place in faiths with “high boundaries,” tight-knit communities with coherent “rituals and traditions that help to maintain the continuity of their faith across generations” (181).

Other important findings stick out in a reading of this book, including these:

  • Echoing the findings of Christian Smith, Bengtson argues that teenagers’ peers are no match for the effect that parents continue to have on their children: “The single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents” (7).
  • Grandparents are a vastly overlooked influence in spiritual formation. With longer life spans and expanding roles in the duties of child care, grandparents are shaping the faith of their grandchildren more than ever, either in reinforcing the values of the parents or in exerting a religious influence that has skipped a generation (101).[2]
  • Bengtson stresses persistence and endurance in spiritual nurture. There are grave consequences, his research indicates, when the busyness of life encourages families to “put religious practice on hold for a season” (40–41).

This is not to suggest, of course, that faith development functions take place automatically. Certainly there are parents who have been faithful in the religious upbringing of their children who still suffered the heartache of children rejecting the faith. But even here there is encouraging news from Bengtson’s study. Among the most stubborn of prodigals, faith can yet prove to be “sticky.” There is a residue of influence even where religious transmission seems to have failed (118). And so many prodigals do return.

The stress on “high boundaries” brings to mind a previous study of the decline of mainline Protestant religious transmission, in a book appropriately entitled Vanishing Boundaries. In that study, the authors look at the failure of the mainline to transmit a meaningful and coherent faith: “The children have asked over and over what is distinctive about Presbyterianism—or even about Protestantism—and why they should believe and cherish it. The answers have apparently not been very clear.” [3] Bengtson urges that religious nurture in today’s world requires careful discernment: what are appropriate boundaries? Here we should not expect the book to provide much theological direction. Bengtson describes one ex-evangelical’s incredulity at the arbitrariness and inconsistency of a faith community that would prohibit women from teaching in the church and yet permit the eating of shellfish (136).

A recurring frustration of this book is its broadly religious scope that demands the most generic of categories. So, for example, the author speaks of “religious socialization” and not Christian nurture. The findings are expressed in terms of vague inter-faith trajectories. So while it is true, as the book’s title implies, that families and faith remain very deeply connected in American culture, it comes as small comfort for Orthodox Presbyterians that Bengtson’s greatest success stories for intergenerational religious momentum are found among orthodox Judaism and Mormonism.

Here is where the ecclesiastical orientation of Kenda Creasy Dean offers more insight. Dean, who was part of Christian Smith’s National Study on Youth and Religion research team, now serves as Associate Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She keenly observes that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is no sign of the church’s failure to pass its faith down from generation to generation. To the contrary, it is the result of successful enculturation by churches that distort the gospel. This is how the church today produced, in the haunting phrase of her title, young people who are “almost Christian.”

Though the concept of religious “boundaries” is implied in Dean’s analysis, she prefers sociologist Ann Swidler’s term “cultural toolkit.” By these she means a set of four “cultural tools” that mark one as a member of a faith tradition: creed, community, calling, and hope. She goes on to caution that no religion is more successful in developing these toolboxes than Mormons, who “top the charts” in these sociological categories. Moreover, she insists that these tools are no magic bullets for faith formation (49). These ingredients can “foreclose faith identity” as easily as they can develop it (53). “Consequential faith” requires a measure of detachment (“liminality”), liberating our youth from their self-indulgent comfort zones and nurturing them in a missional faith characterized by outreach, hospitality, and prayer.

Achieving such detachment may entail “experimentation for education and growth” (168), hinting at a liberationist mindset that hardly conduces to the transmission of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, Dean’s approach to faith development bears unsurprising resemblance to Protestant liberalism. But to her credit, Dean is careful to observe that “situating ourselves within deeply held traditions” can render Christians “less rigid” (190), and that owning a tradition enables greater articulation of the faith.

This brings us back to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Dean suggests that our young people may not be as fooled by this false religion as we may suspect. They do not “buy it” as a faith so much as “buy into it” as a strategy for worldly success (and to repeat, this may largely owe to parental example). The hopelessness and cynicism of MTD may be best countered by Christian eschatology—churches and parents modeling a theology of hope “marked by patience, determination, and above all, humility” (191).

Both Bengtson and Dean would have us believe that religious transmission—for good or ill—can and does take place even in our age. If what they write is true of generic or mainline Protestant religious transmission in twenty-first-century America, consider how much encouragement this should provide for Presbyterian confessionalists, equipped with a Reformed ecology of Christian nurture that includes infant baptism, catechetical instruction, Sabbath observance, family worship, home visitation, and preeminently the ministry of the preached word—all with the view to bringing up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Let us have the courage to believe that these are the means God has provided for genuine “intergenerational religious momentum.”


[1] Very briefly, MTD asserts that a good God created and watches over the world, intervening in our lives when we encounter problems. God wants us to be good, and our goodness depends on being happy and feeling good about ourselves. Such good people go heaven when they die. Christian Smith, with Melinda Lunquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). See the review essay by Gregory E. Reynolds in Ordained Servant 16 (2007): 136–39.

[2] Here is one compelling story about attending church with a grandfather: “We sat in the same seats. It was really predictable. And most of what was going on in my family life just wasn’t really that predictable.... He didn’t just go to church or talk about it; he actually lived the tenets of the faith.... He was like a rock for me” (103–4).

[3] Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 200.

John R. Muether, a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2014.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2014

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