Vern BENGSTON, Norella PUTNEY and Susan HARRIS, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across the Generations, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp 272.  ISBN 978-0199948659 Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton Alberta, T6G 2J5

Bengtson and his colleagues have provided a critical longitudinal study on transmission of faith within families. They observe that families with high levels of Intergenerational Religious Momentum (IRM) are ones which make a very heavy investment in trying to ensure that children remain active members of the faith community.  Bengtson and his colleges identify that the most important factor in IRM are parental behaviors that influence religious development.  They distinguish between two categories of behavior.  Firstly, role modeling which is what parents do to set examples for religious practise and belief.  It is important that this modeling been seen as genuine and not an affectation designed to impress or cajole.  Good modeling is underlined by integrity and authenticity. The second category is the quality of relationships between parents and children. The affective quality of these relationships is a key determinant in IRM.  Solidarity between generations should be built on warm, affirming and mutually respectful bonds.  

The authors note that there are significant differences in how successful various religious communities are in generating and sustaining IRM.  They observe that IRM is a particular issue for Catholics:

For Evangelical Protestants the transmission rate has been high; in 2005 62% of parents in our sample had young adult children who were following in their Evangelical tradition, down slightly form 70% in 1970. On the other hand both Mainline Protestants and Catholics showed low levels of parent–child similarity in 2005, and both reflected considerable from 1970 similarity rates.  Mainline Protestants declined by 27 percentage points and Catholics dropped an eye-opening 41-percentage point.  (58-59) [italics added.]

Bengtson and his colleagues encapsulate some ways religious communities can develop social religious capital in families.  Families need to encourage warm and affirming relationships between children and their parents and also parental religious involvement.  In their study they quote a Catholic priest to help make this point.  He comments (p.199), “You should take your children to church. Take them inside the church – not just to church. Say grace before meals. Say family prayers – a decade of the rosary or Bible reading as a family.”  These two factors should harmonize into parental warmth and consistency. This is not a rigid and inflexible approach but a genuine and ongoing attempt to live a religious life that reflects parental love. Religious leaders and communities should also be mindful of generational differences but at the same time be conscious that the church has something to offer which is perennial. 

The authors conclude with a fascinating contrast between different religious communities on the importance of maintaining IRM.  This speaks to the awareness with communities of the challenges facing families today.  It is somewhat of a paradox that those communities that are comparatively successful in engaging young people are also those who are the most concerned about losing young people from their congregations.  The attitude here is very proactive in seeking to find more effective ways to support families.   Parents in these communities are also eager to support and nurture their children’s religious journeys. This attitude can be contrasted with those of many religious leaders and parents in communities under severe generational pressure.  These are religious communities that are aging and many younger people do not follow parental patterns.  Here the attitude often seems to be more fatalistic, as if the eventual demise of the faith community is inevitable and little can be done to reverse it.  Bengtson and his colleagues were surprised by this mentality which was expressed by many leaders from Mainline Protestant and Catholic communities.  A realization of the importance of families as nurtures and sponsors of faith is much more likely to engender a positive program to assist families at all levels.

This book is highly recommended. Longitudinal data on faith transmission is always hard to come by and the authors here have provided an invaluable contribution to the field.