Vern L. Bengtson came from a religious family — to put it mildly.
“My dad was a minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church,” Bengtson, who teaches social work at the University of Southern California, said from his home in Santa Barbara this week. “He had nine brothers and sisters, and all were staunch Evangelical Covenant Church people. I had 33 cousins on my father’s side, all staunch Evangelical Covenant Church people.”
In 1963, after college at a school sponsored by his historically Swedish denomination, Bengtson entered graduate school at the University of Chicago. There, he was an oddity in two ways. All of a sudden, most of his peers were irreligious. And while he happily took cues from his parents, his classmates didn’t trust anyone over 30.
To a graduate student, this state of being the odd man out suggested a research question: Why do some young people adopt their families’ views, while others, especially in the ‘60s, strike out on their own?
In 1969, shortly after being hired at the University of Southern California, Bengtson began a study of 350 families, whom he interviewed regularly until 2008. In some families, he interviewed four generations. In all, his respondents were born in years spanning 1878 to 1989.
Bengtson’s project yielded more than 200 articles, many focused on aging and intergenerational conflict, topics on which he has become an expert. Now, at last, he is ready to draw some conclusions about religion, the issue that got him started.
In “Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations” (Oxford; $29.95), co-written with two colleagues, Bengtson argues that families do a pretty good job of passing religious faith to their children. More interesting, for those who fret about children leaving the fold — that is, clergy and parents everywhere - Bengtson has theories about why some children keep the faith while others leave.
According to Bengtson, parents have as much hold as ever on children’s souls. “Parent-youth similarity in religiosity has not declined over 35 years,” from 1970 to 2005, he writes. Denominational loyalty is down — kids feel free to ditch the Baptists for the Presbyterians - but younger generations are no less likely to inherit core beliefs, like biblical literalism, the importance of church attendance or, for that matter, atheism.
As to why some children follow their parents, spiritually speaking, Bengtson’s research confirmed some common-sense assumptions. For example, it helps if parents model religiosity: if you talk about church but never go, children sense hypocrisy. And intermarriage doesn’t help. If you’re Jewish (or Mormon, Catholic, etc.), and want your child to share your religion, it helps to marry someone of the same faith.
But 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.
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, 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.”
Bengtson’s own family hewed to the rule of the nurturing dad.
“I had this great big jovial grandfather, who just exuded warmth,” Bengtson said. “All of his 10 kids followed him in the faith. And it was true of his father, going back to Sweden, and it was true of my father. There’s this pattern of paternal warmth that seems to characterize the Bengtson family. And that may be why there are so many evangelical Bengtsons.”
Bengtson also found that grandparents have a strong influence on children’s religious development, and that freedom to leave can encourage children to stay. “Allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity,” he writes.
Then there is the conclusion that the professor now exemplifies himself: “Don’t give up on the Prodigals” — those who drift away — “because many do return.”
In graduate school and after, 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, Bengtson has found his way back to church.
“By golly, I had this religious experience when I was about 67 years old,” Bengtson, now 72, said. 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.”
Bengtson now sings in the church choir. His return - albeit to a progressive Episcopal church - has, he says, made him a better scholar. He now believes that some of his survey data are, while necessary, also “trivial - questionnaires asking, ‘Do you agree or disagree that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God?’”
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.”