The Paradoxes of America's Religious Families

The Paradoxes of America's Religious Families
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A handful of perceptive artists have successfully captured the contradictory and paradoxical aspects of religion through the ages. The good guys in John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress include Faithful, Charity, and Help, but some of bad guys tempting Christian off the straight-and-narrow are coreligionists such as Formalist obsessing over rules, Hypocrisy full of show, and By-ends using religion for social and personal profit. Chaim Potok’s protagonists often find artistic and educational freedom beckoning them out of their Jewish tradition, while other characters renounce the world for the meaning and richness found in the faith. Even Bach’s religious repertoire captures the contradictions with building dissonance in which the notes create tensions that only harmonious consonance relieves.

Although early pioneer of the study of religion William James described the complexities of both “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled” versions of faith, modern social science observes, yet bypasses these complexities. A strong body of research shows the devout exhibiting better mental and physical health in a variety of ways, and religious youth avoiding high-risk behaviors, but other studies find that not all types of religious practice correspond with healthy outcomes. The paradoxes of religion account for both Mother Teresa and David Koresh, the Inquisition and the abolitionists—and for devout families whose faith enables children to thrive as well as for overzealous ones whose guilt-ridden children find solace in websites like Recovering from Religion. Who wants to wade into that perplexing morass?

Enter the American Families of Faith Project, a remarkable academic undertaking with a body of observations and in-depth interviews involving a wide swath of religious families in all eight regions of the U.S. from various ethnic, national, and cultural backgrounds. Lead researchers David C. Dollahite and Loren D. Marks, both professors of Family Studies at Brigham Young University, included families from an impressive array of faith traditions, among them Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Quakers, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, along with Hasidic, Orthodox, and Conservative Jewish families, and both Sunni and Shiite observant Muslims. 

The purpose? To explore what the researchers call “the nexus of religion and family relationships” by studying the practices and interactions of families recommended by pastors, imams, rabbis, and priests as living out their faith in happy and healthy ways that successfully transmit religious belief to the next generation. Representing diverse faith traditions that range from conservative to progressive, the participants demonstrate that even in “high tension” faiths, as sociologist Rodney Stark called more orthodox and traditional sects, religious practices can emphasize what lead researcher Dollahite calls “universally held religious virtues”: love, gentleness, patience, and humility. Just as important, successful religious families from across the faith spectrum avoid tendencies that, according to Dollahite, push children away from religion: perfectionism, excessive demands, rigidity, impatience with growth and change, and unrealistic expectations.

Like the powerful force of religion itself, the American Families of Faith Project’s conclusions on how families practice and avoid various propensities—conclusions which have spawned over 50 academic papers—are complicated. Even highly successful families living out faith in meaningful ways navigate tension. Instead of relaxing in a spiritually bucolic existence, they work at finding a dynamic balance which “integrates complements.” The project’s researchers call this double-sided dynamic “dualities,” and families who find ways to embrace both sides without veering into extremes give children enough spiritual flexibility to flourish.

That is the theory. The way these successful families live out dualities in practice looks something like this, with neither side considered bad or good, but equally important in fulfilling religious obligations.

  • Generating and addresses relational struggles: An African-American Christian husband grew up with conflict generated between his mother, a preacher’s daughter, and his father who didn’t go to church for 50 years. Yet a Presbyterian husband observed that only faith in God enabled his wife and him to develop confidence in their marriage and quit fearing divorce.
  • Unity and division: A white LDS mother married to a Pacific Islander finds unity through their shared faith even though “[my husband and I] come from two totally separate universes…and might as well be on two different planets” and an Arab-American husband feels deeply united praying in his mosque—“the sick standing next to the healthy, the white standing next to the black.” However, division played a role when a Native American Catholic wife decided early on that she couldn’t date men outside her faith and a Jewish wife finally had to quit eating with friends because of kosher prohibitions.
  • Divine blessings and divine demands: A Latina Catholic wife finds that religion blesses her with “tools for success in life,” while a Christian Scientist mother is grateful for a “structure of truth and love.” Yet religion also demands sacrifices, an obligation which cultivates selflessness and which these families offer willingly; however, two couples gave cautionary comments noting that their fathers went to extremes and neglected family for the demands of church service.
  • Conservative and transformative Faith: Participants like a Quaker wife, a Presbyterian couple, and an African American Christian husband all found great meaning in the eternal and timeless teachings of their faith traditions that don’t change. Yet faith also helps families and individuals transform and grow, with one Presbyterian mother commenting on how a single church service can remove her foul mood.
  • Binding and liberating: Prescriptions to act and to avoid create a binding force for adherents, with one Baptist wife explaining how her marriage covenant binds her to her husband and God, but also contribute to a sense of liberation, with a young Jehovah’s Witness describing her religion’s prescriptions as giving her “a sense of purpose and direction in life.”

Other important dualities exist for families to maneuver. A sense of transcendence cultivates what Columbia University Professor Lisa Miller calls Spiritual IQ, acknowledging children’s yearning for the spiritual and divine, but coexists with a sense of the mundane in carrying out routine daily obligations. Religious families experience comfort, such as a rabbi visiting a hospitalized Jewish mother suffering from post-partum depression, but also benefit from expectations that help adherents improve and develop. They view God as both a confidant and an authority figure, and find that religious observance both excites and calms their emotions. Accepting and refusing also play a role in this spiritual odyssey, exemplified by a Native American Methodist husband embracing forgiveness as a father, while an Asian American Christian husband refuses to travel on Sundays and a Greek Orthodox husband avoids sexual temptations while on business trips.

The paradoxes don’t end with these examples. Families of Faith researchers find they also apply to the advantages and disadvantages of both progressive and traditional approaches. While progressives, at their best, offer diverse and free-thinking communities replete with historical and spiritual motivation for economic and political justice, they can, at their worst, foster indecision, relativism bordering on hedonism, and exclude the search for meaning and transcendence in their focus on social outcomes. The worst aspects of being traditionally religious are well known enough to be common tropes: rigidity, excessive guilt and shame, lack of intellectual curiosity, and prejudice and gender inequality. Yet, at their best, traditional approaches offer adherents a clear sense of purpose with a like-minded community, moral clarity and a set of standards in a confusing world, and, perhaps most important, a sense of the transcendent and divine. Finding the best of both ways need not water down doctrinal or theological imperatives, write American Families of Faith researchers. Better practices gleaned from observing those who pass on their faith with both conviction and temperance could help all types of religious observers avoid “toxic brews” in favor of “healthy tonics.”

Along with this research, good literature and art continue to aid and abet in the quest for meaningful faith. In Michelle Magorian’s acclaimed young adult novel, Goodnight Mr. Tom, William Beech, a boy evacuated from World War II London, comes to live with curmudgeonly old “Mr. Tom” in the English countryside. The elderly man’s quiet patience and acceptance eventually strengthens William’s tenuous hold on a life mired by the psychological and physical abuse inflicted by a fanatically religious, mentally disturbed mother. Families of Faith’s Dr. Dollahite explains that “when religion mixes with mental illnesses, extremism, relational instabilities, and emotional insecurities in one or both parents, children will struggle to embrace the faith.” However, in Mr. Tom, William finds a gentle church organist whose fellow parishioners embrace comfort and expectations, demands and blessings, the transcendent and mundane. Above all, they offer to a suffering child the universally held religious virtues of love, generosity, patience, and kindness, and in them he is transformed.

Many of the major findings of the American Families of Faith Project are explored in the new book Religion and Families by Loren D. Marks and David C. Dollahite

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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