Fathers & Faith

Mark Oppenheimer has a review in the NY Times of Vern Bengston’s book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations.

It looks like a fascinating work. As Oppenheimer reports:

In 1969, shortly after being hired at U.S.C., Professor 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.

Professor 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.


I found this passage particularly interesting, having to do with the effect of fathers on the faith of children:

But 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.”

. . . “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’s own family hewed to the rule of the nurturing dad.

“I had this great big jovial grandfather, who just exuded warmth,” Professor 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.”

Professor 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.

5 thoughts on “Fathers & Faith

  1. Haddon Anderson (@HaddonAnderson)

    This is great for a young Dad like me to think about. I remember my Dad telling me that he asked for advice on raising children in the faith years ago, and he was told to “have fun” with them and “love the church.” I’m thankful he received such great advice. The simple things he did like rebounding for me or taking me to baseball games created a bond that ultimately made his faith contagious. I soaked it up as a kid, but I see the beauty of it more and more now as I consider my own ways as a young parent.

    1. timgombis

      That’s a huge blessing, Haddon. My sisters and I were loved by our dad and knew it because of the time he spent with us and the interest he took in us. That sort of fatherly dynamic is huge for children embracing faith.

  2. imaginewithscripture

    Great post, Tim. I have learned in my own life that I need to spend time with my son, seek to listen to him, pray for him and pray with him. I enjoy discussing the Bible with him, hearing his insightful, interesting and sometimes funny interpretation. I know very well that he sees how I live, and so the best I can offer him is to be a genuine and loving father in all that I do. I need to truly live for God and seek to be faithful to him, for that’s the best example I give to my son.

    Having said all that, I realise that many people around me do not have a father that they can look up to. They may even have very bad experiences with their fathers. I think there is much for the community of Christ to do in sharing the love of God with those around us.

  3. Tim Cole

    Once again, Herr Professor, you have alerted us to another significant piece of work worth reading. Hats off to you and keep up the good work, both online and in the classroom.
    Three things come to my mind.
    1). Our three sons are now adults. Looking back, we find that Bengston’s findings about the essential role of the fathers in the religious upbringing of children only confirms our own parenting philosophy. So, you younger dads, take the lead and set the example. You’ll never regret it.
    2). Paul’s use ektrepho in Ephesians 6:4 (cf. 5:29) as ‘nurture, supplying all the ingredients necessary for growth’ deserves wider attention in the church as it relates to the non-negotiable role of dads in parenting.
    3). After working with angry, male juvenile delinquents for 11 years, ages 14-18, from all races and backgrounds, the common denominator among 95% of them is “fatherlessness.” To the question, “Where’s your dad?’, the answer is usually: ‘in prison, on the street, dead’, or ‘I don’t know or care.’ ‘Nuff said.

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