A reader writes:
I’m reading a good book called “Almost Christianity,” by Kenda Creasy Dean, a Methodist theologian who participated in the early part of the National Survey of Youth and Religion, a mammoth study best known to us for producing the concept of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. (Here’s a Patheos interview with her, giving the basic outlines of her book’s message.) Creasy Dean’s book argues that we are losing the younger generations to MTD (a conclusion reinforced, I believe, by the Faith Matters surveys, the results of which were presented in last fall’s big book “American Grace”), and she explores ways in which the church can counter this destructive trend.
The American teens who by far scored highest on the NSYR were Mormons. Creasy Dean devotes a chapter to looking at what Mormons are doing right, insofar as they are doing a spectacular job of involving their kids in their faith, teaching them about the faith in a theologically substantive way, and retaining faithful children from generation to generation. I don’t know much about Mormonism, but it’s extremely impressive to learn how much Mormon parents and church communities (their equivalent of parishes) commit themselves to the formation of their kids — not only in individual families, but in the wider community. Creasy Dean writes:
Few religious communities are more insistent on modeling the use of their cultural toolkits for teenagers [by “cultural toolkits,” she means the set of beliefs and practices particular to that culture, that help its members make sense of the world and their place in it] than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons invest heavily in teaching young people how to exemplify and promote Mormon beliefs and behaviors. By intentionally reinforcing the significance of Mormonism’s particular God-story, by immersing young people in a community of belonging, by preparing them for a vocation and by modeling a forward-looking hope, Mormons intentionally and consistently create the conditions for consequential faith — so much so that Mormon teenagers are more likely than teenagers from any other group to fall in the category of young people the [National Survey of Youth and Religion] called highly devoted.
I didn’t realize until reading this book that during their last four years in high school, most Mormon teens wake up at 5 in the morning and spend an hour or so with their parents in what they call “seminary” — intensive Scripture study and catechism. Can you imagine what we could do in our families and parishes if we had this kind of commitment? Our kids aren’t teenagers yet, but my wife and I are now talking about what we can do along these lines to help build up our kids in the faith.
I ran across a line in “Almost Christianity” in which she said the NSYR data show that of the Christian faiths (including Mormonism), Roman Catholicism has by far the worst record of keeping their teenagers involved in the faith, and teaching the faith to them in a substantive way. (The categories she compares are Mormon, conservative Protestant, black Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic.) I looked in Appendix C, where she lists a chart of “Characteristics of Teenage Faith, Summarized from NSYR Data,” and my jaw hit the ground when I saw the figures for Catholic teens. In almost all categories, they are below the numbers charted by every other group, even the mainline Protestants; in most categories, they are significantly below in most categories.
Some of the results are stunning, and not in a good way. For example, on the question “Has had spiritual experience in worship that is moving/powerful,” 76 percent of Mormon teens say yes, 70 percent of conservative Protestants, and even 64 percent of mainline Prots. Know what the Catholic number is? Only 37 percent. On the question of whether or not the “family talks about God/spiritual things once a week or more, the numbers are really high for everybody but mainliners and Catholics, who both come in at 34 percent (and who the Faith Matters survey found are, among non-Hispanics, the fastest-declining Christian churches in America). When asked if “faith shaping daily life is very/extremely important” and if “faith shaping major life decisions is very/extremely important,” only Catholic teens reported in the minority (41 percent in both cases).
Why is this happening? On paper, it makes no sense to me, given how many strengths the Catholic faith has. But when I think back on my years as a Catholic, my wife and I were concerned about the culture within the Church that was going to make it especially difficult to raise kids in the faith — we had this concern even before the scandal broke. In our last parish, my wife volunteered in the church library, and came home one day to say we weren’t going to send our kids to CCD, because she had learned that the parish was letting women who didn’t even attend mass teach classes to fulfill conditions to get them tuition discounts at the parish school. As someone who had converted to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism, that really shocked and set back my wife; she couldn’t believe how unserious the parish was about preparing the next generation to be faithful Catholics.
The NSYR data are the first time I’ve seen any hard numbers on how the Catholic faith is held on to by Catholic teenagers, and they only surprised me at first. But on reflection, they are exactly what I would have expected from my own experience. My only prior experience was the mainline church in which I grew up, and frankly, I’m surprised that the numbers for mainliners are so high; ours was a MTD factory if ever there was one. As a Catholic, I came to realize over time that I lived in a Catholic bubble; my relationship to the Church was limited to First Things magazine, Ignatius Press books, and good Catholic friends who were all orthodox. None of us had any real connection to our parishes, because it seemed that our parishes generally followed another religion — a religion that is precisely described by the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I didn’t realize until I married and started having children how important it is to have a community of like-minded believers around you to reinforce what you teach at home. A religiously observant Jewish friend warned me before I had my first child that I would be wise not to think that my wife and I can raise our kids alone in the faith; the community around us will eventually be as strong or maybe even stronger than we are. He was giving me a friendly caution to be careful. Years later, reading the NSYR survey data, especially comparing Mormon youth at one end of the spectrum to Catholic youth at the other, I can see what he was talking about.
I would love to know what your readers think of this — especially Sherry Weddell. I hope they don’t get sidetracked into “but Mormonism isn’t true, and Catholicism is.” I get that. Though I admire them greatly, I don’t even think Mormons are Christians. But they are doing something very, very right, and our side is not.
Sherry, you have the floor.