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  • Most parents pass along both religious and political affiliations to their children at high rates. Tweet This
  • Only 16% of U.S. parents find it extremely or very important that their children’s political party match their own. Tweet This
  • It should not surprise us that politics and religion are transmitted efficiently across the generations. Tweet This
Category: Religion

I have not yet passed on the wisdom embedded in the podcast, A Slob Comes Clean to my 10-year-old daugher. She’s still tripping up on step #1 of 5, “throw away the trash.” Chip bags and band-aid wrappers don’t just stay on the floor too long; they also get stashed behind her bed, in her closet, or in drawers along with her clothing, markers, and toys.

Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research at the Pew Research Center, also acknowledged parental inefficacy when he remarked, in his summary of research on the transmission of political and religious values, “every parent knows, though, wanting a child to do something is not the same as getting a child to do something.” Despite this obvious truth, Cooperman’s review showed that most parents in fact pass along both religious and political affiliations at high rates.

The intergenerational stickiness of affiliation doesn’t stun me as much as a sociologist as it does as a parent. Sociologists have shown that education, fidelity and infidelity, poverty and wealthgenerositydivorceworkaholism, and criminality all run in families. If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in so many domains, perhaps it should be no surprise that politics and religion are transmitted efficiently across the generations as well.

But it does surprise me as a parent. Only 16% of U.S. parents find it extremely or very important that their children’s political party match their own, so why are parents so good at passing down something not important to them? More than twice as many, 35%, say it’s extremely or very important to them that their kids have similar religious beliefs to their own as adults,1 but that is still a minority—and in both cases the success rate in passing on affiliation exceeds 80 percent.

Clearly, caring doesn’t determine success when it comes to intergenerational transmission. We fail to pass on things we care about like throwing away the trash (the Pew study also notes parents, on average, care more about passing on values such as being honest and ethical, hardworking, and ambitious), and we succeed at passing on things that don’t matter to many of us like political affiliation.

Cooperman’s review of a set of Pew surveys went on to describe what gets transmitted to kids whose parents have mixed religious affiliations. I’m glossing over some interesting facts when I summarize the findings by saying that generally kids with multiple influences are apples that fall between two trees.

But Cooperman did not present any analysis of what gets transmitted to kids whose parents have mixed political affiliations. I would have loved to have seen that, in part, because media and politics are so fully intertwined in the contemporary United States. Does it really matter what the parent’s political affiliation is, or just what news the kids hear on the TV? If the political affiliation of the parent who turned on the TV more often mattered more than that of the other parent, we would gain a clue about how parents pass on values without caring whether they do.

If you asked me if my parents passed on their affiliations to me, my answer would be a simple “no.” But in pondering Cooperman’s findings, I’ve realized it isn’t quite that simple. Surveys translate complex realities into simple questions. My dad believes in God and even prays, but he has no religious affiliation. I’ve even described him as worshipping at the altar of small government because among Republican core values, that’s his highest value. Everything in him believes that the bigger a government gets, the worse it does. If probed on a Republican stance that seems to contradict anything else he values, he evades admitting the contradiction by describing how much worse the Democratic alternative would be. Mom is Republican, too.

I registered as an independent voter when I turned 18, largely because I had become a Christian at age 15, and I was sure that neither party’s agenda represented all of God’s heart. Despite my official “unaffiliated” stance, I’ve noticed that I start with the assumption that smaller government is better. From there, I identify exceptions. For instance, I agree that the market would allocate health care more efficiently than any government would, but I nonetheless find inefficiency far more acceptable than treating health care like a consumer good rather than a human right. In other words, I only support letting government grow bigger when the alternative conflicts with more important values. It seems like I could be described as “leans Republican,” and therefore my parents have efficiently passed at least some of their political beliefs onto me, according to the categories used in the Pew study.

What about faith? My parents did not efficiently pass on their non-affiliation (my mom in an atheist), and my husband and I don’t seem very efficient either. Libby, our 13-year-old, told me that after one friend who does not share her musical taste left the library last week, she and her remaining friend prayed for her repentance. Knowing Libby well, my first question was “Who did you pray to?” She told me they prayed to Melanie Martinez that the girl who had so far failed to appreciate her music would see the light.

But has the apple fallen as far from the tree as it would first seem? Even in my daughter’s overt rejection of Christianity, I see reliance on a higher power to put the world in its proper order. I would say that my political affiliation is not like my dad’s, but I start with his assumption that small government is good. Libby would say that her religious affiliation is not like mine, but she believes in an inherent order and in repentance leading to conversion.

Maybe these examples help us understand how parents can be so influential even when there is so much tension between generations.

1. Almost by definition, evangelical parents care more than others (70% of white evangelicals find intergenerational transmission important), and only 8% of the unaffiliated say that it is extremely or very important that their children remain unaffiliated.