Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), recently interviewed Christian Smith, University of North Carolina sociologist and author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (out next month), for the EPPC website. Some excerpts from this excellent exchange:

Michael Cromartie: You say that “today’s youth are depicted as disillusioned, irreverent, uniquely postmodern, belonging to something that is next and new.” Indeed, “when it comes to faith and religion,” we’re told, “contemporary teenagers are deeply restless, alienated, rebellious and determined to find something that is radically different from the faith in which they were raised.”And yet, you conclude, this largely unchallenged perception is “fundamentally wrong.” Why is that?

Christian Smith: Teenagers today (and I am talking about 13- to 17-year-olds) are invested in society as it is and in mainstream values. They are well socialized into the mainstream, they are committed to it, and they want to succeed in it. From the Sixties we’ve inherited the notion of the “generation gap,” but that model simply isn’t adequate to describe what we are dealing with today. For the most part, young people have a great deal in common with their parents and share their values. That may not be immediately apparent, but underneath, not too far below the surface, there is a lot of commonality.

There is good news for the church in your study. But there is plenty of bad news as well. For example, you found in your in-depth interviews with teens that a vast majority of them are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices.” You found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate clearly their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives.

One way to frame this problem is to think of the language of faith as something like a second language in our culture. And how do you learn a second language? You learn a second language by listening to others who know how to speak it well, and having a chance to practice it yourself. I don’t know how much teens are hearing other people speak the language well, and it really struck us in our research that very few teens are getting a chance to practice talking about their faith. We were dumbfounded by the number of teens who told us we were the first adults who had asked them what they believed. One said: “I do not know. No one has ever asked me that before.”

You argue that “what legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable.”

Yes, not only for the kids but also for their parents. The instrumental good has what you might call a public health justification. If I get my kid involved religiously, he will be less likely to do drugs, he’ll get better grades, and will wear his or her seat belt. And I think a lot of parents are very interested in that, quite understandably.

In the United States we have a competitive religious economy. And I think a lot of religious organizations—consciously and unconsciously—make that instrumental pitch to families: we’ll be good for you. Now it’s an empirical fact that religious kids are doing better. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating that. But when that becomes the key legitimation of what religion is all about, then that’s a whole different matter.

Based on our findings, I suggest that the de facto religious faith of the majority of American teens is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” God exists. God created the world. God set up some kind of moral structure. God wants me to be nice. He wants me to be pleasant, wants me to get along with people. That’s teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone’s good.

There’s another area in which you found a disconnect between public rhetoric and actual practice: you say that although many Americans talk about what a pro-family, youth-loving society ours is, it is not at all clear that many of our practices and institutions support these claims.

I don’t think our society is organized around what’s best for our young people. They don’t get enough sleep, and school is not set up optimally for what’s best for their learning. It’s set up for the convenience of other people, and social control, and so on. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we love our youth so much. Maybe we do, but we don’t structure our society the way we should to translate that deep concern into meaningful action. We don’t spend enough time together. Adults have their own issues and their own problems, which are understandable, and some adults are working through their own adolescent issues!

You point out that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.

Yes. This is one of the things that really hit us hard: that parents still have an enormous amount of influence on their kids’ lives, even though I’m sure that’s very hard for them to believe at times. Adolescents are not routinely coming to their parents and saying “thanks so much for steering me in the right direction. I really appreciate it. I really want you to know that you are a big influence.” They don’t say it, but it’s still a fact. Parents have a lot more influence, and therefore responsibility, than they realize. Teenagers will never admit that they look to their parents for guidance, but most do. Here’s another striking thing: We asked teenagers in interviews, what thing would you most like to change about your family, if anything? The most common answer was “I wish I was closer to my parents.” When asked, why aren’t you closer?, they said, “I don’t know how to do it.” There is genuine interest. I think parents often misread signals.

But this is true of religious educators as well as of parents. Most, though not all, religious educators in this country are failing. Most young people are not being formed primarily by their religious faith traditions; rather, they are being formed by other notions and ideologies. And in part this is because adults are afraid to teach. They are afraid of young people. They are afraid of not looking cool when they teach real substance.

And yet youth actually want to be taught something, even if they eventually reject it. They at least want to have something to reject, rather than an attitude of anything goes. Teens need an opportunity to articulate, to think and to make arguments in environments that will be challenging to their faith. And I don’t think they are getting that. In general, religious traditions that expect more and demand more of their youth get more. And those that are more compromising, more accommodating, more anything-goes, end up not getting much.

For the complete interview click here.