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What American Teenagers Believe: A conversation with Christian Smith

Michael Cromartie

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Christian Smith is Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One of the most influential and widely cited sociologists of his generation, he is the author of many provocative books, including American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Univ. of Chicago Press); Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want (Univ. of California Press); Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford Univ. Press), coauthored with Michael O. Emerson; and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (Oxford Univ. Press). His latest book, due in March from Oxford, is Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coauthored with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, an unprecedented survey conducted from 2001 to 2005, the book opens a window on the religious beliefs and practices of American teens. In November, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center met with Smith in Washington, D.C., to talk about his findings.

In the introduction to your book, you note that in the literature on adolescents and teens, there is a surprising lack of research about religion.

There has been work done in this area, but there is not a vast literature on what teenagers believe. There are good ethnographies, but in terms of the big picture of national representation there is just not a lot out there.

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?

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.

You found that most of them are very conventional in their beliefs. Did you expect to find a more rebellious, anti-authoritarian youth culture?

Yes, I expected to find more resistance, more negative views of religion in general. Of course, there is so much yakking out there about spiritual questing, we've been conditioned to look for kids who can't stand traditional religion. But that's just not the case! Most kids are quite happy to go with whatever they are raised to believe; they are not kicking and screaming on the way to church. On the contrary: most teenagers have a very benign attitude toward religion.

Read the entire article on the Ethics and Public Policy Center website (new window will open).

Posted: 09-Mar-05

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