Which are American parents more likely to pass along to their kids – their religion or their politics?
Turns out, most parents pass along both kinds of affiliation, and they do so at similarly high rates, according to a new analysis of several Pew Research Center surveys.
How we did this
This may be surprising, considering that parents are more likely to prioritize the transmission of their religious views than their political views. In a fall survey by the Center, 35% of U.S. parents said it was extremely or very important that their kids grow up to share their religious views, while fewer than half as many (16%) said the same about their political views. Notably, parents saw both religious and political transmission as much less important than passing along other values, such as being honest and ethical, hardworking, and ambitious.
Still, people in some religious groups did place a high priority on raising their kids to carry on their faith. For example, 70% of White born-again or evangelical Protestant parents said it was extremely or very important for their children to hold similar religious beliefs, compared with just 8% of religiously unaffiliated parents.
As every parent knows, though, wanting a child to do something is not the same as getting a child to do something. So how successful are American parents, overall, at transmitting their religious and political affiliations to their children?
One way of answering the question is to compare U.S. teenagers and their parents. That’s what we did in a 2019 survey of more than 1,800 teens ages 13 to 17, each of whom was interviewed along with one parent. In most cases, the parent was a biological mother or father, but sometimes it was an adoptive parent, stepparent, foster parent, grandparent or other guardian.
The survey indicated that the vast majority of parents with teens have passed along their political loyalties. Roughly eight-in-ten parents who were Republican or leaned toward the Republican Party (81%) had teens who also identified as Republicans or leaned that way. And about nine-in-ten parents who were Democratic or leaned Democratic (89%) had teens who described themselves the same way.
The transmission of religion through American families appears to be similarly efficient. In the same 2019 survey, 82% of Protestant parents had teens who also identified as Protestant, 81% of Catholic parents had Catholic teens, and 86% of religiously unaffiliated parents – those who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular – had teens who were also “nones.”
The survey sample was not large enough to estimate transmission rates among parents who belong to non-Christian religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims. But there were enough parents from some Christian subgroups to estimate their “success” at passing on their faith. Among evangelical Protestant parents of all races and ethnicities, for example, 80% had teens who identified as evangelicals, and an additional 7% had teens who identified with other Protestant traditions. Just 12% had teens who were unaffiliated and 1% had teens who were Catholic.
In other words, even though evangelical Protestants place much higher importance on passing their religion to their children than religiously unaffiliated parents do, the two groups are about equally successful at actually doing so, at least through about age 17.
Still, many people switch religious affiliations or leave organized religion entirely between the ages of 18 and 29. So another way to gauge the transmission of religion is to look at how American adults describe the religion of the person or people who raised them, and then compare it with their own religious affiliation today. That’s what we did in another survey in 2015.
The survey found that most people who were raised in a single religion – either by two parents of the same faith or by a single parent – retained that religion. Roughly eight-in-ten of those raised Protestant (79%) were still Protestant. About six-in-ten of those raised Catholic were still Catholic (62%), and an identical proportion of those raised with no religious affiliation were still unaffiliated (62%).
There was much more flux among the roughly one-in-five U.S. adults (21%) who were raised in interfaith households. Among those raised by two people, one of whom was Protestant and the other unaffiliated, the Protestant identity proved to be “stickier”: 56% identified as Protestant, while 34% were unaffiliated, 3% were Catholic, and 7% belonged to other religions.
Among those raised by two people, one of whom was Catholic and the other unaffiliated, 42% were unaffiliated in adulthood while 32% were Catholic, 20% were Protestant, and 5% identified with other religions.
Meanwhile, among those who were brought up by two people, one Protestant and one Catholic, the outcome was close to a toss-up. In adulthood, 38% identified as Protestant, 29% were Catholic, 26% were unaffiliated, and 7% belonged to other religions.