It's the Deity, Dude

By Reviewed by Hanna Rosin
Sunday, July 10, 2005


How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

St. Martin's. 274 pp. $24.95


The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

By Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton

Oxford. 346 pp. $25

Any parent with a conscience who is raising a teenager will read these two books and immediately fall to her knees at the altar before God, Yahweh, Jesus, Muhammad -- nearly any recognizable deity will do -- and hope her children follow suit. Neither of these is remotely a parenting book, but the evidence they compile about American teenagers is pretty stark. Kids who describe themselves as religious are less likely to cut classes, do drugs, have sex, get depressed, feel alone or misunderstood, talk back to their parents, lie. Practically the only thing they score higher on is feeling guilty if they fail to do the right thing. Apparently it doesn't just take a village; it takes a congregation.

Those findings are from Soul Searching, the final report of the National Study of Youth and Religion. Christian Smith, a widely respected sociologist at the University of North Carolina, conducted the study as the first comprehensive survey of the spiritual life of American teenagers. Occasionally Smith and his fellow researchers arranged in-depth interviews with some of the subjects, using pseudonyms. "Joy's" view of religion is: "People believe what they want to believe and if they get something out of that, then that's what they should believe." Joy drinks and does drugs, but her parents don't know because "my parents don't know me that well." She has a 23-year-old boyfriend and a best friend who tried to kill himself. In contrast, "Kristen," as a young child, found her father's body after he'd shot himself; but then her mother taught her that God is "father to the fatherless," and at 16 she still deeply believes it. She's never tried drugs or alcohol; she's active in her church youth group. Sometimes she thinks she might keep a secret from her mom, "but then it all comes out." As for her friends who experiment and see R-rated movies, "They're the ones missing out," she says. Now, which child would you rather raise?

Skip Kristen forward three years and you have the characters that populate God on the Quad , a survey of the nation's 700 religious colleges with a focus on the most devout ones. Naomi Schaefer Riley opens her book with a pair of preconceptions: Secular schools are havens for goofy vegetarians and transgendered politics; floating above this mess is what she calls the "missionary generation," the 1.3 million graduates of religious colleges who reject sex outside marriage, drugs, homosexual relationships, a "spiritually empty education" and the "sophisticated ennui of their contemporaries." So it's no surprise that her survey goes on to find just that: smart, ambitious, God-fearing coeds. They are slightly defensive about the fact that, say, Bob Jones University had a longtime ban on interracial marriage or that the students at Brigham Young University still follow restrictive Mormon dating rituals. But they are basically happy and confident and, most important, they seem totally normal, the kind of graduates any employer would be proud to hire.

The premise of the book is that religious colleges are trying a grand experiment: They don't want to send their graduates out into the Christian ghetto; more than ever, they want to "give their students . . . the tools to succeed in the secular world and the strength to do so without compromising their faith." They want to produce students who can compete with Ivy Leaguers for consulting jobs at McKinsey and, when they get there, ace the in-house ethics exam. Riley assumes these young people will thrive, but the best parts of the book are those in which she examines the many tensions inherent in the marriage of a fundamentalist faith and a broad intellect.

At Thomas Aquinas College, a sort of pre-seminary in Southern California, Riley presses a tutor on whether teaching Nietzsche won't make students doubt the existence of God. The tutor gives a somewhat smug answer, explaining that the college doesn't view education as intellectual sparring about fundamental questions; rather, doubt is, as Riley understands her, "a necessary evil in the process to saving souls." Riley doesn't press her any further, but still the question is out there: Can you expand minds and teach heresy without it ever taking root? A professor at Notre Dame, a Catholic university, complains that parents won't let their children marry young, which creates a "moral disaster," meaning the students have sex outside marriage. His complaint raises another fundamental question: Is it possible to live an essentially 19th-century lifestyle (chaperones, no sex before marriage, teenage weddings) and keep up with 21st-century ambitions?

The chapter on the Jewish Yeshiva University in New York captures the tension most vividly. The school's secular teachers and its rabbis sneer at one another across a great divide. The rabbis complain that the secular teachers use Christian themes in their classes; the secular teachers complain that strict Judaism is "passé." They fight over Israel, American politics, kosher pizza. The school produces most of the nation's rabbis, yet the new president is not one, and the religious half of the faculty worries he'll secularize the school; the religious students complain because a new French teacher wears low-cut blouses. The chapter ends with the mystery of "what is an educated Jew."

But outside the rarefied atmosphere of religious schools these extremes turn out to be pretty unusual -- just as, reading deeper in Soul Searching , one discovers that Joy and Kristen are atypical. Only a small slice of teenagers is as devoted as Kristen or as lost as Joy. Most fall into the vast foggy middle where God is some dude you heard about in, uhhm, some youth group your parents made you go to one time and He can help you out with anything, like, if you can't figure out whether to skip a test one Friday you should just ask Him. Here is one sample transcript: "What is God like?" asks the interviewer.

" 'Um. Good. Powerful.'

" 'Okay, anything else?'

" 'Tall.' "

Later: " 'What good has God done in your life?'

" 'I, well, I have a house, parents, I have the internet, I have a phone, I have cable.' "

This, in a snapshot, is the real American teenager the book depicts. He is neither on fire for God nor a drug addict. She is neither the avid spiritual seeker nor the secret Wiccan portrayed in popular culture. She turns out to be, on the whole, pretty conventional, following whatever religious practices her parents have introduced her to and not thinking too deeply about them. His sense of morality is not really rooted, and so is subject to whim. You shouldn't kill or steal from someone, one of them says, because it will "ruin their day." Fundamentally, her philosophy is: "Who am I to judge?" or "If that's what they choose, whatever." He is, as the clearly exasperated researchers write, "incredibly inarticulate." As one teen who inspires a subchapter and possibly a generational motto declares: "I believe there is a God and stuff." ยท

Hanna Rosin is a Washington Post staff writer who covers religion and politics for the Style section.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company