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Interview by Michael Cromartie
What American Teenagers Believe
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 ...