Habits of the hearth: parenting, religion, and the good life in America
Taylor, Kevin M.
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This dissertation explores visions of the good life in America through the lens of what middle-class parents from Liberal Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Atheist communities want for their children. In the book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and associates famously posit that the dominant moral language of America today is one of utilitarian and expressive individualism. In this dissertation, I measure the degree to which parents in America are guided by that individualism and the degree to which they speak alternative languages that encourage concern for others and for the common good. Through participant observation, interviews, and a letter-writing task with eighty-three New England parents connected with particular congregations, as well as twelve comparable non-attending parents, I look at religious traditions, some of them with long histories in America, and others more recently prominent on the religious landscape, to see how religion shapes parental values. To what extent do parents from these traditions agree on what a good life looks like? And to what extent do we find divergence based on social location, ethnic background, and the beliefs and practices of their traditions? I find that parents across traditions hold five master values for their children--health, happiness (both in childhood and in adulthood), altruism, groundedness in identity, and autonomy. With a few important exceptions, parents see religion as having relatively little to do with the values of health and happiness, which turn out to be influenced more by social class. Religion plays a much greater role in parents' discussion of altruism, with various traditions expressing different forms of the Golden Rule. Parents from all groups also find that they cannot take for granted the transmission of religious identity within a materialistic, pluralistic, and increasingly secular culture. Religious identity is largely an achieved status, and all contemporary American religious communities are, to some degree, sectarian. Finally, parents want their children to be autonomous, but find that they often have to weigh this against other master values. These findings should encourage researchers to take more seriously both the contextual and the conflicting nature of human values.