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Raising a child right: Are morals taught in the home or the church?

'I want Noah to make decisions while asking himself, 'What would Jesus do?''

Karen Swanson (left) and Noah Pelletier, 9, both of Cedar Rapids walk to Pelletier sunday school before going to service at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, April 19, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
Karen Swanson (left) and Noah Pelletier, 9, both of Cedar Rapids walk to Pelletier sunday school before going to service at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, April 19, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
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Karen Swanson is raising her son, Noah, in a life filled with religion.

They go to church every Sunday. Noah, 9, goes to Sunday school, attends vacation Bible school in the summer and will eventually attend midweek religion classes at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids.

“He will never know of a life without Christ,” she said. “From the day he was put into my arms, I have prayed for that child.”

She knows he’s a “good boy,” and hopes he grows into a good man. She’s hesitant, however, to give full credit to the church.

“I came to Christ the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was a good kid,” Swanson said. “I knew who Jesus was — you can’t grow up in the heartland and not know the story of Noah — but did we go to church? No. Did we pray before we ate? No. I was unchurched.”

“I had all of the things you would say make a good kid — good grades, participated in extra-curriculars — but I did it because that’s what good kids do. There wasn’t anything or any religion behind it, it’s just what you do.”

The question of whether those raised with religion become better people and ultimately make better parents has long been debated between religious and secular groups. The pot of “who raises better kids” got stirred again this spring when a California sociology professor rankled some Christian groups by suggesting in a guest editorial that people who live without religion might be better at parenting and raising “good” children.

Citing research he’s conducted among secular Americans, professor Phil Zuckerman, of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., wrote in the Los Angeles Times that non-religious life is filled with morals and values, including “rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment a spirit of ‘questioning everything,’ and, above all, empathy.”

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Zuckerman pointed to a 2012 Pew Research Center study in which 23 percent of Americans claim to have no religion, and 30 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 make the same claim. Those numbers are up significantly from a generation ago. In the 1950s just 4 percent of Americans claimed to have been raised in a nonreligious household.

The guiding principal for secularists, Zuckerman said, isn’t a guaranteed spot in heaven, but rather the idea that treating others well and being a decent human being is the right thing to do. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.

Those same values resonate in families with both religious and nonreligious foundations. While some say the church may have a hand in values, most say it’s up to the parents and the family to raise a child “right.”

“My mom and dad were great people, real ‘salt of the earth’ people,” Swanson said. “You knew right from wrong. In the Midwest you do know how to treat people, you were kind, you didn’t make fun of people. For whatever reason, this is how we grew up. I never asked, ‘Why?’ It was just what you do, you were a good person.”

Morals and values were something she learned from her parents.

“Morals are a parent thing, they’re not a kid thing,” she said. “I firmly believe kids are a product of their parents. They’re a product of what they get, day in and day out.”

She’s raising her son the same way she was raised, except she’s added religion to his life. Religion gives her son a foundation, she said – she asks him to think about what Jesus would do or what he would think.

“I want Noah to make decisions while asking himself, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Swanson said. “I think that’s a really OK thing to think about.”

Dennis Lynch disagrees. Lynch, 62, grew up in the Catholic church in Cedar Rapids and went on to minor in religion in college. Then about 40 years ago, he said, he just gave up on all of it.

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“The more I read about it, the more I realized it was nonsense,” Lynch said. “The best way to make an atheist is to have them read the Bible; it’s so full of contradictions and idiocy, there’s no way for a rational person to accept it.”

His children, now 30 and 22, were raised without religion. His daughter is a manager at Disney World and his son is a Marine awaiting his first deployment.

“I raised happy kids, I raised bright kids, I raised curious kids,” Lynch said. “I raised kids who were never really any trouble.”

He agrees that morals are taught in the home, rather than in the church, and that children grow up a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

“The moral code is very similar (between secularists and religious groups), but the difference is we taught our kids to question things, to think for themselves, to not believe something somebody tells you simply because ‘God says so,’” Lynch said. “Make sure what you’re believing makes sense to you.

“We raised our kids to think, if you’re going to do something, is it going to hurt you and is it going to hurt someone else? We didn’t threaten them with the belief of, ‘don’t do something because you’ll go to hell.’”

Tricia Andersen said the religious culture in which she was raised reinforced the ethical values she was taught from her parents.

“I think what religion does is just provide that support,” she said. “It’s one thing to grow up knowing you respect your elders, but it’s another thing to grow up in an atmosphere where one of the reasons you respect your elders is because your faith tells you to.”

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She and her husband have raised their three children — ages 21, 17 and 12 — in the church, and all three have or are attending parochial school. Jake, the oldest, is studying to become a minister.

Tolerance of other people, and others’ beliefs, is something she learned growing up, as well, and has passed on to their children. Religion may dictate what is and isn’t a sin, she said, but it’s the person who sits in judgment of the others.

“One thing we were never taught is that if someone is committing a sin, or doing something don’t condone, we’re going to shun them,” she said. “You hate the sin but love the sinner.”

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