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Topics: Spirituality | Religion

Viral tweet sparks fiery debate over passing on faith

Author Cindy Wang Brandt struck a nerve with her message about evangelism and wielding religious control

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(RNS) — It’s the sort of advice about parenting and progressive faith Cindy Wang Brandt has been sharing for years through her “Parenting Forward” book, podcast and conferences and popular “Raising Children Unfundamentalist” Facebook group.

What was unusual about the tweet for Brandt was the response it generated: more than 760 retweets, 4,000 likes and a seemingly endless string of comments.

“Do not evangelize a child,” Brandt tweeted Wednesday (Jan. 8).

“Do not colonize a child’s spirituality. Do not threaten a child with religious control. Your religion does not have a right to stake claim to a child’s allegiance.”

In response, some Twitter users shared their childhood experiences of having nightmares about the “Second Coming” they felt threatened with or being told they were “going to burn forever unless I said a prayer.”

Others challenged Brandt, pointing to Scriptures encouraging parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.”

Evangelical radio host and author Eric Metaxas quoted the tweet, adding, “Would it be all right w/you if I taught my kid that stealing, murdering, lying, racism, and slavery were wrong?”

It’s clear Brandt’s tweet struck a nerve. Amid the nasty personal attacks Twitter has become known for, it also sparked a conversation among Christians about how parents pass on their faith to their children.

“At first it’s like, ‘Whoa, this really escalated.’ And then it’s also, ‘Oh, I’m glad that people are engaging with this,’” Brandt told Religion News Service.

“I do talk about it all the time, so I appreciate the opportunity to get conversation going on this very important topic and very nuanced — like how we parent and faith and values. What does that process concretely look like?”

That’s the “main dilemma” modern parents have, according to Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame who co-authored the book “Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America” with Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo.

Parents of all faiths struggle with how much authority they have and how much to direct their children’s faith versus letting them choose and figure it out for themselves, Smith said.

Historically, religion has been part of being socialized into a tribe or people or nation, he said. That has changed in the modern era, as religion has become much more individualized and affirming a set of beliefs, more important.

But even 50 years ago, Smith said, it was presumed a child would adopt the same religion as his or her parents. It’s a change in attitude the religion scholar, who is nearing 60, has seen over his own lifetime, he said.

“There isn’t like a settled view. What there is is parents wrestling really hard with the tension between two beliefs,” he said.

Most parents still want their children to adopt beliefs similar to their own — for “family solidarity reasons” as much as out of religious conviction, Smith said. Some believers, such as mainline Protestants, tend to be more open-minded about it than others, like evangelicals and Jews.

Some worry if they’re too didactic, they’ll push their children away from faith, he said.

The most important variable in how they present religion to their children is how they were raised, according to his research.

“Even though parents want to model and teach stuff, they’re really afraid of overdoing it — like they don’t want to ‘shove it down their throat,’ so to speak. It’s a phrase we continually heard,” Smith said.

“So in some ways parents treat their kids with kid gloves, like ‘I’m not pushing it too hard,’ which is interesting because they will push their kids very hard when it comes to homework, school behaving, having the right friends, going to music lessons, going to sports practice.”

“Obviously, I think we do, no matter what, pass on our faith and our values. And so I think the question isn’t whether or not we do, but how we do it.”

That resonates with Heather Thompson Day, an associate professor of communication and rhetoric at Colorado Christian University.

If she shares her love of Taylor Swift and Chick-fil-A with her children, she said, why wouldn’t she also share her love of Jesus?

Day responded to Brandt’s tweet, saying she agreed with her about not colonizing and threatening children. But she disagreed with the idea one shouldn’t evangelize a child.

“Evangelism is simply sharing your personal witness. Why in the world would we not do that with our own children? It’s like the assumption is religion is bad. It’s not. But there is bad religion,” she tweeted.

Day knows firsthand about “bad” religion, she continued, remembering how she was kicked out of a Christian school when she was in eighth grade.

“I absolutely know what it’s like to feel totally abandoned and rejected by the church,” she said. “But the thing is — and I really truly believe this — that often what will heal your church hurt is good church people.”

The professor pointed to her father, a pastor, who would answer her questions about the Bible by telling her to read it for herself before having a conversation with her about it. He brought her along to speaking engagements at churches and other religious activities.

That protected her from the negativity she experienced from religion at her school, she said.

“So, for me, my parents were the most fundamentally important part of that process for me, and to take that away, I can’t even fathom what my life would’ve been without,” Day said.

For the record, Brandt said, she doesn’t believe in a moral vacuum, as some on Twitter have accused.

More on Broadview: Former fundamentalists describe the trauma of leaving their faith

“Obviously, I think we do, no matter what, pass on our faith and our values,” she said.

“And so I think the question isn’t whether or not we do, but how we do it. And I think what’s problematic is that a lot of the way that a lot of people of faith do it is using shame and intimidation and fear.”

That was her experience.

Brandt grew up attending a school run by Western missionaries in Taiwan, where she lives. There, she said, she was taught that the Buddhist and Taoist practices in her culture were evil and she was going to hell. So were her parents, who were irreligious.

Terrified and feeling responsible for the salvation of her family, she said, she converted at age 12.

She since has “deconstructed” her faith, she said.

“I often think about why is it that I grew up evangelical, like so many other people, but I have so much angst and so much pain and trauma that I feel like I have to work through when someone else did not have to? I have pinpointed that the reason was because I was not given a choice, that I was converted as a child, and that remains a painful thing for me,” she said.

Choosing a religion is a human right for children, Brandt said. She pointed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the “right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

That said, children should be included in communities of faith, she added.

Parents can share their values with their children and introduce them to other stories and beliefs and perspectives, giving them space to explore and to see “the world is so big,” she said. They also can learn from their children when it comes to spirituality.

“I think all I’m asking is for us to be thoughtful about that process,” Brandt said.

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  • says:

    “Do not evangelize a child,” Brandt tweeted Wednesday (Jan. 8).“Do not colonize a child’s spirituality. Do not threaten a child with religious control. Your religion does not have a right to stake claim to a child’s allegiance.”
    So off to church I go on Sunday morning leaving my children at home watching Bugs Bunny, Barney and the Flintstones.
    How can one practice their faith without influencing their children?
    Because Brandt was traumatized, no one should do it.

  • says:

    Provocative. I guess that was her aim. But I will say I did not know the meaning of evangelize and its derivatives had recently changed to "colonizing child's spirituality". I thought it meant teaching the good news of the gospel that God in Christ was offering us a relationship that begins in this life and stretches into eternity. I looked at a dozen different translations of the gospels in English and checked the Greek. I did not see the idea of colonizing the spirit. Though there were many references in the gospel and Epistles that God wanted to make a home in me and my children. Not sure now whether to put my faith in this author or in Jesus:).

  • says:

    Children should be encouraged to think for themselves. I do not believe, even though as a pastor I've done it myself, that a child should be labeled with a religion when they are obviously too young to know what religion is. Religion is a human construct and each culture has its own way of imagining the powers and forces that make the universe work. I feel that critical conversation should be encouraged as should ethical behaviour and simple good manners. The fact is, what we know of ourselves is in the here and now. I don't need to be "saved" from anything. I don't intentionally hurt people. I have no idea what happens when I die and don't much care. If there's nothing, that's OK. If there is something it will be an adventure. Christ is not "a" man. Christ is the God within humanity, within each of us. The term "salvation" is simply coming to realize our higher nature and living our lives accordingly. Children should be taught to think; to ask questions and not be satisfied with answers that don't make sense. If, when they grow up, they choose a particular religion that works for them that's great. It will be their choice for their life. Teach your children well but don't brainwash them into a system that does not have a very glorious past. God is real but often, not what most people think.

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    • says:

      First, thank-you for the opportunity to address your concerns, many others have the same concerns, and perhaps they too will understand the flaws in their way of thinking.

      How does a child know right from wrong? They can't reasonably "think for themselves". 1 Corinthians 13 "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me." Apparently children think differently than adults.
      Where does "critical conversation", "ethical behaviour" and "good manners" come from? (Answer) Religion - funny all "Modern Thought" state: "religion is dying", but adhere to its importance to society in the past. (Perhaps religion is dying, it would explain why our society is dying as well.)
      We all sin and fall short of the Glory of God. You, yourself, claim fellowship with God, but God hates sin. How can one who has sin, have fellowship with one who hates sin? Something needs to cover your sin, so God doesn't see it.
      (You obviously know you sin, because you state you don't intentionally hurt people).
      If nothing happens after you die - you're right, who cares? But why put an effort into living? If you're wrong, you certainly won't like the adventure that awaits if you don't believe in the claims of Christ. (I would want to err on the side of life after death, and be sure I was comfortable with my decision in Christ) Your constant theme of pantheism concerns me a lot, and explains your way of thinking. If you truly read the Christian Bible with an open heart and mind, you would know that Christ was, and is, and will be, both God and man in nature. God needs to be in human nature in order for us to be "like" God in nature. Otherwise we wouldn't understand each other. "Salvation" is the deliverance (saving) of harm or loss, nothing of what you wrote about the term.
      I would like to "brainwash" children for their secure future in Christ, not into some past where sinful human attempts failed.
      I find it interesting, that you claim to know what most people think about God. I doubt most people even think about God - even I struggle to think about Him all the time.

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      • says:

        Sorry. Religion is a product of the human mind. God is an ancient anthropomorphism of what is now the quantum field. Divinity is the knowledge of human consciousness and the ability to discern right from wrong, although these are relative terms. God hates sin? The power that runs the universe neither hates nor loves. It simply is. However, in saying that, because I am a part of creation and have being and can choose to love or not, I can have relationship with the quantum field, the Power of Creation, All That Is or, if you prefer, God.
        My argument may not be cogent to those who adhere to Biblical writings but those same writings are a product of a human mind; a mind that had an agenda and lived in a particular time, place and culture. My idea of God works for me. Your idea of God seems to work for you, and that's OK, but instead of quoting scripture, one should learn to think for oneself. We may not have all the pat answers but it sure is fun thinking about it and experiencing God.....not the male God of Nazareth, but the real God of the universe. I do believe that God is real. I also believe that God is not what many folk believe. We are born with a brain and a mind. We must learn to use them instead of parroting something someone wrote fifteen hundred years ago.

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        • says:

          James 2:19 You believe that there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder.