Religion: Parents Lead, Children Follow

My First Communion 1970
First Communion 1970 Sacred Heart School, Knoxville TN

The Babble style guide warns us to be careful using the first person voice in our posts to avoid sounding too self referential.

I’m about to break that rule. (Too late. Just did it.)

One of my goals with this blog is to break through some stereotypes and show people that conservatives as a whole are not the selfish, heartless, hateful bigots we are portrayed as on TV and in the movies. It tends to get even worse when elections come around…and have you noticed that lately, it seems like there’s always an election coming around?

I swear, election creep is even worse than Christmas creep!

Anyway, in order to convince you to approach these posts with an open mind, I first have to demonstrate that I am a living, breathing, caring human being, and not some caricature drawn up by a political zealot masquerading as a Hollywood script writer. To do that, I have to bring you inside my life, and let you get to know me so that when I begin to dismantle everything you believe and hold dear approach areas where we might have some measure of disagreement, you won’t automatically dismiss me as a partisan hack quoting talking points passed down during the weekly super-secret VRWC podcast (VRWC=Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, for those of you whose lives do not revolve around politics. You blissfully lucky people!).

This post springs from Monica Beilanko’s latest post at Toddler Times detailing her thoughts about how to handle religion and your children. You should go read it now. I’ll wait.

As you may have guessed from the picture, I was born, baptized, and raised as a Catholic, which, in East Tennessee, isn’t all that common. I went to a Catholic grade school through eighth grade, was an altar boy, and was considered by the parish priest as a fine candidate for priesthood, as I was highly intelligent and socially awkward. But I grew away from the faith starting in 5th or 6th grade. One Sunday, the Gospel reading was all about Jesus scourging the moneychangers out of the temple. The Homily was delivered not by the priest, but by a lay person, who explained to us why every Catholic should subscribe to the Liguorian magazine.

As a youngster at the time, it never occurred to me that the priest, as a protest against being forced to essentially interrupt Mass with a commercial, may have specifically chosen that text. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has a prescribed set of readings for each day’s Mass, so it could have been just a coincidence.  In either case, the contradiction struck me, as did the apparent hypocrisy. I began to question not my faith, but the integrity of the Roman Catholic Church. To be sure, there were many truly Godly people associated with my church, people who inspired me to follow their example. But I wasn’t questioning the people just the institution.

A few years later, at a Catholic summer camp, I was very discreetly propositioned by a seminarian. Nothing happened, and he was discreet enough that I didn’t really catch on to what he was after until years later, when the scandal broke wide open. I just knew that the direction of the conversation made me extremely uncomfortable. By the time I went into the Navy in 1984, I still identified myself as Catholic, but I no longer went to church.  When the news of the pedophile priests and the Catholic coverup came out, I broke from the church entirely. I kept most of my Catholic beliefs, but I wanted nothing to do with an institution that valued its own reputation over the safety of its children.

That began a long period of faith without form. I believed in God, but wasn’t particularly active about it. I got married, had kids, got divorced, raised my kids always believing, and acting in accordance with that belief as best I could, but with no passion or conviction. I was a sleeping Christian.

About eight years ago, with the help of some very good friends, I woke up and found out what I’d been missing. Yes, the conviction for all the things I’d done wrong, but also the passion of living for Something bigger than myself, bigger than the world. And since then, I’ve tried to walk closer to God, letting Him set my direction.  It’s been challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding thing I’ve done.

Now, with that background, let’s talk about my children. Looking back on my childhood in the church, I decided I wasn’t going to “force” my kids to go to church. If they wanted to go, I would encourage them and support them, but it was up to them. In East Tennessee, there is a church on nearly every street corner, so they had plenty of opportunities, and they each went to several different churches with their friends.  Several of them were baptized and all of them gained something from the experience.

But it was never a priority for them because it was never a priority for me.

And that is where I disagree with Monica. If I had to do it all over again, God would have been a much bigger part of our lives as the kids grew up. Not so much for behavior; as I said, even at my most agnostic, I still followed my core principles, which were drilled into me in Catholic school. So while I set as good of an example for my children as I could on what it meant to be a Christian man, I never told them that I was being a Christian. I never really told them why my behavior was so much more than just doing the right thing. We do the right thing not to earn our way into Heaven; that price has already been paid. We do the right thing because it pleases our Creator, our Father. There’s a huge difference there, the difference between following an arid set of behavioral prescripts designed to allow us to function successfully as a social community, and having a strong emotional connection to the One who created us.

No, we don’t need a church to realize that connection; and we don’t need to hold to a specific dogma. But a community of people believing the same general things reinforces itself, making an extremely difficult task a little bit easier. Just as importantly, taking that time and devoting it to God shows our children that we place God in a position of priority.

To a large extent, our children will prioritize what we prioritize. Yes, there will be rebellion along the way, as our children become young adults and assert their independence, but the lessons learned in childhood remain, and will return as adolescent rebellion mellows into adult understanding. Our entire job as parents is to instill the things that we believe are important into our children. We give them the lessons we’ve learned over a hard life. We hope that they can learn from our mistakes and can go further than we ever did. We lead them until they are ready to stand on their own.

To make that happen, we must teach them about the things we value the most. And if we are children of God, we must share that with our children.

Read more of Rich Hailey’s writing about everything at

Follow him on Twitter and Facebook