Bruce A. Chadwick, Brent L. Top, and Richard J. McClendon, “Does Religion Matter?,” in Shield of Faith: The Power of Religion in the Lives of LDS Youth and Young Adults (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 1–22.
This book is the result of nearly two decades of research focusing on the influence of religion generally and of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ specifically in the lives of Latter-day Saint (LDS) teenagers and young adults. Some of the groups were enrolled in college, and some were not. Some studies include returned missionaries up to age 40. The initial impetus for our research came from reading the work of sociologists in the 1960s and 1970s who claimed that religion had declined in significance to the point that it was irrelevant in the daily life of Americans. Some social scientists have gone so far as to argue that religion is not only irrelevant but actually harmful.
Such arguments seemed to fly in the face of our own experience, both academic and personal. Although secularism is on the rise in many parts of the world, religion remains an important influence in the lives of many people, including many Latter-day Saints. This seems readily apparent as one observes the practices of faithful Latter-day Saint families. Our challenge, however, was to find out, through scientific studies and analysis of empirical evidence, what role religion actually plays in the lives of LDS teenagers and young adults. There have been relatively few studies on the religiosity of LDS teens and young adults, and these have been largely discounted by social scientists.
In 1977, a study conducted by researchers from Brigham Young University and published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that LDS teens who were regularly involved in Church activities and who espoused the religious teachings of the Church were less involved in delinquent or deviant behaviors (Albrecht, Chadwick, & Alcorn). Critics of that early work argued that a “real” test of the importance of religion could not be done in Utah or in other LDS strongholds where LDS teens are a large majority of the students in the schools. Because of the large proportion of LDS teens in Utah high schools, critics maintained that religion in Utah is actually a unique social pressure and thus is not a fair test of the influence of personal religious behavior.
This criticism stemmed in a large degree from the mixed results of previous research concerning the relationship between religiosity and delinquency. Some studies showed that teens who belonged to a church and attended services engaged in less delinquent behavior than youth who did not (Hirschi & Stark, 1969; Burkett & White, 1974; Brownfield & Sorenson, 1991; Chadwick & Top, 1993; Free, 1994). On the other hand, many studies found little or no difference in delinquent behavior between churched and unchurched youth (Cochran & Akers, 1989; Cochran, Wood, & Arneklev, 1994; Benda & Corwyn, 1997; Tittle and Welch, 1983; and Baier and Wright, 2001, provide insightful reviews of the inconsistencies found in this research).
From this mixed bag of results, it became clear that additional research was necessary. One of our primary objectives in compiling this book has been to test a theory, now prominent in the sociology of religion, that has become known as the religious ecology theory. This theory alleges that religion only has behavior-affecting power within a religious community with many social restraints. In other words, religion only has power as a result of social contexts, not as a result of personal faith or spirituality. This theory implies that a person does not necessarily live his or her religion because of conviction, but rather because of cultural or social pressures. Such a view seems to diminish the real power of religion. We wanted to know whether or not religion itself has power to affect the lives of teens and young adults or if it is only part of a social culture.
The influence of religion is often so pervasive in the life of a Latter-day Saint that we did not know where to focus our attention; there are so many dimensions that can and should be examined. We decided to focus our research on teens and young adults because this turbulent time of life can presumably provide a rigorous test of the role of religion in everyday life. It seems to be a time of life when a variety of forces other than religion hold great sway. The desire to “fit in,” so intense in the lives of this age-group, exposes youth to powerful peer pressures. Many teens are pressured by peers to drink alcohol, to use a variety of recreational drugs, to participate in premarital sex, to cheat on schoolwork, and even to hassle or bully other kids. A number of LDS students validated this view of the high school environment; many wrote on their questionnaires that their parents had no idea of the vulgar language, crude behavior, and pressures to violate the standards of the Church that students face in school every day.
If studies show that religion can counter such pressures and opportunities, then there is evidence that religion is a meaningful force in the lives of young members of the Church. Thus we began our study on how religion impacts the delinquent behaviors of LDS high school students. Over time, our research expanded to also examine the effects of religion on the lives of LDS young adults (ages 18–29). This book reports on our findings from these studies. While there are many important findings that could be examined and discussed, we have limited our focus to the role of religion on LDS teens and young adults.
In the first phase of our research, we collected data from LDS high school students living along the East Coast from upstate New York to North Carolina. Each of these students attended a high school where there were few other LDS students. We also collected data from the Pacific Northwest because social scientists have identified this region as the most secular and nonreligious part of the United States (Stark & Bainbridge, 1996); thus this area would provide the most rigorous test of the religious ecology theory. Not only are LDS high school students in Oregon and Washington a minority in their high schools, but the general social climate there appears to be somewhat hostile to religion.
It is interesting to note that we found the same strong link between religion and delinquency in these different regions of the United States as we did in Utah. This is impressive evidence that suggests that personal religious activity—including beliefs, values, and obedience to commandments—is a powerful influence in the lives of LDS teenagers regardless of differing environments or pressures in their lives. These results raised the question of whether or not the gospel has the same impact on teenagers in different cultures and societies. In order to test this notion, we next collected information from LDS high school students in Great Britain, including England, Scotland, and Wales. Great Britain is even more secular than the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Thus, it provided another opportunity to test the influence of the gospel in a social environment that is hostile to religion.
Finally, we studied LDS high school students in Mexico. Students in both Great Britain and Mexico allowed us the interesting opportunity to ascertain the gospel’s influence on LDS youth living in cultures different from those in the United States. Again, we were pleased to discover that in Great Britain and Mexico active LDS youth engaged in much less antisocial or immoral behavior than less-active youth. Each of these different religious cultures showed that higher levels of religiosity resulted in lower levels of delinquent behavior.
Religious behavior must be defined as involving more than merely being baptized and attending church. Beliefs, values, obedience to commandments, and spiritual feelings are all a part of the mix. Because we expanded our definition of religiosity, our studies suggested a greater relationship between religiosity and reduced delinquency. Earlier studies had defined religiosity merely as affiliation with a denomination and attendance at church services. No wonder the results of early studies were mixed; religiosity is much more complex than that.
In our studies we included seven dimensions of religiosity to assess religion’s influence in the lives of LDS youth: (1) public religious behavior, (2) religious beliefs, (3) private religious behavior, (4) spiritual experiences, (5) family religious activities, (6) importance of religion, and (7) feelings of acceptance in church.
Church membership and attendance are public religious behaviors. Both, to a large degree, can be influenced or even controlled by parents who may decide to enroll their children in a local congregation and take them to church. Thus these behaviors do not adequately measure personal religiosity. In our research we included additional behaviors, such as attending seminary, obeying the Word of Wisdom, and sharing testimonies in meetings, since these actions are also good measures of public expressions of religiosity. In addition, we expanded the notion of religiosity to include religious beliefs, private religious behavior, spiritual experiences, family religiosity, and acceptance among other members at church.
Religious beliefs are the foundation upon which a religious orientation is based and thus are a significant component of religiosity. In our studies we looked at a large number of religious beliefs, including traditional Christian beliefs and unique LDS beliefs. For example, we asked the students if they believed that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that the Bible is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Book of Mormon is true.
Private religious behaviors, sometimes occurring without parental awareness, are also a very important dimension of religiosity. Private religious behaviors are initiated by the youth rather than by their parents or Church leaders. Personally praying and reading the scriptures are religious behaviors that originate from within the youth and demonstrate that the young person has internalized religious principles. These behaviors are significant evidence of a testimony of the gospel.
Spiritual feelings or experiences are also an important dimension of religion that influences the lives of young people. Those young people who have felt the Spirit’s presence in their lives have experienced a powerful personal manifestation of God’s existence and love. We asked the youth if they have felt that the Holy Ghost has guided them, if they have felt the Spirit witness the truth of something studied, or if they have felt the peace brought by the Spirit. These are powerful spiritual experiences resulting in the internalization of religiosity.
Social scientists have noted that religion has more impact in a person’s life if religion is important to the person, regardless of what the person believes or how he or she behaves. This rather commonsense notion has called attention to the salience of religion for each individual. In order to tap this dimension of religiosity, we asked how important God and religion are to the students and if the students try to keep the commandments.
Obviously parents influence their children’s religiosity in a number of ways besides taking them to church. Parents teach their children religious principles, involve them in Christian service, and support them in other religious activities. Therefore, we studied the impact of family religiosity—including holding family home evening, family prayer, and family scripture study—on the behavior of teenagers in LDS families. We also examined whether or not mothers’ and fathers’ personal righteous living was a positive example that influenced their teenagers’ behavior.
Friends, leaders, and teachers in a local ward also impact religious feelings and activity. Acceptance by leaders, advisors, teachers, and friends affect a young person’s religious involvement, which in turn impacts other areas of their lives. Thus we included in our study questions regarding feelings of fitting in or feelings of rejection and neglect by other youth, leaders, and the ward in general.
We were also interested in ascertaining if some aspects of religiosity are more important than others in directing youth to keep their feet on the path of gospel righteousness. While all seven aspects of religiosity are related to delinquency, private spiritual experiences were the most powerful influence in avoiding delinquency.
Parents, school officials, church leaders, and political leaders in contemporary society are concerned about delinquency and related antisocial behavior. In recent years, special attention has been given to delinquency in public schools. Cases of school violence have called attention to problems such as bullying and harassment in high schools across the country. The rejection and persecution that some students face have contributed to their harming classmates and teachers. Within the walls of most high schools exists a powerful subculture that fosters drinking, drug use, premarital sex, and putting down and bullying others. High school temptations and pressures may negatively affect LDS youth.
There is also concern that immature teenagers may make youthful mistakes that will have long-term, devastating effects on their lives. Experimenting with drugs may lead to addiction, dropping out of school, or possibly even a life of petty crime to support a drug habit. Premarital sexual behavior may result in unwanted pregnancy, early marriage, or sexually transmitted diseases. Shoplifting, vandalism, and similar activities may result in a criminal record that haunts a young person for years after the fact.
We anticipated that youth who were more active in the Church would have lower rates of delinquency than those who were less active. If religion reduced delinquency among LDS teens, this would be powerful evidence supporting the claim that religion significantly improves the quality of the lives of members of the Church.
Initially, we focused on three widely accepted categories of delinquency. The first category of delinquent activity consists of crimes or offenses against other people, usually fellow teenagers. These include picking on kids at school, getting into fights, pressuring people to engage in sex, making obscene phone calls, and similar acts that harm another person.
The second category of delinquent behaviors is property offenses. These include shoplifting, stealing, and vandalism.
The third is status offenses, sometimes called victimless offenses. These include cheating on tests, truancy, running away from home, underage smoking and drinking, drug use, and involvement in premarital sex. Some of these behaviors are not against the law but violate important LDS standards nonetheless. As the research progressed, we found ourselves conducting detailed analyses of specific delinquent behaviors such as premarital sexual activity, drug use, and victimization by peers.
For example, analyses of data concerning premarital sexual activity revealed that more LDS young women are sexually active than are LDS young men. This finding is contrary to national trends of youth behavior and motivated us to launch a special study focusing on the initiation of sexual activity among LDS young women. We conducted in-depth interviews with 50 young women under the age of 18 living in Utah County who had given birth to a baby out of wedlock. The interview sought information about why LDS young women engage in sexual activity, their response to being pregnant, and how they dealt with issues like the decision to put their baby up for adoption.
Peer pressure, especially in high school, is the single most important factor producing antisocial behavior among adolescents (Agnew, 1991; Thornberry, Lizotte, Krohn, Farnworth, & Jang, 1994; Osgood, Wilson, O’Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996; Akers, 1997). Additionally, peers who engage in delinquent behaviors serve as role models—regardless of whether or not they pressure others to participate. Parents are familiar with teens’ claim, “Yes, some of my friends do things that are wrong, but they don’t pressure me, so hanging out with them is not a danger.” Peer pressures and examples can entice youth into unacceptable and unworthy behaviors.
Likewise, positive peer examples exert a different kind of influence—a positive pressure to do what is right and responsible. Thus, we sought to determine whether and to what extent religiosity counters inappropriate peer pressures and helps youth to remain true to gospel principles, Church standards, and parental expectations. We examined the influence of overt peer pressure as well as the more subtle influence of peer example.
Parents and other family members are major influences in the lives of teenagers, even though teens generally seek some independence from family. There is a large body of literature documenting the impact of parenting practices on teen behavior, including delinquency, academic achievement, and self-esteem. Bonds of love between parents and their children as well as setting rules, ascertaining obedience, and administering appropriate punishment all have a powerful influence on teenagers’ lives (Baumrind, 1991; Barber & Shagle, 1992; Barnes & Farrell, 1992; Kurdek & Fine, 1994; Steinberg, Fletcher, & Darling, 1994; Barber, 1996; Barber, 1997; Barber, 2001).
To test the influence of religion in real-life situations, we included peer pressure, examples of friends, and a number of family characteristics in our models predicting delinquency, academic achievement, self-esteem, and other behaviors. The effects of religion were assessed in the context of peer pressure, peer examples, family structure, single versus two-parent families, maternal employment, relationship with parents, parental monitoring of behavior, and parents’ granting of psychological autonomy, or helping children establish their own choices and values. In all of our studies, religiosity consistently emerged from among the other factors as one of the most significant influences in the lives of LDS teens and young adults.
Academic achievement can open doors to a wide range of opportunities that enhance the quality of life. The labor market in the United States continues to change in ways that severely handicap those with limited education. Church leaders recognize this and encourage members, both young and old, to further their education whenever possible.
Because of this, we decided to investigate the influence of religion on academic achievement and aspirations. A high school diploma is often essential to secure even minimum-wage jobs in this country, and a diploma, along with good grades, is usually necessary for admittance to vocational and technical schools or to colleges and universities. We wondered whether those youth who are more active in the Church do better in school and desire more education than those who are less active. If religion has a positive influence on a youth’s school performance, it would be of considerable interest to parents, religious leaders, and school officials.
Another reason we focused on education is that most research has found that education fosters secularization and, along with it, a significant decrease in religiosity among college-age and older individuals. It has been found that those who go on to college, and especially to graduate or professional school, often appear to replace their religious faith with science and reason (Berger, 1967; Wilson, 1985; Dobbelaere, 1999). Interestingly, higher education does not always secularize adults. In fact, members of the Church with a higher education are shown to have stronger religious commitment and activity than those with less education (Albrecht & Heaton, 1984; Stott, 1984; Top & Chadwick, 2001; Merrill, Lyon, & Jensen, 2003).
Given this finding concerning adult members of the Church, we wondered whether increased religiosity would likewise strengthen educational ambition and achievement among LDS youth. Thus, we tested the influence of religiosity on LDS students’ performance in high school, feelings about education, and intentions to obtain post–high school training.
The media makes much of self-esteem and its importance to adolescents. Although some sensational media reporting overemphasizes the significance of self-esteem, feelings of self-worth tied to the realization of being a son or daughter of God are important in the lives of LDS youth. We studied whether or not young men and young women who are committed to the gospel have stronger feelings of self-worth than those who are less committed.
Many findings link high self-esteem to a variety of socially desired behaviors, such as academic achievement, leadership, and marital satisfaction (Andrews, 1984; Chandler, 1985; Ross & Broh, 2000; Sacco & Phares, 2001; Kumashiro, Finkel, & Rusbult, 2002; Murray, Bellavia, Rose, & Griffin, 2003; D’Amico & Cardaci, 2003). On the other hand, low self-esteem has been linked to drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, illegitimate births, delinquency, dropping out of high school, and unemployment (Jurich & Andrews, 1984; Chassin & Stager, 1984; Oates & Forrest, 1985; Sutherland & Shepherd, 2002).
Interestingly, some social scientists and therapists argue that religion often creates feelings of guilt in youth because they do not achieve the perfection they think God demands. Such guilt supposedly has an adverse effect on their feelings of self-worth or self-esteem (Gartner, 1983; Moberg, 1983).
Given these findings that link self-esteem to behaviors such as higher academic achievement and lower delinquency, we were anxious to ascertain whether religiosity was related to positive feelings of self-worth among LDS youth, since this would be a very significant finding.
Selecting a mate is one of the most important decisions for an LDS young adult. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles, emphasizes the importance of marriage and family. Parents and Church leaders alike are very concerned that LDS youth establish righteous families. Unfortunately, there are a number of trends in American society that are hindering LDS temple marriages. The past three decades have witnessed a steady increase in premarital sex and cohabitation. Along with a dramatic increase in divorce, these trends create doubt in the minds of many youth concerning the necessity and sanctity of marriage.
A recent study of 1,000 coeds attending colleges and universities across this county found that dating has all but disappeared from campuses (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001). Only half of the coeds reported six or more dates during their entire college career. One-third of young women had two or fewer dates during those four years. Instead of dating, college students now “hang out” in mixed groups in a variety of settings, including apartments, dormitory rooms, student centers, pizza parlors, coffee shops, and bars.
Young people who hang out often “hook up” with a member of the opposite sex. Hooking up usually involves drinking and some degree of sexual intimacy. Several research studies have found that over 70% of all college students have sex at least once during the school year (Milanese, 2002). As a consequence of the popularity of hanging out and hooking up, many college students have shifted their focus from seeking marriage to seeking participation in casual sexual relationships. Phrases like “friends with benefits,” “sex without strings,” and “relationships without rings” are tossed around on campus, and sexual intimacy has evolved into something as casual as a goodnight kiss.
This somewhat startling description of the mate selection process on American campuses motivated us to conduct a study among BYU, BYU–Idaho, and BYU–Hawaii students to ascertain if these trends had invaded Church campuses as well. Interestingly, a non-LDS researcher suggested that, in light of studies about morality on college campuses, parents should steer their children “to religiously affiliated colleges that attract like-minded people” (Kass, 1997). This will help children avoid the hanging-out and hooking-up culture.
We wanted to ascertain whether the BYU campuses’ unique dating culture offers the protection that Kass spoke of. In addition, we studied perceptions about marriage, intentions to marry, traits sought in a potential spouse, barriers to marriage, and the point at which an LDS young adult knows that he or she has found the right person to marry.
Each year, approximately 30,000 LDS young adults, primarily young men, leave their homes to serve missions in various countries throughout the world. For many youth, a mission is a life-altering experience that strengthens testimony and instills lofty horizons. Once these young adults return home from missionary service, many go on to further their education, begin a career, marry, and establish a family.
Missionary service undoubtedly affects many aspects of LDS young adults’ lives, including education and career, family life, and involvement in the Church. Missionary work has been a major focus of the Church since the early days of the Restoration. In 1977, President Spencer W. Kimball made it clear that young men in the Church have an obligation to serve a mission. Recently the “bar” permitting missionary service has been raised. Although all young men are encouraged to serve, only the worthy and prepared are allowed this sacred experience. We sought to identify the lasting effects of missionary service in the lives of young adults.
We conducted a study of returned missionaries in order to answer three general questions. The first question is, How are returned missionaries doing in their current spiritual, educational, career, and family pursuits? We looked at the educational attainment, career, family life, and religious activity of men and women who had been back from their missions 2, 5, 10, and 17 years. These major aspects of life provide an insightful portrait of the success of returned missionaries in the various roles of adulthood.
Part of this assessment was to identify similarities and differences between men and women in their lives after a mission. Duke and Johnson (1998) surmise that for LDS returned missionaries in general, “the experiences of men and women are quite different and have a significant impact on the way they feel and worship.” Given that young men often define missionary service as an obligation while young women do not, we sought to understand the unique life outcomes for men and women after they return home from a mission.
The second question we set out to answer is, Are missionaries who returned home three decades ago as committed to the gospel as those who have returned more recently? We wanted to ascertain whether the so-called secularization of American society has reduced the faithfulness of returned missionaries (Lechner, 1991; Yamane, 1997). Over 30 years ago, John Madsen (1977) surveyed a large sample of returned missionaries; we compared the religiosity found in the Madsen study to that of the returned missionaries in our study. We anticipated that the religiosity among returned missionaries has at least remained comparable or has perhaps even increased.
Finally, the third question is, What can parents, Church leaders, and the returned missionaries themselves do to ease the adjustment of returning home after a mission? We identified the challenges returned missionaries face; how they cope with these challenges; and what their parents, bishops, elders quorum presidents, Relief Society presidents, and others can do to assist in the adjustment back to life at home. We especially focused on the continued Church activity of the returned missionaries.
While conducting our study of returned missionaries, we were struck by the fact that currently only 30% of LDS young men who live in the United States serve a mission. We became curious about the other 70%. This is a very large proportion of the young men in the Church, and little is known about them. We anticipated that many of the young men who had not served a mission later met an active LDS young woman, married her in the temple, and raised a family in the gospel.
We also collected information about schooling, career development, family life, and Church activity from young men and young women who did not go on missions but were the same age as the returned missionaries we studied. In other words, we examined the activities and accomplishments of young men and women who would have been back from a mission 2, 5, 10, and 17 years, just like their returned-missionary counterparts of the same age.
The transition and maturation experiences of LDS teens and young adults we focused on in our 17-year research program included avoiding delinquency; enhancing academic achievement and educational aspirations; strengthening feelings of self-worth; serving a mission at the appropriate age; keeping the commandments; attaining an education; realizing greater self-worth in college; and finally dating, marrying, and establishing an eternal family in a gospel context.
This chapter gives an overview of our research program, including specific descriptions of our various research projects, the different factors we studied, and how we gathered the data. The chapters that follow are in-depth discussions of the various studies and our specific findings. We have organized the book so that each chapter discusses a different aspect of religious influence in the lives of LDS teens and young adults.
Chapter 2 describes the overall religiosity of high school students, college students, and young adults under the age of 40 years. We assess the acceptance of religious beliefs, attendance at church meetings, and other public behaviors; the performance of personal prayer and similar private behaviors; participation in religious experiences such as feeling the Spirit, family home evening, and other family religious practices; and acceptance among fellow Church members. We compare the religiosity of LDS high school students in different regions of the United States, in Great Britain, and in Mexico.
Several chapters examine religiosity’s relationship to behaviors that are critical to the maturation of youth into competent adults. LDS youth with high levels of religiosity are compared to those with lower levels. Chapter 3 demonstrates that religiosity may be a deterrent to delinquency. The level of religiosity among LDS high school students, as shown in Chapter 4, is directly related to success in school and youths’ educational aspirations and long-term academic achievement. How religiosity enhances feelings of self-worth or self-esteem is demonstrated in Chapter 5. In Chapter 6 we discuss the importance of religiosity to sexual purity. In that chapter we examine those factors that appear to be most directly linked to moral cleanliness in teens.
Latter-day Saint young adults are the primary focus in Chapters 7, 8, and 9. The findings discussed in these chapters are drawn from large samples of young adults throughout the United States and from Brigham Young University students at the three campus sites—Provo, Utah; Laie, Hawaii; and Rexburg, Idaho.
The role of religion in dating and marriage is the focus of Chapter 7. Factors affecting the postponement or avoidance of marriage are examined.
Chapter 8 examines the role of religion in the establishment of families among LDS young adults. We look at the relationships among temple marriage, marital satisfaction, divorce, and the rearing of children. As stated earlier, 70% of the young male members of the Church in the United States do not serve missions. As a result of this statistic, we felt it important to also understand the religiosity of that group. Thus, the chapter also reports the religiosity, educational accomplishments, family life, and careers of young adults who did not serve.
Chapter 9 explores the religiosity, educational attainment, family life, and career development of men and women who have served full-time missions for the Church. Information is included about the Church activity, family life, and careers of returned missionaries who have been home for 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and 17 years.
Considerable media attention has focused on antidepressant prescriptions being exceptionally common in Utah. Many point to the demands of LDS Church membership as the source of deep guilt and associate this guilt with depression in Utahns. Chapter 10 compares rates of depression among members of the Church and the general population. In addition, it explores the relationship between religiosity and mental health. The final chapter summarizes the myriad of findings reported in this book to illustrate the pervasive influence of the gospel on the lives of LDS teens and young adults.
Over the years, our findings from these different studies have been published in a variety of venues. These publications include both scholarly academic journals and works intended for a Latter-day Saint audience (see Appendix C). Many of these previously published articles are not easily accessible to the average reader. In addition, some of the results have never before been published and made available to a general audience. The purpose of this book is to bring all of this research together in a single volume that is accessible and understandable. It is our hope that this work will give a comprehensive view of the role of religion in the lives of Latter-day Saint teens and young adults and help parents, friends, and leaders to better understand what they can do to help young people face the challenges of our modern world.
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