Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

John Paul Sharp February 2013 Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

I am a writer, director, and performing artist living atop the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. For the purposes of furthering my learning in human development, I sent out a public request on Facebook with detailed questions for any friends’ adolescent children to answer regarding development and culture. I received two responses: one from a singing colleague’s White fifteen-yearold daughter in Mill Creek, Washington (i.e., “Sally”), and one from my White seventeen-year-old niece in Wichita, Kansas. Because I do not know Sally at all, I decided to analyze and compare her answers to my own experiences, rather than use my niece’s response which may be influenced by our family relationship. Freudian ego-psychologist Erik Erikson is perhaps the most well-known theorist when it comes to adolescence. He expanded upon Freud’s stages of development and believed adolescents, of approximately twelve to eighteen years of age, search for their predetermined identity based on successful resolutions of earlier conflicts (Cramer, Flynn, & LaFave, 1997). Erikson believed the end-goal of this identity search is fidelity, or purpose in life. When an adolescent struggles or fails to choose an identity, his or her individual ego suffers a crisis with consequences that extend far into adulthood (Côté & Levine, 1982, p. 45).

Religion can be strengthening.
I asked Sally about her goals for her adult life and whether they’ve changed in the last year. I wanted to get a sense of how great a purpose she has chosen for her own life:
“Probably (I want) to graduate high school and to get into BYU with a scholarship. I want to get at least a bachelors degree and get married in the temple. I want to get married and have a family, but first I want to do something with my education. I don’t know what yet though. I don’t know if I want to do

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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

volleyball anymore. It used to be a pretty significant goal for me to possibly get a volleyball scholarship, but now I think that I’m going to pursue music more.”

It is striking to me how her career and education goals are relatively unclear, but her relationship goals are very specific. She knows she wants to get married at a temple and have children. I believe her seemingly strong sense of fidelity is greatly influenced by an early development of religious identity. Sally is a Latter Day Saints Mormon and she is regularly surrounded by peers, adults, and instructors who are of her same faith:
“Um…. I don’t really identify with a specific heritage, but I’m going to count Mormonism as a culture. I’ve been raised in the LDS church my entire life, and it has been a major influence on who I am as a person. Whenever I can, or if the opportunity ever arises, I love to talk to people about Joseph Smith and the origins of the church. There are quite a few LDS kids who go to my school. Every morning before school, I have seminary, a scripture study class, with all of the LDS kids that go to my school. Plus I have classes and extra-curricular activities with them.”

Studies and literature searches have shown solid, continued participation and involvement in a religious community greatly contributes to the formation of child’s religious identity (Wang, 2012). I believe Sally’s sense of fidelity is seemingly so strong because Mormon education has always been so pervasive to her world. Sally’s background and life context is moderately similar to those of adolescents interviewed in an early 1990s study performed by psychologists to investigate the relationship between fidelity, religion, and identity formation for religious minority adolescents, specifically 36 Mormon adolescents and 47 Catholic and Protestant adolescents. While Mormons can be seen as minorities in the broader context of America, this particular study was performed in an environment where the demographics of the area the adolescents lived in was 90% and Catholic and Protestants made up approximately 2% of the local community (Markstrom-Adams, Hofstra, & Dougher, 1994, p. 458).

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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

The basis for measuring fidelity in this study was a questionnaire based on James Marcia’s operationalization of Erikson’s theory, which proposes identity formation occurs through two processes of exploration and commitment yielding four possible statuses:
Identity Achieved Moratorium Foreclosed Diffused High Exploration, High Commitment High Exploration, Low Commitment Low Exploration, High Commitment Low Exploration, Low Commitment

(Markstrom-Adams, Hofstra, & Dougher, 1994, p. 458). The researchers indicated their results provided support for their belief that Mormon adolescents share similar developmental experiences as ethnic minorities through assigned identity, in which their identity formation is created through low exploration and high commitment. The results of the study found Mormon adolescents who go to church regularly showed significant interpersonal identity achievement and ideological foreclosure over both Non-Mormon adolescents and Mormon adolescents who do not attend church regularly (Markstrom-Adams, Hofstra, & Dougher, 1994, p. 465). Because Sally is highly and positively integrated into her religious community, I believe she has a higher chance of experiencing a successful, relatively painless transition into adulthood than I did.

Religion can be destructive.
In my own experience, I grew up mostly nonreligious. When I was ten years old, I began attending an evangelistic Southern Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas with my best friend and his family. At first, I had a great time socializing with my peers and having fun. Soon, I started asking my

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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

mother to come with us and she began to find her own connections to others in ways she needed. As I began to reach the age of adolescence, grappling with my identity as a gay male, I started receiving messages of shame from authorities and peers. Each week, I learned more and more how my identity was considered unacceptable by not just the people at my church, but the people at my school, the characters in television and movies, and just about everyone around me. As I progressed through high school in the mid-1990s, I had no gay male role models. To meet and learn about other gay men, I often put myself in dangerous situations and behaviors (e.g., drinking, doing drugs, unprotected, and statutory rape from men twice my age). The Gay-Straight Alliances of the new millennium were not as common in high schools when I was student and I often was scared of physical danger from peers when at or around school. Because Internet technology evolved quickly when I was young, I was able to secure a better future for myself outside of Kansas and moved to San Francisco at age 18 to work for a gay and lesbian media corporation. As stated previously, Erikson’s theory indicates adolescents who struggle with fidelity can have a long-lasting crisis period before reaching adulthood. I believe this is what happened with me. Even though I had a successful career and was surrounded by great role models, my identity formation as a gay man was so unexplored through healthy avenues that I continued to put myself through the same dangerous situations and behaviors. The consequences of those behaviors as well as the consequences of the economic bubble from the Internet industry left me unemployed by the time I was nearly 21 years old and I developed a serious addiction to methamphetamines and sex for two years. During the height of my addiction, I almost permanently lost control of my mental faculties due to the accumulation of 1) a long-term lack of sleep, 2) a long-term lack of
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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

proper nutrition, and 3) the psychologically destructive nature of the relationships I had with men who manipulated me into having sex with them for drugs and men who sometimes raped and abused me. When I turned 23, I knew if I didn’t leave San Francisco, I would die. So, I put everything I could in some luggage, bought an Amtrak ticket and went back to Kansas. For the next nine months, I underwent intensive therapy paid for by my godmother. I was able to reestablish relationships with my family members and after ten months, moved to Denver to start my career in music, learning, and performing. I don’t believe I achieved the kind of confidence Sally expressed in her response until I reached 24 years-of-age.

Warning: Religion is powerful and life is fluid!
By comparing Sally’s experiences with my own, I think religion and religious identity can be extremely strengthening as well as extremely destructive, depending on how well our predetermined background (i.e., unchangeable circumstances like the color of our skin, our sexual orientation and gender identity) matches the appropriateness of our childhood culture. Whereas Sally may have experienced little conflict from her religion, I experienced traumatic conflict. Because people and our lives are not static, there is possibly a constant potential for religion to harm individuals who experience life-changes or make life-changing decisions which do not meet the acceptable standards of their religious community. Because of this, I believe one’s identity formation is mutable throughout our entire lives. The role of the secular community is equally important to ensure individuals are equipped to make better decisions about life and in learning and expressing who they wish to be. I suspect the greater exposure and therefore, tolerance, a child has for a diverse range of people, the better equipped a child will be to successfully, confidently, and healthily achieve and express fidelity for themselves and their society.
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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

References
Côté, J., & Levine, C. (1982). Identity statuses, neuroticism, dogmatism, and purpose in life. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 12(1), 43 – 53. Cramer, C., Flynn, B., & LaFave, A. (1997). Erik Erikson’s 8 stages of psychosocial development. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from the State University of New York College at Cortland: http://web.cortland.edu/andersmd/ERIK/stage5.HTML Markstrom-Adams, C., Hofstra, G., & Dougher, K. (1994). The ego-virtue of fidelity: A case for the study of religion and identity formation in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 23(4), 453 - 469. Wang, T. (2012). Religious identity formation among adolescents: The role of religious secondary schools. A Journal of the International Christian Community for Teacher Education, 7(2), n.p. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from http://icctejournal.org/issues/v7i2/v7i2-wang/

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Identity, Religion, and Fidelity: An Observation of Adolescence.

John Paul Sharp

Appendix – Interview Guide
What does having family mean to you and what needs do you have that your family is able to provide for you? What does having friends mean to you and what needs do you have that your friends are able to provide for you?? Where did you grow up and what was it like for you? What are the most important goals in life that you have? How are your plans different than those of your friends and family members? Most all people in America are of mixed heritage, with what culture(s) do you most strongly identify and do you express the history of your culture(s) to other people? Are you aware of other people in this school who are also from the same culture group as you are?

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