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A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation
by wade clark roof
harpercollins, 311 pages, $20

Beyond Establishment: Protestant Identity in a Post-Protestant Age
ed. jackson carroll and wade clark roof
westminster/john knox press, 361 pages, $19.99

It is well known that the serious decline in membership of the “mainline,” or liberal, branches of American Protestantism is largely due to the loss of a substantial portion of their adherents who were born after World War II. Now sociologist Wade Clark Roof’s A Generation of Seekers, based on his recent study of the religion of the baby boom generation, shows that a sizable proportion of Catholics and conservative Protestants have also left the religious traditions in which they were brought up. Fully 42 percent of Catholic baby boomers are currently unchurched, which is a mere three percentage points lower than the figure for mainline Protestants. Conservative Protestants are least likely to have severed their ties with organized religion, but 36 percent of them have also done so, a rate that is surprisingly high in view of the widespread belief that their segment of American Christianity is rapidly growing.

The real advantage enjoyed by conservative Protestantism among baby boomers is its ability to limit losses by attracting dropouts from other branches of Christianity. Although only 28 percent of baby boomers were brought up as conservative Protestants, that tradition now includes 36 percent of baby boomers who are active in a church. Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations, on the other hand, contain a smaller proportion of the church-going population than they did when baby boomers were in Sunday School.

Mainline Protestant losses are especially severe, a fact that has inspired several recent studies, including those contained in Beyond Establishment, edited by Roof and Jackson Carroll, which focuses on the erosion of denominational culture and identity. The book’s sixteen chapters, all by different authors, treat such features of denominational life as campus ministry, church-related colleges, women’s organizations, theological schools, and foreign missions.

The chapters are of uneven quality, but a few offer much food for thought. Among the most provocative is that by Daniel V. A. Olson, which takes issue with the notion that modern urban life weakens all forms of religion. It weakens, he argues, only those religions that are minimally differentiated from the secular culture, but it actually facilitates the gathering of critical masses of people with distinctive religious views who are motivated to create and maintain strong group ties. As a case in point, today’s rapidly growing evangelical megachurches are almost entirely urban phenomena.

Although for several generations mainline Protestant culture has resembled that of the larger middle class, Catholic teaching has been at odds with this culture on various issues. Roof’s baby boom data show, however, that large numbers of Catholics have broken decisively with many of the Church’s teachings. By overwhelming majorities, younger Catholics believe that one can be a good Catholic without going to mass every Sunday and without obeying the Church’s teaching on divorce, remarriage, and abortion. Conservative Protestant baby boomers are the most likely of all to oppose the secular drift of the times, but Roof reports that few of them endorse traditional Protestant norms against dancing, drinking, and movie-going, and strictness about Sabbath observance. Moreover, a multitude of baby boomers, both inside and outside the churches, reject doctrinally assertive forms of faith. Almost half agree with the statement that “all religions are equally true and good.” 

Roof’s book is informative and well-written, but its two major interpretive themes are open to question. One of them is the hypothesis that the countercultural shift of the 1960s is responsible for the patterns now observed in the religious proclivities of younger Americans. The other theme, reflected in the title of the book, is the contention that most baby boomers are “seekers” in the realm of religion.

The counterculture did make a difference in American life, but it is likely that the trends Roof documents have older sources as well. In any event, a careful reading of the text suggests that the counterculture thesis is only the best of a variety of rather weak statistically grounded “explanations” of the trends. Roof’s seekership thesis seems even less well-grounded, unless one defines seekers as those who have ever questioned anything they learned about religion when they were children. Seekers are usually defined, however, as people for whom the religious quest is a central and compelling concern. By this more common definition, only a tiny fraction of Roof’s baby boomers qualify as seekers. A very large number of religious drop-outs, for example, simply drifted away from church without knowing exactly why. Many rarely discuss religion at all. Seekers do not hesitate to drop old identities and assume new ones, but the great bulk of baby boomers have retained the denominational identities of their childhood. They may be angry unchurched Catholics or apathetic unchurched Presbyterians, but they still think of themselves as Catholics and Presbyterians. Indeed, the persistence of religious identities, however expressed, underlies the religious ferment of our times—and may just offer an interesting, if at present cloudy, prospect for the future.

Benton Johnson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon.