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After the Baby Boomers:How Twenty- and Thirty-­Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion
by robert wuthnow
princeton university press, 312 pages, $29.95

Baby boomers are becoming old news and dated scholarship. For nearly a half century after the Second World War, the cohort of babies born between 1946 and 1964 profoundly transformed American culture and society—from parenting styles and media consumption to attitudes toward government and authority and sexuality.

Boomers also significantly transformed American religion, making it more casual, fluid, individualistic, and seeker-oriented. Immense mega­churches led by entrepreneurial pastors wearing jeans and Hawaiian print shirts, accompanied by energetic praise bands surrounded by plastic palm trees, are a well-established icon of evangelical Boomer religious sensibilities and demands. On the Catholic side, Boomers created the waves that churned up trendy folk Masses, resistance to the teachings of Humanae Vitae, and the like. The jeans-wearing priest or nun with guitar in hand is a familiar Boomer-era icon.

What Boomers did in mainline Protestantism—other than to step harder on the gas pedal of the theological liberal steamroller—is somewhat less clear. But, in any case, the time has come to recognize that the big Boomer wave is passing. The most important social influence that the graying Boomer generation portends today is draining dry the Social Security system through impending mass retirements.

Boomers as a generation have arguably tended to think everything is all about them. It might have seemed that way in 1968 or 1974, but the times they are a-changin’. With less fanfare than Boomers received coming up, a new generation of youth has come of age behind them and now occupies young adulthood. Nobody quite knows what to call it. Generation X? Generation Y? The Millennial Generation? Yet there they are—105 million strong, many more in absolute numbers than were young adults in the early 1970s. And, like the Boomers before them, this post-Boomer generation comes with a distinctive outlook and style that seems to be transforming American religion again.

By all accounts, they don’t want mega-congregations or plastic palm trees or Christianized lyrics to sing to Cat Stevens tunes. They want community. They want to transcend inherited boundaries and divides. Some want candles and incense. Others want group sculpture projects in church. Yet others want a new urban monasticism. Still others simply want their personal autonomy.

Or so it is said. But the problem with so much of what “is said” is that it is often based only on impressions and anecdotes. Having read nearly everything published on youth and religion, I can report that, in both church and secular publications, a lot of sketchy, trendy, agenda-driven, and sometimes simply sensationalized writing gets published and taken more seriously than it deserves to be.

Here is where Robert Wuthnow comes in. Wuthnow is a well-regarded senior scholar in the sociology of religion and culture. In his new book, After the Baby Boomers, he takes on the question of how post-Boomers are reshaping American religion, and he draws on an impressive variety of empirical data.

The central image that Wuthnow uses to describe twenty- and thirty-somethings, when it comes to life generally and religion specifically, is “tinkering.” They are, he says, “a generation of tinkerers.” These are a people who pragmatically piece together a jumble of disconnected and sometimes contradictory bits of belief and practice as they—supposedly autonomous individuals—see fit. Tinkering, Wuthnow argues, is a style or habit or strategy driven ultimately by the many economic and cultural uncertainties that characterize American society in recent decades. Tinkerers are resourceful and adaptable but also often live makeshift and less than fully coherent lives. Given what I know about young adults today and the adolescents that are now moving into young adulthood, I find Wuthnow’s story here entirely convincing.

The most valuable contribution that sociology has to offer is its ability to help people make sense of their lives in terms of what is happening around, to, and through them. Sociology helps to reveal, through big-picture perspectives and analyses, how what are normally seen as personal experiences and troubles actually happen within larger cultural, institutional, and social contexts.

The strongest part of After the Boomers is when Wuthnow does this for young adults: the problems of a particular cohabiting couple or a young person who can’t quite find her way in a career. One chapter, for instance, nicely elaborates seven key macro-social trends that have powerfully formed the lives of post-Boomers and, indirectly, the experiences of American churches of all denominations. In other chapters, Wuthnow examines further significant questions, such as who goes to church or not, why different religious traditions are gaining and losing members, faith and the Internet, recent trends in religious beliefs and spirituality, the role of families in faith formation, and generational differences when it comes to religion and public life.

Some of what Wuthnow writes we already knew. And I was surprised that he did not reference the leading scholar of emerging adulthood, Jeffrey Arnett. But, overall, it’s good stuff: true to empirical reality and smart in its interpretive meaning.

For those who have eyes to see it, Wuthnow also engages in some subtle but delicious cutting and thrusting with certain parties he seems to hold in low regard. Wuthnow’s normal style is to play his cards close to his vest—to name no names, to criticize only by implication. But in this book he takes on some rivals with a degree of explicitness I have not seen before. “Journalists” are among those who take repeated lashings for being simplistic and superficial in their social analyses of religion. The book also sustains an unobtrusive running argument against the rational-choice-driven “religious economies” paradigm that has influenced the sociology of religion in recent years. Religious leaders and pastors also come in for some gentle chiding from Wuthnow, who thinks they hold views about human action and social change that are simplistic and individualistic.

My distinct impression, in fact, is that mainline Protestant clergy and denominational leaders were the main audience for whom Wuthnow wrote After the Boomers. From start to finish, the book warns readers that, for example, “congregations can survive, but only if religious leaders roll up their sleeves and pay considerably more attention to young adults” and “unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt.”

He is correct here, I think—although it might be a false hope to suggest that if religious leaders do roll up their sleeves the future of American religion will not be in doubt. And exactly what rolling up sleeves would look like is a bit unclear. Wuthnow warns readers against trying to provide “ready-made answers” for young-adult tinkerers. He encourages the helping of young adults to “draw responsibly from the full range of resources at their disposal” so they pursue lives that “are collectively as well as personally beneficial.” He also advocates more forcefully emphasizing the common good in order to transcend religious polarization and continued culture wars. That all sounds right to me, I guess. But I also suspect that the theological and ideological divisions are so deep that these prescriptions will be read in different ways by different audiences, reinforcing the conflicts Wuthnow thinks they will ease.

If I were a traditionalist Catholic, I would ask Wuthnow these questions: What is wrong with “ready-made” answers? Isn’t that what catechisms and church teachings are for? Isn’t widespread catechism-phobia just another Boomer malady? Why ought we believe that the tinkerings of, say, an autonomous thirty-two-year-old generated by societal uncertainties should trump the verities of sacred tradition? What does it mean to “draw responsibly” from such options, anyway? And why should any sane person consider a “full range” of beliefs and lifestyles from which to choose? What does “collectively and personally beneficial” mean or look like? Aren’t these the core issues in hot dispute—namely, what a good person and society are—that fuel our religious and cultural divisions? More generally, do young adults in America really need more religious leaders to “pay attention” to them and take them “more seriously,” or do they need a countercultural Church that will boldly preach the devastating and liberating message of the gospel?

My guess is that Wuthnow would politely nod and reply, “Feel free to take that approach if you wish, but get ready to lose a lot of young people.” And he would probably be right. Therein lies a major challenge and dilemma for any church today that would seek both to adhere to historically orthodox doctrine and be evangelistically and culturally engaged.

Still, no matter where one stands on these questions, Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers offers an important read on a matter of consequence. It stands out from every other book on the subject, deserves a wide hearing, and should generate some badly needed discussion.

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

Photo by John Towner on Unsplash. Image cropped.