ONE-THIRD of living Americans were born between 1946 and 1964, the combined product of the largest baby boom in recent history. The progress of this cohort should interest the other two-thirds of Americans.
While "A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation" is specifically about "boomers" relationship to spiritual values and to religious institutions, the state of their thinking will clearly establish the tone of other American institutions as well.
The author, Wade Clark Roof, is professor of religion and society at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He and his assistants conducted 2,600 telephone interviews and a smaller number of in-depth personal interviews. The book is constructed around the life-experience of seven boomers who represent diverse aspects of American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism.
"They value experience over beliefs, distrust institutions and leaders, stress personal fulfillment yet yearn for community, and are fluid in their allegiances," concludes Roof in his introduction, "a new, truly distinct, and rather mysterious generation."
While the study found a wide diversity in present religious practices and beliefs, Roof emphasizes the commonalities of the boomer generation. The views of the older part of this cohort in particular were shaped during the tumultuous '60s. Their distrust of institutions continues to run deeper, compared with older generations. The affluence of the times also tended to replace what remained of the "culture of self-denial" with one of self-indulgence. A positive result was a greater tolerance toward other views and other lifestyles.
Roof also notes the role of television in the life of its first full generation of viewers. They were exposed to an adult world at a very early age. More important, perhaps, from a religious point of view, the image tended to replace the word as authority. "Instancy and intimacy would be the distinguishing features of this new medium; seeing, not reading, would become the basis for believing," he writes.
Two of the book's main ideas are the unifying effect of a common childhood experience on today's seekers, and the apparent need for some kind of institutional experience for many who drifted away from church.
The commonality resides in the secularization of vocabulary and the "psychologizing" of common language. Even Linda Kramer, an evangelical and the most conservative of the boomers whose experience is recounted in detail, "goes to church because it helps her to grow: It assists her in becoming a better person and in realizing her potential as a person. This suggests a more subjective self, one concerned with fulfillment and improvement, though she herself does not use those particular words."
For those who have not understood the rapid growth of the evangelical movement, Roof claims that it has accommodated itself well to growing affluence and education among its members. "The more educated, more middle-class evangelical boomers are the carriers of these new values. For this sector the boundaries of evangelical faith and modern culture have been substantially altered in the direction of greater accommodation." That is a statement unlikely to remain unchallenged.
Boomers differentiate between religion and spirituality. Many who left their churches believe they can find spirituality without the institution. Yet many - perhaps one-third of those who left - are coming back. Why?
Roof offers a multitude of reasons: the extra bond a church can give to family, along with the need to transmit spiritual values to one's offspring; to find meaning that often isn't found in an individual, mystical approach to religion; and to have the experience of community. Roof claims that the most important element of megachurches is the aspect of "meta-church": what comes after, or along with, the big church. There are usually enough worship groups, study groups, musical organizations, even nonchur ch activities, to fulfill the need to belong felt by a generation of rootless, mobile Americans.
In what may be an overly generous estimate of the boomers, Roof concludes: "It can be argued that in its spiritual quest this generation, contrary to much that is said about its secularity and self-obsession, has reclaimed something fundamental to the American religious experience. The generation may well be remembered, in fact, as one that grappled hard in search of a holistic, all-encompassing vision of life and as a spiritually creative generation."
Roof's view is that the face of American religion is being permanently changed. For those in the mainline churches who have watched their membership dwindle as the evangelical movement waxed strong, or those inside or outside of Roman Catholicism who have watched the challenge of anti-authoritarianism, the challenge may be even greater. "A highly privatized and relativistic approach to religion, already practiced by large numbers of boomers, will probably become even more widespread in a society that has
no strong religious center," he writes. He foresees future religious communities as "loose federations made up of many smaller communities."
But the author sees this as, if not a plus, certainly in keeping with American culture: "The counterculture came and went, but many of the values associated with it, such as libertarian aspirations, greater egalitarianism, ecological consciousness, and an enhanced concern with the self, are all now deeply entrenched in American life. The evidence points to an enduring pattern of changing American values."
Roof's study makes a valuable contribution not only to those interested in their own churches, but to a common understanding of the cultural attitudes influencing the action of an entire generation.