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Religion in America Is Dramatically Different for the Children of Baby Boomers

The children of Baby Boomers are the children of divorce and war—but how does that influence their life choices?

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The following is an excerpt from Families and  Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengston with Norella m. Putney and Susan Harris (Oxford University Press, 2013):

How have the dynamics of intergenerational relationships about religion changed over the thirty-five years since the beginning of this study [which began with Baby Boomers, their parents, and their grandparents in 1970]? In the context of the many demographic and cultural changes that have occurred during the time between then and now—increases in marital instability and single parenting, a growing cultural emphasis on individualism,  declining adherence to religious traditions, media-driven youth cultures—has there been a significant change in the degree to which families exert influence in the religious orientations of younger generation members?

Changes in American Society

During the 117 years represented by the birth dates of family members in this study, many events have combined to change the nature of American Society. Wars, disruptive economic trends, globalization and technological innovations, changes in culture and political values—these and more have altered  the lives of successive  generations of study participants. Many of the oldest immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century; subsequently, they experienced the massive cultural and economic ups and downs of World War I, the Roaring Twenties era of prosperity, and the subsequent economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Then came World War II and the dislocations it created for everyone involved in the war effort, including most young men and women. The economic prosperity and stability of the postwar period provided an era of seemingly inexhaustible growth and expansion. This soon gave way to the political and cultural changes of the 1960s when the first wave of Baby-Boomer youth launched protests challenging the politics, values, and lifestyles of their elders. The term “generation gap” became a byword for the social unrest during this decade, since it appeared that American society was becoming divided along lines that separated the younger generation from their parents and grandparents.

About this time, in the 1960s, social commentators began calling attention to the growing secularization of American society, prompting heated public debates about the role of religion in education, politics, and mass communication. In the decades to follow, collective and humanistic values appeared to give way to an ethos of individualism and self-fulfillment and a devaluation of community. This was a trend that seemed to be leading to what Robert Putnam famously called “bowling alone”—from collective, community-based activities to those pursued by solitary individuals acting almost in relative isolation compared to their peers in earlier decades. In the years following 2000, it appeared that stock market and real estate speculation,  predatory  lending,  political  polarization,  and  a  growing gap between the very wealthy and the middle and working classes were symptoms of a decline in communal values and the rise of self-interest to new heights. Because of this, many people today assume that the value accorded in the past to intergenerational  continuity has eroded, a casualty of cultural changes involving greater individualism.  But is this the case? Throughout Western history, during times of rapid social change, two social institutions have often served to buffer individuals from the uncertainties resulting from unanticipated events: the family and religion. Does this hold true today?

Changes in American Families

Since World War II, there has been unprecedented change at the most intimate level of American society: family life. The rate of divorce increased slowly through the first half of the twentieth century and then rose dramatically over the next few decades. By 1990, one out of every two marriages ended in divorce, and by the end of the century, almost as many children lived in single-parent households—most headed by mothers—as in dualparent households. Of those children in two-parent households, one-quarter lived in “blended” families with stepparents and stepsiblings.

Statistics like these led to a chorus of public concern in the late 1980s about the “decline of the American family.”  Particularly vocal were conservative politicians and religious leaders who saw moral decline related to a decrease in traditional family functions. Among sociologists, the most articulate proponent of this view was sociologist David Popenoe.  Most dismaying to Popenoe was the negative effects of high divorce rates on effective family functioning with respect to children, such as providing them with emotional, educational, and moral foundations. All this, he argued, fragmented family effectiveness and dissipated the positive influence of parents on the young.

The message of declining family influence continues to this day. Psychologist Jeffery Arnett finds little evidence for family influences in the lives of young adults, emphasizing “how little relationship there is between the religious training they received [from parents] through childhood and the religious beliefs they hold by the time they reach emerging adulthood.”   Paul Vitz, a psychologist with the Catholic Youth Council, says, “When one puts the big picture together, the decline of the American family is obvious.”

The “family decline” argument has, however, been rebutted by other scholars. Family historian Stephanie Coontz   has pointed to the fallacy of romanticizing  families  of the past, noting  that high maternal  mortality rates left even more children in single-parent or blended family households in the nineteenth century than is the case with children from divorced families today. Scott Myers, in a longitudinal study comparing young adults with their parents twelve years earlier, concluded that “parents’ religiosity is the primary influence on the religiosity of their adult offspring.” Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, on the basis of their groundbreaking National Study of Youth and Religion data, say, “Contrary to misguided cultural stereotypes and frequent parental misperceptions, we believe that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.”

Changes in American Religion

While  in many  families  the religious  practices  and beliefs  of parents greatly affects those of their children, in the broader society American religion itself has changed over the past few decades. Involvement in churches increased sharply following World War II, hitting a peak in

1950–1959. Then starting in the 1960s church attendance gradually declined, with the sharpest decrease occurring in the period from 1970 to 1980. Attendance then increased until 1986 but made a sharp downturn in the 1990s, followed by participation creeping up and then down in the 2000s.  Membership in both mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches reflected these trends, growing through World War II but seeing sharp declines in the 1970s and 1980s, though with the influx of Hispanic  immigrants  the number  of Catholics  has remained  stable in the past two decades, offsetting losses among non-Hispanic whites. Evangelical  Protestant  churches experienced  significant growth during this time, growing considerably from 1974 to 1993, but then their numbers declined slightly until 2004, followed by a small increase, and then began declining again.  Mormons emerged in the 1990s as the fastest-growing Christian community in America, although there are signs the rate of Mormon growth may be softening.

But what seems most remarkable is the increase in the numbers of “nones” in American society—those who say they are “none of the above,” who claim no traditional religious affiliation. By 2012 the unaffiliated represented almost 20% of the U.S. adult population, having doubled in just one decade.  The religiously unaffiliated are a varied group, as we discuss in chapter 8. Some are explicitly antireligious, articulate in their discomfort with any institutional form of religion such as churches, creeds, priests, ministers, or rabbis. Others are skeptical about God or have only vague beliefs about religion, while some define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Many of the unaffiliated think of themselves as being religious, but they just don’t go to religious services. Still others say they are still looking to find a religion they feel meets their needs.

In analyzing these trends, a number of religious researchers have described a rapid diversification of faith in our society, what Wade Clark Roof terms a growing “religious pluralism.”  Others suggest that American religion has become culturally individualistic and subjectivist or point to the growth of religious “seekers” who have consumer mentalities about faith.  Related to this is the observation that a religion of “place,” located in church traditions and creeds that characterized much of the twentieth century, has been supplanted by a religion of seekers who shop around for those elements of religious experience deemed more promising or fulfilling. Still others argue that American religion is losing its meaning and coherence as individuals create their own personal belief systems by mixing and matching spiritual practices from diverse faiths. Finally, many scholars see a growing separation between “spirituality” and “religion” and increased individuation of religion, as linked to the increased diversity characterizing America’s emerging adults, leading to what Jeffery Arnett and Lena Jensen have called “a congregation of one.”

Changes in American Youth

The nature and characteristics of the young adult population in American society have changed significantly over the past few decades. In 1970 when we began this study the Early Boomers, born between 1946 and 1954, represented a huge addition to the population, the product of the sharp increase in births following World War II. At the time of our first survey, these teenagers and young adults represented a larger proportion of the American population than those in their teens and twenties today. They also turned out to be an advantaged cohort in adult life, achieving higher levels of education and higher average incomes than any previous age group in American history.

There are a number of ways that the “emerging adults”  of today, ages 18 to 30, differ from the Early Boomers. Perhaps the greatest difference is that today’s young adults, compared to earlier-born cohorts, are more likely to experience life course events, such as marriage and parenthood, later and outside of “traditional” family contexts. Comparing the demographic characteristics of youth in 1970 and youth in 2005—corresponding to the two bookends of data we report in this book—we can see that:

•   In terms of marriage, in 1970, 38% of women age 20 to 24 had not married; in 2005 the figure was almost 40 percentage points higher at 76%.

Furthermore, the average age at which marriage occurred in 2005 had increased by about four years for men and five years for women.

•   Today’s youth are staying in school longer and completing their education later by an average of almost three years compared to 1970.

•   For  those  who  do  marry,  although  the  overall  divorce  rate  has not changed much since the 1960s and 1970s, divorce rates have diverged by education level: They have increased for those without high school diplomas while decreasing for the college-educated, for whom the age at marriage is considerably higher.

•   While in 1950 only 5% of all births occurred outside marriage, in 2006, 38% of births did.

•   The percentage of children living in single-parent households was about 25% in 1970; it was 44% in 2005.

Thus, there are striking differences in demographic characteristics between today’s twenty-somethings and those of thirty-five years ago. Other contrasts between them have been drawn in terms of political involvement and what has been called “generational consciousness.” Then there is the issue of diversity. America’s emerging adults today reflect a greater extent of within-age-group differences than did the youth of the 1960s and 1970s. There is greater diversity in age at marriage, numbers of children, years and timing of schooling, ethnic and gender identities, partnerships and living arrangements than perhaps any other cohort in American history. This diversity is reflected also in emerging adults’ religion and spirituality.

The spiritual and religious orientations of emerging adults have been the focus of many recently published books—some based on social science surveys  of youth and religion,  others  reflecting concerns  of religious leaders and youth ministers, and still others analyzing more general aspects of “delayed” adulthood. The many ways in which these writers characterize the religious beliefs and practices of today’s young adults is a study in diversity. Some describe how American youth, alienated from traditional religious expression, are constructing more authentic versions of spirituality for themselves—with many becoming part of the growing number of religious nones.  Several others see a trend in which youth are increasingly returning to religious tradition, orthodoxy, and conservative certainty.  Still others have identified a self-oriented, instrumental religious style emerging among contemporary American teenagers—what Christian Smith and his colleagues in their survey of youth and religion have named the “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”  brand of religion that is based only loosely on Christian theology or church tradition. Perhaps, as Robert Wuthnow has suggested, many twenty-and thirty-somethings today can best be labeled “spiritual shoppers.”

Awareness  of such religious  complexity  among emerging  adults has led to creative attempts to label this diverse generation in religious terms. Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean developed a manual titled OMG: A Youth Ministry Handbook to help church youth leaders become more conversant about young people’s spiritual growth.

In her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, Dean describes teens as “worshipping at the church of benign whatever-ism.” In Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith . . . and How to Bring Them Back, author Drew Dyck calls attention to what he calls the “postmodern leavers.” David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, an Evangelical polling and consulting group, looks at perceptions of what he calls the “outsiders”—the 24 million nonChristians in the United States who are sixteen-to twenty-nine-years-old— in his book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . And Why it Matters.  Richard Flory and Don Miller, two of the well-respected social scientists documenting the sweeping, worldwide Pentecostal movement, have also described the spiritual quest of the Post-Boomer generation. Carol Howard Merritt writes about what she sees emerging in the Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.

And in Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in Their 20s and 30s, Catholic Youth Ministry director Mike Hayes discusses contemporary young adults’ belief that “instant gratification is merely a click of a mouse away,” a view they apply “to every area of their life, including religion.”

Some important studies have pointed to religious differences between age groups that have become pronounced since World War II. Wade Clark Roof, in his pioneering work on the role of Baby Boomers as religious trendsetters, calls them “a generation of seekers” because of their contrast to older Americans who held firmly to more traditional expressions of religiosity. In a follow-up study, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, Roof describes how the Boomers created a market for diverse religious and spiritual practices that, he felt, represents the wave of the future in American religion. In a similar vein, Robert Wuthnow, another giant in the sociology of religion, titled his 2007 best-seller After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. His thesis is that “the religion and spirituality of young adults is a cultural bricolage [French for mosaic or patchwork constructed improvisationally from the increasingly diverse materials at hand.”

Reprinted from Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengtson with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris with permission of Oxford University Press.  © Oxford University Press 2013