Spiritual Marketplace

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion by Wade Clark Roof, from Princeton University Press.

Wade Clark Roof Spiritual Marketplace

This volume is dedicated to examining the distinctive features of religiosity among the Baby Boomers, whom the author identifies as the “lead cohort” or “lead generation” of the late 20th and early 21st century US. (52, 294) In particular, Roof is focused on developments in the 1990s, as a sequel to his earlier study Generation of Seekers (1993). Roof’s professes the following thesis: “the boundaries of popular religious communities are now being redrawn, encouraged by the quests of the large, post-World War II generations, and facilitated by the rise of an expanded spiritual marketplace.” (10) Although that statement uses the phrase “popular religious communities,” Roof’s focus throughout Spiritual Marketplace is on “lived religion,” a term which he takes from David D. Hall. (295) Roof observes that the virtue of the term is to prioritize the “comprehensive religious expression of the actor” without setting it in opposition to elite or institutional forms. (328, n. 22)

Roof has a tendency to use rhetoric stressing the novelty of the Boomer developments, but he does admit that “the changes of which we write are nothing new.” (294) Religious boundaries are always in the process of being redrawn, and in this book, he attempts the difficult task of describing the manner in which they are changing during the very time he is writing about them. To do so, he uses a wide range of secondary sources from the late 20th century, but grounds his observations with both statistical and anecdotal data developed through a panel study conducted between the years 1988 and 1997, consisting of repeated interviews of subjects by phone, supplemented by selected in-person interviews. (315-6)

The phrase “Spiritual Marketplace” is the book title and the title of its third chapter, and it also appears in Roof’s explicit thesis statement. Nevertheless, the metaphors and features of commerce are less evident in this treatment than in, for example, Finke and Stark’s Churching of America. While claiming some common ground with Finke and Stark, Roof distinguishes his approach from theirs, characterizing their emphasis on the marketing capacity of religions as “supply-side thinking.” (332, n. 5) To the extent that Roof sees a marketplace, it is not so much one of competition among producers and vendors, as it is one of choices for consumers. He attempts to expose qualitative shifts in religious demand, rather than supply. His analytical categories for the marketplace are “the social world, producers, the audience, and cultural objects,” of which all but “producers” he represents as demand factors, and then producer behavior as largely driven by demand. (80, 75) Not coincidentally, this perspective is one that Boomer Roof attributes to the whole of his generation: they identify themselves via “lifestyle and consumption” more than vocation or adhesion. (49)

On a related note, I found that Roof naturalizes the “generational cohort” idea in a way that obscures the instrumentality of mass media and the agency of commercial and cultural campaigns directed at creating, sustaining, and managing cohort identity. Although he admits that “greater reliance on mass media and the cultural industries” are features of the changes in the Boomer generation, he persists in treating cultural changes as though they were disinterested and undirected effects, most prominently through a tectonic metaphor of change. (10, 50) (It’s also odd that he calls Boomers in their forties “young adults” on page 28.)

If the “marketplace” of the title is a little more nebulous than I was expecting it to be, the “spiritual” is considerably more articulated. Roof takes the often-inchoate contemporary appeals to “spirituality” very seriously, insisting that although spirituality “remains more of a buzzword than a topic attracting serious analysis,” it still adumbrates genuine impulses within the collective mentality of the Boomer generation. (33, 295-6) Breaking down “spirituality” into more intelligible ideas, Roof takes the “twin notions of quest and reflexivity” as his keynotes to Boomer religious change. (296, 16, 74-76) Both of these features suggest heightened levels of individualism, and Roof points out that such individualism does not preclude collective engagement or the desire for it, but that it may demand new forms of organization, and new objects around which to organize. (144, 163) Even so, he cites Kosmin and Lachman’s conclusion that “For most, religion…is more of a private commitment than a shared experience.” (156) His analytical perspective enables Roof to provide an unusually perceptive take on Sheila Larson from Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, noting how earlier commenters had reified “Sheilasim” without considering that it might reflect her gender and family situation, transition in her own life, and the possibility of such transition culminating in a greater spirituality of a more conventionally recognizable sort. (146-9) (He had earlier suggested “a gender-based alienation as one theme in today’s spiritual quest culture,” on p. 23) Roof also offers helpful remarks on the positive spiritual value of doubt in quest culture. (19, 46-8)

It follows from his treatment of the “spiritual” that Roof is not only attentive to the “spiritual not religious” conundrum, but he actually uses it as the basis for a typology of subcultures, which he arranges on the two axes of spirituality and religiosity of self-identification. (178) He arrives at five subcultures, which he characterizes at some length:

1. Spiritual AND Religious: “Born-again Christians” (including Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Charismatics) who emphasize individual transformation in Christian faith.

2. Spiritual AND Religious: “Mainstream Believers” (Christian and not) with institutional traditions and liberal theologies.

3. Religious, NOT Spiritual: Dogmatists (Christian and not) with reactionary theologies and fundamentalist agendas.

4. Spiritual, NOT Religious: Metaphysical Believers and Spiritual Seekers in the “alternative” American traditions of New Thought and Theosophy; New Age, occult and ad hoc spiritualities (influential beyond adherents).

5. NEITHER Spiritual NOR Religious: Secularists, typically agnostic.

Roof forthrightly criticizes the idea of a monolithic “religious conservativism,” and the clear distinctions that he draws between Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are a valuable feature of his typology. (230) Also, although he notes that the ideological content of the subcultures often trumps such identifiers as denominational affiliation, he also opposes the facile notion of “culture wars” dividing the nation into two camps, respectively characterized by fundamentalists and secularists. (259-261)

Roof’s data from the panel study gives him a valuable window which he exploits in order to view the relationship between changing family structures and religious participation and identification. I found it a little disappointing, though, that the role of Boomer fathers in the religious instruction of their children went completely unremarked. (Even if that role were negligible, it would be useful to know that.)

The notice that Roof affords to “therapeutic and post-therapeutic cultures” in the formation of American spirituality in the 1990s is quite welcome. But he errs in identifying the therapeutic modes of “twelve-step,” “self-help” and “recovery” as “successor movements” of the “human potential” movement. (39) All share some common roots in the secularized psychologies of the 20th century, but their genealogies are far from accurately reflected in Roof’s quick summary. There is no question, however, that they all contribute strongly to the “psychological religion” that capitalizes on spiritual reflexivity. (131-134)

In a further point of contrast to Finke and Stark, Roof seems to find something hopeful for religion in the prospect of ecumenical mixing, “common ground,” and moderate zones uniting subcultures and institutions. (292, 312) This difference may be a logical consequence of his focus on “lived religion” rather than institutional participation, but in light of the Finke and Stark critique, I find it difficult to see what Roof sees as “potentially…powerful” about “a substantial religious middle” created through the moral homogeneity of liberal mainline Christians and Born-agains. Perhaps he sees hope for “de-differentiation” at the social level, reflecting the wholeness that Boomer individuals seek for the self. (35, 61-63). [via]