As the child of baby boomers, I found Newsweek‘s Sept. 18 piece on how baby boomers’ unprecedented religious journey changed the country revealing. Everything from Transcendental Meditation to Kabbalists to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Scientology gets a mention and a bit of history. The author skillfully weaves these different religions together to form a single theme: baby boomers like their options and independence, and this includes Christian groups like Promise Keepers and the megachurch movement.
The article by Jerry Adler and Julie Scelfo readily acknowledges that not all boomers traveled down unusual religious paths, but that those who did reflected the overall drive for independence and choices, as seen in the megachurches. What is most interesting is the description of the strange paths so many boomers took and how their attempts to be different from their parents defined a generation.
The article is pleasantly descriptive and well-researched. Check out this section:
Phillip Schanker, 52, discovered that himself in 1972, on the quintessential boomer voyage of self-discovery, hitchhiking across the country with friends the summer before college. “We would go camping, we would get high, and I was always questioning, Why are we all so selfish?” he recalls. “I was not looking for religion, but I was looking for answers.” He found them in the Unification Church, an organization best known by the name of its founder, Moon, who preaches that God’s plan for the world involves uniting the races in Christianity through interracial marriage. Schanker did his part, taking his vows at a mass wedding in Madison Square Garden of 2,000 couples chosen by church leaders. “It looked weird, being told whom to marry,” he admits, “but we’ve been happily married for 24 years.”
It did look weird to most Americans, especially in view of the values of individualism and personal freedom that Schanker’s generation had so riotously proclaimed a decade earlier. The Unification Church has now largely outgrown its image as a cult, but back in the 1970s joining it was a radical act — as it must have seemed to Schanker’s parents, who raised him according to the liberal, rational precepts of Unitarianism. They always respected his choices, he says, even when they didn’t agree with them — but it’s easy to imagine that other parents weren’t so understanding.
Roof makes the point that for some boomers religion became another venue, along with politics and sex, in which to play out their (self-indulgent or courageous, take your pick) drama of revolution. Even their Christianity had a tinge of rebellion about it: they didn’t join their parents’ church, they became Jesus Freaks, trying to live out a version of the life of the early Christians. Jesus was, in fact, the perfect icon for the hippie era, says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois. “He’s kind of a countercultural figure: the long hair, the sandals, hanging out in the wilderness and oppressed by the establishment.”
An aspect that deserved more focus than the article provided was the niche conservative groups in which many boomers found themselves. Not all boomers were independent types searching out some new experience different from those of their parents. Many boomers wanted to preserve traditions and to pass them on to their offspring (e.g., the homeschooling movement).
The concepts introduced in the last two graphs needed more development, particularly the bit about the generation seeking “autonomy and freedom,” but this is likely due to space restrictions.
As part of a generation after the baby boomers (b. 1981), I learned from Newsweek about a part of America’s religion history. For example, I am embarrassed to say that I scored a 54 percent on a test of religion knowledge that accompanies the article. Feel free (particularly if you’re a baby boomer) to tell us about your quiz results. I’m curious to see how we all measure up (tmatt says his score was perfect, by the way).
The theme of the article could make for a fascinating book at some point — maybe there’s already one out there? I just hope scholars will remember to have a chapter or two on those conservative boomers out there and explain how their longings fit in with the hippies and the Hare Krishna movement.