The religion of baby boomers

hippiesAs 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.”

boomersAn 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.

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  • Herb Ely

    Adler and Scelfo did a great job but they missed – or omitted due to space limitations – a major response to the baby boomers new found interest in meditation. The Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s abbey in Spencer, MA developed centering prayer based on ancient Christian practices of meditation. This method is now taught and practiced by clergy and laity in many mainstream churches throughout the world and is fostered by Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. Maybe Adler and Scelfo can do another story on how George Harrison sparked a revival of ancient contemplative prayer within the mainstream churches.

  • dpulliam


    Good point and you’ve inspired me to go through the piece again and pick out all the religions and list them here in a succinct list. Anybody else see a religion that should have made the list?

    • Transcendental Meditation
    • Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church)
    • Hare Krishnas
    • Scientologists
    • Jesus Freaks
    • est (Erhard Seminars Training)
    • Kabbalists
  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    The 60s also saw the importing of Wicca from England to America, and the general rise of modern Paganism. Fellow Pagan blogger and academic Chas Clifton recently wrote a book on the subject entitled “Her Hidden Children”. Very much worth a look.

  • C. Wingate

    The article is obviously rather biased, in the usual way of the mainstream media. The big long-term stories seem to have been the liberalization of the mainstream churches, the rise of “alternative” religion, and the ascent of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestantism. Looking at the items in the quiz, they’re spread not too unreasonably over those stories, though tere’s a tilt in the direction of the spiritual eccentricities of celebrities. How many of those Indian gurus were important in the long run? Not that many.

    But the main story has a completely different emphasis, and simply ignores the evangelical/fundamentalist surge, which in terms of numbers is far, far more important. As a nominal boomer myself, I see this as yet another story in which “boomer” means “upper middle class white in college somewhere in the years 1967-1972″. If I may venture a guess, this story got written because the reporters and editors were comfortable in the “alternative” subculture; the “evangelical” story didn’t, because they weren’t comfortable there. And the “mainline” story, as it peeks in here, ignores the fact that the driver’s seat on those changes has always been occupied (until recently) by those from older generations, so that it can hardly be accurately depicted as a youthful rebellion.

    Stories about boomer trends always seem to be problematic, but in religion the issues are particularly glaring.

    P.S. 70%+ on the quiz, helped out by a lot of educated guessing.

  • Harris

    The quiz (70+, educated guessing and a few d’ohs!) also pointed to one other key development: Vatican II. I would submit this is the crucial story of the Boomer’s religious life.

    When Vat2 ended Latin, it brought the church into the words of the people — a profound democratizing effect. This really is much the same thrust as that of Willow, where Hybels put put the church into the cultural language of the people. These seem to be of one piece.

    A second impact of Vat2 was its renewal of liturgical life. simply put, the Protestant mainline church became a lot more liturgical; the frequency of Commununion/Lords Supper/Eucharist has notably increased from the once a quarter model of the mid Century church. My sense is that this liturgical reform together with the emerging Evangelical wing (are these not related?) has pushed the doctrinal center of gravity back towards the center in these bodies. The agressive theological speculation (Bp Robinson, Bp Pike et al) can still be found, but its share of voice appears to have decreased.

    And that is probably the third aspect left unremarked in the article: the erosion of the Liberal / Civic Religious Community that defined the post War world. It may be that in another generation we see this as one more expression of the Modernist-impulse, akin to 12-Tone music, or Abstract Expressionism in art.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    My score: 63% (17 of 27 answered correctly)
    My birth year: 1963

    Interesting quiz. It was more a quiz of religious thought and history in the last 50 years than a quiz on dogma and teachings.

  • Don Neuendorf

    The Unification Church is now considered mainstream? Wow, not if you take more than a half a glance. Here’s a video of Rev. and Mrs. Moon being crowned the King and Queen of Peace, ushering in the Age of Aquarius (or whatever the Moonies would call it).

    Sadly, it does fit quite nicely with the spiritual ignorance of my lousy generation.

  • Michael Mc

    I’m no boomer (born 1972), but I got 81%. Lots of educated guessing though.

    I can’t say I’ve had much exposure to many of these beliefs. The only thing I can think of when I hear about Hare Krishnas is Joe Isuzu in Airplane!

  • Danny Haszard

    -A heads up on the Jehovah Witness-

    There is no Armageddon that will annihilate 6.5 billion people,and install Watchtower leaders as world rulers.

    The core dogma of the Watchtower organization is that Jesus had his second coming ‘invisibly’ in the year 1914.Their entire doctrinal superstructure is built on this falsehood.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses door to door recruitment is by their own admission an ineffective tactic. They have lost membership in all countries with major Internet access because their false doctrines and harmful practices are exposed on the modern information superhighway.

    There is good and valid reasons why there is such an outrage against the Watchtower for misleading millions of followers.Many have invested everything in the ‘imminent’ apocalyptic promises of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and have died broken and beaten.

    Every Jehovah’s Witness member will grow old and die just like everyone else.
    Danny Haszard ‘expert witness on the Jehovah’s Witness’

  • Deborah

    Score: 63
    Birth Year: 1962

    A lot of these events I’d never even heard of. I have a lot more sympathy for religion-challenged journalists now. (And why is Sally Fields’ turn as a TV nun on a religion quiz? I mean, is it really that important a cultural event?)

  • Julia

    born 1944 – WWII baby
    78% on test

    I learned meditation in the ’50s as part of my schooling in a Catholic grade school and high school.

    It is an ancient practice of the Catholic Church.

    Baby boomers forgot all about it when Vatican II threw out all the old stuff and then Baby Boomers thought they invented it when it came back into fashion with George Harrison.

    My 5 younger siblings are all baby boomers – born after dad got back from North of France, New Guinea, Philippines and Occupied Japan. They were into TM, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, vegetarianism, wearing raggy clothing from Goodwill, forgoing deodorant, pot, etc. etc.
    My life was more boring – I was ignored by them as irrelevant.

  • Stephen A.

    “The Unification Church has now largely outgrown its image as a cult”

    Yes, that was news to me, too. Are you sure this wasn’t published in the Washington Times? Are mass weddings the norm now? Gosh, I missed that.

    This focus on the most extreme fringe religions (no offense to those who practice them) while ignoring most other traditional ones, is entirely typical and not at all surprising.

    I remember a 1984 US News & World Report cover story on “The New Collar Class” and 2000s’ “BoBos” (the article online PROUDLY links to this second one.) These media types love to come up with ridiculous, fake labels for Americans, and they are often VERY wrong in their analysis of generational behavior and trands. Some ‘reporters’ did it again here by failing to analyize any significant religious trends in a so-called religion article.

    And Boomers: It’s not ALL about you. Get over it.

  • Stephen A.

    “To be sure, followers of the maharishi, or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, or Hare Krishnas, Scientologists or the people who called themselves Jesus Freaks were a minority among the boomers. “But they were the trendsetters,” says Dean Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University of America. “They were the cultural innovators, and they introduced new things to our culture which are still around.”
    Is there anything still around in ANY of these faiths that is culturally significant? I’d like to see a more honest piece on this. This was simply a trippy trip down memory lane for aging Boomers (and I bet a good deal of them were not in any way involved in these Sideshows/Trainwrecks of the 60s.)

  • YetAnotherRick

    “…Institute for the Study of American Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois.”

    Oy. I’d suggest the authors are Episcopals who don’t know better, but it’s right there on the website. Can you imagine them saying “Transcendental Mediation?”

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  • Karen H

    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).

    I would say that boomer homeschoolers are acting just like their age cohorts–what is more independent than rejecting the traditional public schooling and doing it themselves? Seems to me that is just as rebellious against what was the status-quo.

  • MattK

    I am so sick of hearing about Boomers, or X-ers, or the Greatest Generation. It is so stupid of the press, or anyone to talk about so many people, born across a span of years (20 years, from 1946 – 1964 in the case of the boomers), living in so many places as though they were one thing.

    I mean, what does my old Sergeant Major (31 confirmed combat kills, Legion of Merit, Purlpe Heart with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, Distinguised Service Cross, M.A. in history from U of Kansas, service on 4 continents, father of six children) have in common with his fellow boomer Iggy Pop (heroin addict, tax cheat, sexually ambiguous, rock star/entertainer) other than year of birth and citizenship? Not much. The media should just stop this whole generation thing. It is stupid and embarrassing.

  • D Rathan

    I’m a bit late to post this, and this goes against character from me (since I’m usually one for bashing cults, not defending them) but I have to say I’ve studied the Jehova’s Witnesses, and this is what I have to offer in rebuttal to Danny Haszard:

    * If we are to believe that one religion is correct, and everyone else is wrong, then 90% of the religious doctrines out there, are wrong. JWs, under this axiom, are nothing special to warrant such unique warning. On the other hand, if we are to believe that more than one religion could be correct, then being wrong doesnt matter, and again, it wouldnt all by itself warrant an emergency warning.

    * They did say that Adam’s 6000 birthday was 1975, and thus, a new seventh milennia was to begin then. Many people did make foolish financials desicions at the time and am sure there must have been a lot of hearbreak when nothing happened. However, apparently they learned from their mistake, and their -current- stand, today, is that “nobody knows the date or the hour”, although Judgement Day is always “near”, and these are indeed “the End Times”. Most JW who die today, die happy, sure that will resurrect to a restored, paradise-like earth. They do not die beaten, their religion fills them with purpouse. I realize this is a statement just as unqualified as yours; I guess yours comes from what you’ve seen, and mine comes from what I’ve seen.

    * True, they believe Judgment Day will kill everyone who’s not a JW despite having had a chance to become one, so installing Watchtower leaders as world leaders is kind of an afterthought; you make it sound like they are trying to overthrow the current system, but their actual belief is that God will do that for them, and then they will rebuild the earth. Sounds a lot less dangerous this way.

    * Door to Door recruitment is ineffective, but they do it out of strict literal compliance to the Bible, same reason why they refuse blood transfusions, for instance. They’re quite literal about the Bible. But again, being ineffective does make them dangerous.

    * When I make my opinion about a religion, I never care much for their particular beliefs, but rather by how those beliefs affect their lives. The JWs are not a destructive cult, they do not squeeze money from the followers, they do not thrive on a sense of paranoia, and the politics are no worse than a typical organization. They only true danger I saw, was the fact that when a member comits a serious crime (not a religious crime, but a serious crime, a legal crime, for instance, child abuse) there is this reluctance to turn him over to the police, not to protect the criminal (the criminal gets “disfellowshipped” inmediatly) but to protect the good name of the organization, and because of the biblical command to not rely on secular judges for grievances within the congregation. This doesnt mean JWs condone or forgive those crimes (in fact, in the particular case of child abuse, the criminal is never eligible for pardon, ever), but it does mean some people should be in jail and arent.

    In Summary, they are a group of motivated, confident, fullfilled people, who are certainly happy for the most part with the way they lead their lives, and consider themselves very much apart from the world. There is not much dangerous about that, that wouldnt equally apply to most other organizations. Doctrinally, of course I disagree with their beliefs, but that’s beside the point: I dont care what anyone believes as long as it has no negative effect on anyone’s life.