Robert Wuthnow has analyzed an impressive array of data and provided a thought provoking argument about the future, and the present, of American religion. After the Baby Boomers presents an exploration of the lifeworld of a somewhat hard to define generation: young adults who were between the ages of 21 and 45 in the years from 1998 to 2002. The book is grounded in the realities of modern life and describes how many of these realities have changed for the children of the Baby Boomers. Such analyses of young adults are urgent according to the author, who writes that “unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt” (17). Further, given that much of what we know of American religion is based on studies of Baby Boomers, Wuthnow calls analysts to consider how well this knowledge translates to younger Americans.
Chapter two reports seven key trends that are remaking American religion. For example, marriage and parenthood are key variables which delineate young Americans. This rising generation is putting off marriage and parenthood longer than earlier generations, and this presents a new challenge for congregations which have long served the needs of young couples and families. Congregations continue to reach the married young adults who have started families, but their single and childless peers tend not to be involved in local religious communities. Wuthnow wisely reminds us that this is not simply a problem for congregations, but also contends that single adults in their 20s may not have the support systems that have helped earlier generations. The situation is unfortunate because this is an age when people make choices which affect the remaining years of their lives. Church leaders may find inspiration to retool outreach programs so that they speak to the unique needs of a growing unchurched population.
Wuthnow returns to themes of his own earlier work in a chapter titled “The Divided Generation.” Analyzing survey data about hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality, the chapter considers the mixing of religion and politics among young Americans. In some respects the political divisions between young evangelicals and non-evangelicals are narrower than in the past. The evidence suggests that young evangelical Christians are more tolerant of homosexuality than they were a generation ago and that the polarization between evangelicals and non-evangelicals over this issue is less severe. Nonetheless, wide differences of opinion about civil unions and gay marriage exist between evangelicals and the non-affiliated, and abortion attitudes remain strongly related to religious affiliation. Finally, evangelicals are stronger supporters of current U.S. Military policy than are non-evangelicals. Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and Catholics may serve as a stable middle ground between evangelicals and the non-affiliated, but Wuthnow suggests that questions of stability and division will continue to be important to America’s religious future.
The book does not contain a grand theory of modern religion, but at times the utility of the rational choice approach which has motivated much recent research in the discipline is questioned. The process of production, selection, and institutionalization is offered as a way to combine the entrepreneurship and voluntarism of market metaphors with the stability of cultural theories that emphasize routine and habit. When speaking of young Americans, Wuthnow avoids labels like ‘Generation X’ or ‘Millenials,’ but instead uses the sensitizing concept of tinkerer to describe a generation for whom religious voluntarism and syncretism are the norms. These concepts work well together and produce a compelling picture of modern American religion. Tinkerers live in a pluralistic environment and construct unique religious identities with the tools available. Echoing Durkheim’s concerns about anomie, Wuthnow is not necessarily optimistic about voluntarism and its consequences for young adults. While skilled and resourceful, the tinkerer may not enjoy the benefits of comfort and stability that congregations have traditionally provided. It is clear that Robert Wuthnow not only has grave concerns for the future of American religious communities, but cares deeply about young adults who he fears may find themselves without the benefits of religious life which earlier generations have relied upon.