Findings & Footnotes – July 2019

Twentysomething Soul (Oxford University Press, $29.95) looks beyond the barrage of research and reporting on non-affiliated young Americans to also examine those who have a strong attachment to their congregations and faith. These “active affiliated” Christian young adults are not as unusual as one might think, argue authors Timothy Clydesdale of the College of New Jersey and Kathleen Garces-Foley of Marymount University; they find that the number of Christian adherents among twentysomethings is larger than the population of the state of Texas (at 26.5 million). There are about 10 million twentysomethings who are regular churchgoers and actively practice their faith—more than the population of New York City (at 11.3 million). About six out of 10 American twentysomethings affiliate with Catholic and Protestant traditions, while three out of 10 do not affiliate with a religion. The book is based on a national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings in 2013, as well as 200 in-depth interviews with young adults active in Catholic and evangelical and mainline Protestant congregations across the country. [It should be noted that RW’s editor was one of the interviewers in this phase of the research.]

Clydesdale and Garces-Foley place Christian twentysomethings in “Active” to “Nominal” to “Estranged” categories, although Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants show different proportions of such tendencies. Greater percentages of mainline Protestant and Catholic respondents fit the nominal identity than the active one, meaning that they value their religious backgrounds and intend to invest more in them in the future, but currently participate only on occasion. But the evangelical difference stands out—47 percent are active, 50 percent nominal, and only three percent are estranged. Clydesdale and Garces-Foley note that the proportion of active evangelicals is more than twice the proportion of active mainliners or active Catholics, while the proportion of estranged evangelicals is at least six time smaller than the proportion of estranged mainliners and Catholics. A strong sense of community, pastoral leadership (especially good preaching), and finding a “critical mass” of fellow young adults filling the pews were among the commonalities drawing twentysomethings to churches (with the Catholic young adults stressing the Eucharist and mainline Protestants valuing social justice efforts). The book also does a good job of showing the struggle involved in finding a compatible church, especially among Catholics and mainline Protestants; Catholics often patched together what Clydesdale and Garces-Foley call a “trans-parish,” a network consisting of diocesan-wide events and programs and campus organizations. While twentysomethings are said to be “spiritual but not religious,” the young adults we read about in the book have managed to combine a spiritual life with religious practice. Most of the affiliated twentysomethings held traditional Christian understandings of spirituality, but there was also the unusual finding that the active Christian young adults were more likely to hold to non-traditional forms of spirituality than even their non-affiliated counterparts. This may be due to the fact that these twentysomethings extend their spiritualty to everyday life, including nature, art, and music.


The Cultivation of Conformity (Routledge, $39.95), by Pink Dandelion, concerns itself with the way that religious organizations experience internal secularization, even as their beliefs and practices escape from them and can influence the wider society. Dandelion, a specialist on Quakerism, uses the Society of Friends as his main case study to examine the way that this interaction between secularizing and religious forces takes place. The Quaker case, particularly in Britain, presents some unique features that address the question of internal secularization. It is a liberal body that has significantly reduced its tensions with the surrounding society, losing a large percentage of its cradle membership (especially after the 1990s), yet it has continued to attract converts, which seems to fly in the face of secularization theories. Dandelion traces the shift in Quakerism, from world rejection (as suggested in the practice of forming a “hedge” between the Quakers and society) to a stance both affirming and challenging the world, early on in the group’s history; the tendency toward assimilation into society was evident in the mid-1600s. This trend has intensified to the point where non-Christians have played an increasing role in the Society of Friends, leading to a debate about whether belief in God is necessary to be a Quaker. [See the April/May 2019 issue of RW for more on this subject.]

Dandelion argues that Quaker practices and lifestyles, such as pacifism and silent worship, have been maintained while Christian beliefs and creedal statements have been discarded. On one hand, Dandelion finds that “even as a very permissive religious group in the twentieth century, Quakerism has defied secularization theory by continuing to offer distinctive practices and forms, such as silent worship and voteless decision-making, which have buoyed recruitment.” Yet the author concludes that internal secularization has still taken place in the way that Quaker and non-Quaker values are aligned and religious identity is privatized and individualized to avoid disharmony outside of Quaker settings—a pattern actually encouraged by the inflow of non-Christian converts. Dandelion concludes that the pattern of internal secularization extends beyond Quakerism, which may fare better in the way it makes space for “expressive individualism” to flourish. In most cases, however, “it is not that the threat to transcendent religion is coming from without but from within religious organizations on a popular level.”

In recent years, social scientists of all stripes have turned their attention to “happiness studies,” although they have often neglected to look at the religious dimensions of happiness in a sustained way. That limitation is addressed in the recent book Regimes of Happiness (Anthem, $115; e-book $30.36), edited by Yuri Contreras-Vejar, Joanna Tice Jen, and Bryan S. Turner. While the anthology also addresses neglected philosophical aspects and meanings of happiness, the contributors often return to the religious sources of the idea of happiness, both throughout history and in the present day. What the editors and contributors mean by “regimes of happiness” is the way that happiness or human fulfillment, in its various different meanings, is shaped by different political, religious, and secular practices and institutions.

RW readers will be particularly interested in the chapters on evangelical conceptions of happiness, as found in popular devotional writings, and how they can be adapted to different political views and agendas (as illustrated in the evangelical advisors President Trump has assembled around himself), and the different conception of happiness in Vietnam, where ancestor veneration is linked to well-being—a practice being upended by the pursuit of wealth-generating consumerist lifestyles (which is also reflected in Vietnamese happiness studies). Turner concludes that happiness studies, using the measurements of wealth and health, and the way they have been put to use by governments and policy specialists, have largely marginalized religion. But modern regimes of happiness remain fragmented and unstable, based on secular values of individualism, self-autonomy, and enjoyment, suggesting that there is “no, and perhaps never can be, a definitive answer to ‘what is happiness.’”