Journalists rarely get to use terms such as "White House," New Age" and "seance" in the same story.
But they did in 1996, when the news broke that Hillary Rodham Clinton and her "sacred psychologist" Jean Houston were using meditation and visualization techniques to chat with Eleanor Roosevelt. Commentators smirked and said this behavior was wacky, if not "cult-like."
For scholar Wade Clark Roof, this ruckus was perfectly timed to aid his ongoing research into the Baby Boomer soul. Out in sanctuary pews and on suburban couches, Roof and his associates found that, as expected, the fundamentalist Protestants and Catholic traditionalists that he calls "Dogmatists" were outraged, while his "Secularists," "Metaphysical Seekers" and "Mainline Believers" were not.
The big news was that most "Born-Again Evangelicals" were taking the news in stride. As one born-again woman in North Carolina said, the first lady's rites were "a bit weird I must admit, but if that's what she wants and it helps her, that's what counts."
Hidden in his data is what Roof believes is a major trend. He is convinced there has been a seismic shift in America's spiritual landscape, one that has great implications for everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Billy Graham, from Al Gore to George W. Bush. To state it bluntly, the born-again label doesn't mean what it used to mean.
Consider, for example, reports that actress Jane Fonda is attending a Baptist church and has embraced the faith that her estranged husband Ted Turner once called a "religion for losers." From newspaper accounts, it seems clear she has had some kind of profound spiritual experience. She may, eventually, even call a press conference and say she has been born again. But this does not necessarily mean that Fonda, or any other born-again believer, has made radical changes in her personal convictions.
"It's crucial to understand that what unites most of the people who call themselves born-again Christians is their claim to have had a highly personal spiritual experience that has changed their lives," said Roof, whose most recent book is entitled "Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion."
"You are born again," he added, "because of certain feelings and emotions and experiences, not because you believe any particular set of doctrines or because you share certain beliefs about moral issues. ... Born-again Christians are increasingly becoming part of the American mainstream."
A third of America's 77-million Baby Boomers call themselves born-again Christians. According to Roof's most recent research, only 55 percent or so have any link to a conservative-Protestant denomination. In terms of their backgrounds, 38 percent grew up as evangelicals or fundamentalists, 28 percent as Catholics, 27 percent as mainline Protestants and another 7 percent as Jews or as members of some other harder-to-define group. Twenty percent say they are not members of a local congregation. Many prefer to watch religious television programs or attend a "house church" or another fellowship group.
Many born-again Boomers believe they have made a spiritual decision that is right for them, but not necessarily for everyone. Half affirmed that the various religions of the world are "equally good and true," and the younger the born-again Christian, the more likely he or she was to say this. A third of the born-again believers said they believe in reincarnation and astrology. And 48 percent of the born-again Christians said "yes" when asked, "Should a married woman who doesn't want any more children be able to obtain a legal abortion?"
As a rule, born-again Christians now join other Americans in saying they are "spiritual," rather than "religious." In the 1950s, said Roof, evangelicals tried to distance themselves from "liberal churches" and secular society. Today, increasing numbers of evangelicals want to make sure they are not seen as too doctrinaire or too judgmental and, thus, as fundamentalists.
"All of this is very American," said Roof. "Americans like new beginnings and new chances to start over. Being born again appeals to them. ... But Americans don't put much faith in institutions or traditions or doctrines. They aren't sure that they need a church. Americans believe in themselves and they trust their own experiences, more than anything."