Chronicler of a Generation’s Spirituality: Wade Clark Roof, 1949-2019

Wade Clark Roof
Wade Clark Roof (Photo: Tony Mastres/UCSB)

Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist of religion whose work examined the evolving spirituality of the Baby Boomer generation in such words as A Generation of Seekers, has died. His death, at age 80, was announced on August 25 by the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was an emeritus professor.

Roof arrived in Santa Barbara in 1989 after 19 years as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It was a good time for a career change,” he told an interviewer for his graduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina, in 2016. “[M]y daughters were in college, and to be honest I had grown somewhat discouraged by the ethos within many sociology departments that regarded religion as fairly inconsequential as a subject of study – a dependent variable, as we say.”

At his new home, Roof wrote the seminal A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, which quickly made a major mark after its 1993 publication.

“It was an incredibly significant work,” Diana Butler Bass, a historian of religion, told Jack Jenkins for his obituary of Roof at Religion News Service. “It made an impact on both the church and the larger academy. It was also picked up by Baby Boomers themselves, who said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my experience!’”

Roof, she continued, “was part of an argument to move away from seeing sociology of religion as purely about numbers, and instead understand (it) as the lived experience of people in community. While (his book) was very important in terms of quantitative sociology, it was also a lively example of a new ethnographic turn in the sociology of religion.”

(That focus on quantitative sociology in 1993 would have surprised Roof as a grad student. As he related in the University of North Carolina interview, “When I applied to the department I had no idea that I would have to take four courses in statistics and methods, for which I was ill-prepared.” Asked to meet with the eminent Tad Blalock to find out more about the program, “He mentioned those courses but didn’t say they were required and I stupidly said, ‘Well I doubt I’ll be taking those courses!’ I’ve often wondered how I got accepted.”)

A Generation of Seekers was one of those rare academic books that insinuated itself into the wider conversation. “Especially rewarding,” he later recalled, “was the call I received from the White House during the Clinton presidency asking if the president might quote the title … in his State of the Union address to describe the large boomer population that was setting the trends in the country at the time. That one quote in the political arena was worth more than a dozen references in academic journals in gaining public recognition as a social commentator early in my career.”

Wade Clark Roof (he preferred to go as “Clark”) was born on July 25, 1939, in Columbia, South Carolina, the son of Colie Wade Roof and Georgia Eleanor Clark. He attended Wofford College in South Carolina and then accepted a fellowship to the Yale Divinity School for a master’s degree and a career as a Methodist minister. But the taint of a liberal mainline education stuck with him, and when he took up the cloth back in his home state he was perceived as “more liberal than I was.”

“He wanted to integrate the church, and the elders just wouldn’t have it,” his friend and fellow religion scholar Julie Ingersoll told Jenkins. “He was invited to leave, so he decided to go to grad school [at UNC].”

He received his Ph.D. there in 1971 and took the position in Massachusetts, where his teaching on race and religion found a more welcoming home.

As he would tell The New York Times, it was while at Amherst that his interest in what would become Seekers crystallized. A Congregational church in Springfield was on its last legs, and they called the young sociologist of religion at the nearby university to find out why old-school Christian denominations were losing adherents. As he started to investigate, the question and its wider questions intrigued him. He surveyed 1,600 Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – and a thousand pre-Boomers, and the both quantitative and ethnographic Seekers was one of the outputs.

As noted above, in 1989 Roof, with his wife Terry, took a position with the Religious Studies Department at UCSB. It was, he said, “a big move – geographically, culturally, and in teaching context.”

The titles and publication dates of the five issues of The ANNALS of the American Association of Political and Social Science that he guest edited provide a striking timeline of Roof’s intellectual and sociological journey: Race and Residence in American Cities in 1979; Religion in America Today (1985); Religion in the Nineties (1993); Americans and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (1998); and his most recent, 2007’s Religious Pluralism and Civil Society.

As he wrote in the introduction to that most recent ANNALS:

Immigration and religious issues are openly debated in the political arena; concerns extend well beyond interfaith relations and acceptance of diverse truth-claims, dress, food, and religious styles to questions about how diverse can the country be and still remain united. Critical is how we as Americans think about our fundamental national identity—about who we are as a people, religiously and culturally, in an age of increased diversity. Can Americans embrace a more widespread religious pluralism, one that communicates a genuine acceptance of an ever-expanding diversity of belief and practice? Can such pluralism be incorporated into the nation’s civil religious symbolism and genuinely affirmed in its public rituals? Can the country be maintained as a civil society and not succumb to popular hostilities and stereotypes against newcomers and their faith traditions? And religiously, can we as Americans rethink our identity and view ourselves as a “multireligious nation” and not simply as Christian or Judeo-Christian?

To help address those questions, in 2001 he founded the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life at UCSB. Roof in his 15 years as director worked diligently through efforts at public talks and student internships to build it out as both an academic hub and a force in the community, always concerned that the center might get pigeon-holed as a nice thought instead of a necessary one. (Walter Capps had been a religious studies professor at UCSB who, on his second try, won a seat in Congress, only to die of a heart attack early in his first term.)

The last few years have seen a number of honors accrue to Roof, who bridled – gently – at the “career-is-over” tenor of many of the honors. In 2016 the Association for the Sociology of Religion awarded him its lifetime achievement award, and the American Academy of Religion was scheduled to give him its Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion in November. Appropriately, the Marty Award aim to be “not simply a ‘lifetime achievement award’ for public scholars in the late stages of their careers; it is a recognition of exceptional work.” As Kathleen Moore, chair of UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies said in 2016 when Roof received the ASR award, “[Roof] belongs to the pantheon of giants in the field of the sociology of religion, and continues to be influential.”

Terry Roof died in April 2018, and Roof is survived by two daughters and six grandchildren.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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