Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

(1939-) J. F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society and Director, Center for the Study of Religion, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. President, Religious Research Association, 1991-1992; Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1996-1997.

A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Wade Clark Roof graduated from Wofford College and Yale Divinity School before completing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of North Carolina, where he worked with Gerhard Lenski and others. Following his doctoral studies, Roof joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which named him a full Professor of Sociology in 1979. In 1990, he left Massachusetts for his current position at UCSB.

Author of 11 books and dozens of journal articles, Roof has been an active participant in professional societies in the social sciences and religion. In addition to his organizational presidencies, he served as Vice President of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. He also served as Executive Secretary of SSSR from 1978 to 1983 and has been a member of the Council of the Societe Internationale de Sociologie des Religions.

Roof’s research may be seen as encompassing several broad themes. His early contributions centered on research methods for studying religion. Here his UNC doctoral dissertation, published as Community and Commitment; Religious Plausibility in a Liberal Protestant Church (Elsevier 1978), reflects his interest in theoretical and methodological issues. Community and Commitment explored “localism” and “cosmopolitanism” in North Carolina Episcopal churches and inspired other efforts to examine worldviews in congregational settings. While Roof’s more recent work has been more topical in character, his interest and contributions to theory and methodology re never far from the surface. Particularly notable was his 1992 RRA Presidential Address in which he called for practioners in the social sciences to explore the possibilities of religious narrative in their research.

A second theme in Roof’s research has been the scholar’s role in interpreting change in American religion. As editor of the Annals’ 1985 and 1993 volumes on religion in America, Roof has commissioned important essays that help define the U.S. “religious situation.” American Mainline Religion (with William McKinney, Rutgers University Press 1987), and two edited collections, Liberal Protestantism: It’s Changing Shape and Future (with Robert Michaelson, Pilgrim 1986) and Beyond Establishment: Mainline Traditions in Transition (with Jackson Carroll, Westminster 1993), serve as a similar function. On the one hand, these books present solid new research on issues facing religious communities in America; on the other hand, they assist scholars, religious leaders, and the public in understanding the place of religion more broadly in American culture. This role as a “public intellectual” has led Roof to be recognized as a respected commentator on religious issues by the media and government agencies.

American Mainline Religion’s principal theme is the emergence of what the authors call a “new voluntarism” in American religious life. The new voluntarism reflects a post-1960’s emphasis on the theme of choice in American religion. Looking back at H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic 1929 book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt), Roof and McKinney point to evidence that Niebuhr’s social sources of religious belonging (ethnicity, region, social class, sectionalism, and, to a lesser extent, race) seem less important in the late twentieth century. People are freer to opt for religious commitments different from those of their parents-or to withdraw from religious participation altogether. The new voluntarism is felt by religious communities across the spectrum but has presented special challenges for the older Protestant communions whose traditional clientele has had higher exposure to the social forces that have given rise to the new voluntarism (education, mobility, and so on).

The book also explores the demographic characteristics and social views of members of various religious groups, points to the emergence of several broad religious “families” (liberal, moderate, black, and conservative Protestants; Roman Catholics; Jews; and the religiously unaffiliated), ad explores their current status and future prospects.

A third theme in Roof’s research is a persistent interest in religion’s relationship to other social institutions. This is most apparent with respect to religion and race, which has been a continuing concern, and, more recently, religion and family.

With financial support from the Lilly Endowment, in 1988 Roof began a major study of “baby boomers and religion” that results in the 1993 book A Generation of Seekers (Harper). This multipart project looked at persons born in the postwar period and living in four states: California, Ohio, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Boomers, the book concluded, are unexpectedly interested in spirituality but not terribly interested in religion. The book combined statistical analysis based on survey data with narrative case studies based on lengthy in-person interviews, reflecting its author’s new interest in narrative methods in studying religion.

Roof’s 1990 relocation to Southern California provided him with opportunities to explore questions of race, ethnicity, and religion in new ways. Following civil disturbances in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, Roof began a collaboration with Donald Miller and John Orr to explore religion and public life in that city. Early reports from that study suggest the emergence of new constellations of relationships across denominational, theological, ideological, and racial-ethnic lines in what the researchers identify as a new “politics of the spirit.”

-William McKinney

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