Applying Economic Theory to the Religious Marketplace

By Virginia Postrel N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

Applying Economic Theory to the Religious Marketplace


Virginia Postrel N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


The Southern Baptist Convention voted Wednesday to amend its official statement of faith to declare that the Bible bars women from serving as pastors. Although each Baptist congregation is autonomous and the convention cannot stop a local church from ordaining or hiring a woman as pastor, the pronouncement is generally considered an important symbol of the denomination's increasing conservatism.

Critics also see the move as bad marketing. In a Gallup survey in May, 71 percent of Americans who expressed religious preferences said they favored "having women as pastors, ministers, priests or rabbis in your own faith or denomination."

As a result, the Gallup organization said, in approving the new statement, the Southern Baptists would be "out of step with the significant majority" of religious Americans.

To Laurence Iannaccone, however, the Baptist vote is part of a rational strategy and is not necessarily a sign of greater conservatism. Iannaccone, of Santa Clara University in California, has pioneered the application of economic theory to religion. His research examines how individuals make rational choices among religious alternatives and how religions compete in what is, thanks to the First Amendment, the nation's freest marketplace.

Among the questions he has explored are why strict churches -- those that in some way limit members' activities outside the church - - are strong, and how conservative churches adapt when social norms become more liberal. Both questions are relevant to the issues faced by the Southern Baptists, a moderately strict denomination that is the nation's largest Protestant group.

Strictness can manifest itself in dietary restrictions, distinctive clothing, geographical separation or prohibitions on activities like dancing or drinking. It can also entail requirements like sending one's children to the church school, observing unique holidays or attending Wednesday night services in addition to Sunday services.

Joining a strict group may sound irrational when there are less costly alternatives. "Why become a Mormon or a Seventh-day Adventist" -- let alone join a so-called cult -- "when the Methodists and Presbyterians wait with open arms?" Iannaccone wrote in Why Strict Churches Are Strong, a 1994 article in the American Journal of Sociology.

His answer is that high costs screen out "free riders," deadbeat members who would otherwise enjoy a church's benefits without contributing energy, time and money. If everyone in the group has to pay a visible price, free riders will not bother to join, and a committed core will not end up doing all the work. The group may attract fewer members at first, but it will be stronger over time. Distinctiveness also gives people a reason for affiliation and a sense of camaraderie. Why join a religious group if it is identical to the rest of society?

But a church cannot survive if the cost of membership is too great, especially if it wants to draw members from social groups that have other opportunities. By raising the costs of the old rules, social change poses a significant challenge to conservative religious groups. It is harder for members to find a happy compromise between the church's ideals and social norms, because the two are now far apart. …

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