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
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
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. …