The truest thing I ever heard Bishop John Shelby Spong say was that religion is first and foremost a search for security rather than a search for truth.
I’ve been in a summer intensive on American religious traditions for the past few weeks, and my readings included Roger Finke and Rodney Stark's supply-side economics of religion in The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers In Our Religious Economy. What is a good Marxian philosopher of religion like me to make of this? To begin, supply-side theory is more a broad market theory than a necessarily capitalist variety, and I think there is potential to layer Finke’s supply-side thought on top of a materialist perspective on religious economy.
Survey of American Affiliation
For whatever reason, religion is not declining much in America. In 1776, only 17% of Americans were formal members of a church. While far more than this went to church in a stage where Christianity was ubiquitous, Finke and Stark suggest the difference in concern for affiliation between 1776 and today says something about the mythic Christian past in contrast to our supposedly secular age. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports 78.4% of Americans now affiliate with a Christian church, and only 4.7% affiliate with a non-Christian religion. 16.1% are unaffiliated, but the vast majority of that group (12.1% of total US) are “nothing in particular.” As we have seen, nones tend to say things like “I’m not a Christian, I follow Jesus” or “spiritual but not religious” or other pithy quotables that tip us off to their being basically Christian. Only 1.6% are atheist, thought that number becomes 4% when we include agnostics. In short, around 85-90% of US is broadly Christian. But the membership of each historic denomination is plummeting. Why?
We have this debate about why the mainline church is declining, and conservatives attribute it to liberal theology. Finke would agree, but not for the reasons conservatives think. Everyone knows the demand side of supply-demand drive price/inflation, but it’s crucial to understand supply-side economics as placing the emphasis on supply. Your demand for the latest product drives prices up, but the demand is created by the company’s supply (strategy, product, market share).
Anxiety, Globalization, and Apocalypticism
It’s not surprising that conservative-sectarian traditions are winning out over progressive groups. I’ve always assumed that globalization, plummeting job markets for college grads (not to mention the rise in religious behavior seen in a recession), increased states of perpetual/pointless warfare, etc., all account for the need for security that conservative traditions deliver. In 2010, 41% of Americans thought Jesus would return by 2050. That number has climbed to 47%, and I think that’s a natural response to prolonged economic insecurity.
But I was wrong to think this is anything uniquely attributable to globalization. My more Marxian view of religion can easily account for the popularity of conservative-sectarian religion, particularly during economic crisis, but its doesn't do as well in accounting for the proliferation of disparate typology (e.g. why is there such a thing as increasingly liberal theology if a poor economy rewards only conservative movements?) The Southern Baptist purge, the Neo-Reformed movement’s win over emergent, the proliferation of highly conservative Evangelical non-denominationals- this has all been seen before. Finke’s claim is that we first see supply-side economy functioning in America during the Great Awakening. Of course, the Reformation gives a previous example as does the proliferation of Catholic orders that arose during the Roman Empire's collapse, but the US Great Awakening gives us a test case with surprisingly well-documented statistical rates of religious adherence. The deregulated economy (revivalist preachers, new denominations) paid no attention to territory owned by established churches (even when, as with Congregationalism, churches were funded by tax dollars). People could choose. You would think incorrectly that people would volunteer for the churches that place the least demands on them. But deregulation changes the cost-benefit analysis, and high demands yield a sense of “rightness” or a “closed community.” Revivals worked not because of a shift in demand (people wanting spiritual renewal) but because of a shift in supply.
The larger pattern Finke identifies is this: 1) an established church modernizes to ease cultural tensions, 2) this produces a gap filled by a new supply of sects that attract the disenfranchised faithful, 3) the new sect becomes established and begins to modernize, creating space for new gap supplies, repeat ad nauseam. The initial proliferation of a new sect advertises its legitimacy to a demographic that would otherwise be skeptical of the new product.
The Anglican and Congregational churches in the colonies where completely displaced in only a handful of decades after the pre-Revolution Great Awakening launched Methodists and Baptists to prominence. Eventually, Methodists established themselves and modernized, but the independent nature of Baptist polity has consistently allowed them to resist modernization. Baptists retain a sect-like status, first during the Darwin-era Whitsitt controversy and later in the 1970-90s purge. Both of these were on the one hand an expulsion of theology from the ranks (Biblical criticism and Darwinism purged, Biblical inerrancy affirmed), but on the other hand they retained the “southernness” that made the Southern Baptists distinctive from their plummeting northern Baptist counterparts. In effect, the Souther Baptists are largest denomination in America today (and exert considerable influence on the 1/3 of US that is Evangelical) because they prioritized distinctive traditional sectarian (even parochial and anti-theological) beliefs/polity. Ironically, they succeeded at converting America because they failed to take Biblical studies seriously.
Vatican II Test Case
The ground Roman Catholicism lost after the 1960s Vatican II council provides an interesting test case on how updates affect adherence. We know modernizing loses members, but modernizing what? Vatican II updated dogma and liturgy, but maintained high demands on personal life (e.g. prohibition on birth control, reaffirmation of priesthood celibacy). Finke and Stark’s book was published in 1992, so it comes well before the child abuse scandal that has killed Catholic attendance worldwide. But even in 1992, we see plummeting attendance that appears linked to the bi-polar modernizing of theology without modernizing social demands. If this book had been written after 2000, I suspect Finke and Stark would excoriate the Vatican for not updating the celibacy requirement which has certainly been a cause for child abuse. But post-Vatican II membership teaches us that if a church has to choose between modernizing theology and modernizing personal demands, the former can be neglected while the latter updated if the goal is church attendance. Obviously, I think conservative-sectarian theology is inherently destructive for personal spirituality, critical thought, and social progress alike, but if you can only update one, update the practical, real-world religious demands.
The Pattern Today
What of today? Clearly the brewing controversy is gay marriage, and who can say what the church will put its foot down on next? What Finke’s supply-side economy of religion says is that whenever gay marriage becomes legal nationwide sometime in the next decade, both mainline and Evangelical/independent churches will quickly “evolve” to follow culture's lead. But updating views tends to kill church membership, so a good number of Evangelical churches (and maybe whole new denominations) will reshape themselves as the new supply of sectarian, anti-modernization churches. Vatican II shows us that churches might best update by modernizing on gay marriage while maintaining distinctively traditional theology (yes, I know this is a contradiction, but how many people really care?). For churches that maintain both regressive sexual views and also traditional theology, their membership will skyrockett for a while, and this will be self-attributed to better/conservative theology. When that happens, its nothing new. Its ephemeral. Its a natural pattern we see over and over in religious sectarianism. It happens because we want security more than we want truth, which is always a cycle of repression.