June 15, 2000


Of Conservatism and Distinctiveness in the Religious Marketplace


The Southern Baptist Convention voted yesterday 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 that 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 vote is part of a rational strategy and is not necessarily a sign of greater conservatism. Professor 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 such requirements as 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?" Professor 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. Views or practices that were once close to the mainstream become deviant -- and costly.

"Contrary to most folks' assumptions, a successful conservative church must constantly adapt to social change," Professor Iannaccone said. Churches that do not evolve lose members, especially among the young, and they attract fewer converts. "The trick," he emphasizes, "is not to adapt so quickly or completely that all sense of distinctiveness is lost." A successful church will maintain what he calls an "optimal gap" between its norms and society's. Nowhere is this clearer than in the changing role of women.

In a 1990 article, Professor Iannaccone and his wife, Carrie A. Miles, a social psychologist, examined the Mormon Church's reaction to the women's movement. They combined a careful analysis of church literature from the 1950's to the mid-1980's with statistics on temple rituals performed by younger and newer members and those performed by older ones. The ritual statistics measure the degree of religious commitment for the two demographic groups.

Their analysis disclosed the church's balancing act: tough rhetoric in the short term and gradual accommodation over the long run. This strategy looks like the optimal way to keep older members without alienating younger Mormons or new converts.

Throughout the period, the church upheld the ideal of a family headed by a husband with a full-time homemaker wife and many children. Indeed, during the 1960's and 70's, church literature was much more likely to pound home the point than in the 1950's, when general social norms were not much different from Mormon views. But over time, the church began to allow exceptions to the idea that wives should not work: for widows or women whose husbands were disabled, for women who prayed about their careers and had God's and their husbands' permission to work and, eventually, for women whose children were grown.

By the 1980's, family was still primary, but the ideal of women's work had changed. "They were acknowledging that women should have careers before they have children and after their children are grown, and that they should do things that will keep their skills alive while they're home with their children," Dr. Miles said. "And Mormon women are working at the same rate as anybody else."

For Southern Baptists, the story is much the same. Far from being kept at home, Baptist women run many of the denomination's operations, and they have career aspirations similar to non-Baptists. Drawing the line at pastorships, Professor Iannaccone argues, is a low-cost way to preserve the church's distinctiveness while quietly accommodating broader social changes.

"The average woman doesn't want to be a priest or a pastor," he said. "The average woman wants a career, and the church has allowed it. Twenty or 30 years ago, people seriously talked about men being the authorities in the household. Now they talk about 'servant leadership,' and when you get underneath all that language, it's almost devoid of content. They don't say that men should always make the big decisions in the household."

In a dynamic marketplace, even the most conservative faiths have to adapt to what people want. But that does not mean giving up their distinctiveness.

This column appears every Thursday. Virginia Postrel is the editor at large of Reason magazine and the author of ``The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress.'' Four economic analysts -- Ms. Postrel, Jeff Madrick, Alan B. Krueger and Hal R. Varian -- rotate as contributors.

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