Religions Thrive In A Free Market, Too

Many people are disturbed by the rising appeal of the religious right. But I don't believe there is reason to be concerned--so long as religions must compete for followers and no religion receives special treatment from the government.

In a competitive environment, born-again Christians, Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Moslems, and other groups attract members only if they meet spiritual and moral needs better than mainline religions. Most people believe individuals have the power to determine their lifestyles even when they grow up under difficult circumstances. They expect religious preaching to reaffirm their need to take responsibility for their behavior. With mainline religions failing to stress the need for people to exercise self-control and responsibility, they are losing members to fundamentalist groups with more traditional teachings. Fundamentalists also have been in the forefront of attacking the breakdown of the family, pornography, and disrespect for authority.

Some nations, such as the U.S., have an open "market" for religion. Different denominations and sects compete for members through spiritual guidance and other appeals. Competition is good for religion, as it is for ordinary commodities, because religious groups are forced to learn how better to satisfy members' needs than they do when they have a monopoly position.

ON THEIR TOES. The importance of competition to the behavior of religious organizations was recognized 200 years ago by Adam Smith in a neglected chapter of his Wealth of Nations. He presented considerable evidence that the Church of England had become unresponsive to the needs of the British because the government gave it a privileged position. Smith argued forcefully that the only way to end church leaders' sloth and indifference was to remove these privileges and make the Church of England compete for members against the newer religions.

Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the U.S. understood that church and state should be separate in the new nation. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." One reason for the separation of church and state is to force religions to remain on their toes as they compete for congregants.

Lawrence Iannoccone of Santa Clara University tested the Smith-Jefferson doctrine with evidence on the degree of religiosity among the Protestant nations of Europe and North America. He found that religion--measured by the number of regular churchgoers and the strength of religious beliefs--was more important to people in societies with many competing churches, compared with countries that have a single church. For instance, only a small percentage of the population in Scandinavian countries is interested in religion, in large part because the Lutheran Church has a privileged position and receives most of its financing from governments (though church and state are starting to separate in Sweden). By contrast, religion thrives in the U.S. because different sects and denominations compete fiercely for members.

COMMUNIST SUPPRESSION. The Catholic Church is losing its powerful monopoly position in South America, and fundamentalist Protestant sects are growing rapidly in its place, because too many priests have ignored spiritual needs while focusing on political goals. And prior to World War II, Japan's government subsidized Shintoism and discriminated against other religions. The protected position of Shintoism was abolished after the war, and hundreds of new groups are flourishing now in Japan. These groups have appealed to spiritual needs that apparently were not being satisfied by Shintoism.

No modern example shows the competitive appeal of religion better than what is happening in the onetime communist nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For almost 75 years, the Soviet Union tried to reduce opposition to communism by closing churches and imprisoning religious leaders. In essence, communism tried to establish a secular monopoly. Yet religion has been booming since the collapse of communism. More than 22% of Russians interviewed say they used to be atheists, but they now believe in God. More than 6,000 Russian Orthodox churches and monasteries have reopened, and many other religious organizations have begun to recruit members there.

These examples indicate that both liberal and strict religious groups are more dynamic when they have to compete for members on a level playing field. Healthy competition requires open markets for religious beliefs, where no religious organization receives special protection or privileges from the state.

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