Economic Variables and Forms of Christian Belief Anecdotal Evidence

Nowhere, perhaps, has the evolution of Christian forms of religion been more pronounced than in the United States. Studies of the myriad varieties of Christian belief reveal an amazing evolution. They are, according to our view, evolving in response to full-price changes and a panoply of shifters that affect the stringency of doctrine demanded and the extent of ritual that will quell risk and anxiety ("chaos" relievers). First consider some estimates of the number of organized Christian sects available to demanders in the United States alone.

A number of estimates of U.S. churches generally and Christian churches in particular have been made. We present evidence based on two of them. Historian Frank S. Mead and religion professor Samuel S. Hill report thirty-three major organized Christian denominations operating in the United States.13 Of these, there are about 184 formal subdivisions of these major sects, each with an alternative theology and ritual that can be labeled formally "Christian." How do we explain these alternative and evolving forms of Christianity—forms that have appeared and disappeared over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation? Fundamental microeconomic theory suggests that these forms emerge as the full price of membership—a price that includes adherence to a particular theology linked with particular ritual changes through time, given some state of science, education, and other shifters that create a state of risk preference.

Just as the rising full price of being Roman Catholic in the early sixteenth century led to a general breakaway by Martin Luther and a number of reformers, more subtle differences in the full price of membership in a particular form of modern Christianity leads to new forms of the Christian religion. A number of economic phenomena will change the full price of a particular theological-ritualistic form of Christianity. Ritual can affect full price. As we saw in chapter 8, for example, feast holidays of the Roman Catholic Church were manipulated (increased) in the post-Reformation period to attract adherents from Protestantism in areas where Catholics and Protestants were in close proximity. Price competition may be augmented and accompanied by change in cultural shifters to produce changes in the form of Christianity and belief structure. In the past decade, for example, a theological split in the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States—the Southern Baptist Convention or SBC (one of the nineteen listed in table 9.1)—created a distinct wing of that organization. (The adjective "Southern" arose over the issue of slavery in May 1845, although racism was formally renounced in 1995.)

Internecine factionalism began in the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978. The highly conservative leadership (which is currently maintained) passed reaffirmations that the role of pastor was limited to males, affirming the primacy of husbands over wives in the household—all based on the "inerrancy of Scripture.''14 In 2000, while stopping short of an official breakaway, a group of one hundred representatives from fifteen

Table 9.1

Organized Christian churches and major subdivisions in the United States

Table 9.1

Organized Christian churches and major subdivisions in the United States









Brethern and Pietist


Orthodox and Oriental





Christian Churches



(Stone-Campbell Movement)



Church of Christ Scientist




Church of God and Saints of God


Salvation Army


Community Churches,




International Council

Triumph the Church and


Congregational Churches

Kingdom of God in Christ

Divine Science


Unitarian Universalist





Friends (Quakers)

Unity School of Christianity




and Association of Unity

Holiness Churches


Hutterian Brethren


Universalist Fellowship of

Latter Day Saints (Mormons)

1 4

Metropolitan Community Churches



Worldwide Church of God TOTAL


Source: Frank S. Mead and Samuel S. Hill, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).

Source: Frank S. Mead and Samuel S. Hill, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).

states met in Atlanta, Georgia, to adopt adherence to a "Network of Mainstream Baptists,'' rejecting fundamentalist domination over what they labeled "Baptist beliefs and practices.'' Clearly, the state of culture and science—not to mention the increased opportunity costs to women, chiefly in the form of new and better employment and income prospects—had changed the full price of Southern Baptist theology and ritual. The price of the package offered by conservative Southern Baptists was clearly too high for some. The result, while still "fundamentalist" in general orientation, is a de facto new form of Christian religion. (One might hazard a prediction, testable in principle, that the incomes and educations of these traditional Baptists are higher than their conservative Southern Baptist counterparts.) Further pronouncements of the mother body of the SBC with regard to scriptural interpretation may well lead to a formal schism (or schisms) within that body. Close investigation of the mutations of other forms of theology and ritual from the principal churches developed since the Protestant Reformation would yield similar interpretations. Importantly, form changes—due to the nature of the shifting agents—can be toward either liberal or conservative theologies or rituals.

Religion researcher J. Gordon Melton takes an even broader perspective of the multifaceted face of modern Christianity. His Encyclopedia of American Religions15 is in its seventh edition and encompasses a survey of both Christian and "all-other" religious families operating in the United States. These "other" religions include such diverse belief systems as the many kinds of Middle Eastern religions, as well as "Magick," Ancient Wisdom, Spiritualist, Psychic, New Age, and so on. All in all, Melton found more than 2,500 distinct primary religious bodies within nineteen families of American religions. According to Melton, the member bodies of each family share a common heritage, theology (in its broadest sense), and lifestyle. We are particularly interested in the Christian families that constitute ten of the nineteen families and more than half the approximately 2,500 churches identified by Melton, but his broader reach and its implications for the economic study of religion will be discussed later in the chapter.

Clearly, the mere count of Christian churches is open to dispute. We make no attempt to present Melton's particular accounting, but his tally of one family of belief is instructive. In the "Pietist-Methodist" family, Melton finds four Pietist churches and thirty-three separate Methodist denominations (with the United Methodist Church the largest subgroup by far). Eighteen are labeled "Non-Episcopal Methodist," with seven "Black Methodist," three "German Methodist,'' and four "British Methodist.'' This number, of course, contrasts with the twelve subgroups listed in table 9.1. The long and tortuous evolution of Methodism from its origins with John Wesley in England in the eighteenth century to its many manifestations in the United States is recounted in some detail by Mel-ton.16 Like modern religious mergers and divisions, Methodism in the United States underwent multiple transitions and separations. Exogenous events such as the Revolutionary War, the abolition movement, disputes over the morality of war, controversy regarding episcopal versus decen tralized local control, doctrinal divisions within the "holiness movement," and many other events changed relative prices creating different combinations of doctrinal foundations, policy interpretations, and organizational forms, that is, different forms of Methodist Christianity.

The same process of merger and schism (from a particular church's creed and organization) that affected Methodists occurred with virtually all other denominations. This is also true of Catholicism. There was a long-standing split between traditional Western Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox doctrine and ritual (the latter did not and does not recognize the pope as the infallible head of Christian Catholicism).

Melton maintains that religious families have stayed together due to basic commonalities despite the mutations (which create different full prices) that have occurred due to doctrinal or ritualistic differences or, more recently, the creation of liberal and conservative wings of many major denominations. A specific example will clarify this view. Melton argues,

For fundamentalists and for the Protestant churches, especially those which follow John Calvin's Reformed theology, the features distinguishing them from each other are their thought world. They hold divergent views on these topics in particular: sacrament, ecclesiology, the sovereignty of God, perfection, and the nature of the end of time. But even where there is agreement, sharing a thought world does not necessarily mean holding identical views. Rather, it means sharing some beliefs which set the context for constant debate over specifics.17

In our view, each of these variants carries a different full price for a particular form of religion—that is, of doctrine, ritual, policy, and organization. (As we will see, such differences, when extreme, may create serious divisions among families of religions.) The fact that a whole spectrum of beliefs exists from what might be termed "liberal" to "conservative" within some particular religion (Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic) creates many difficulties for a researcher trying to discover the determinants of particular forms of religion. There are, for example, liberal Baptists and conservative Episcopalians.

In our view, differences in fundamental beliefs—if that means fundamental differences in theology or scriptural doctrine—are to be interpreted as economic factors that create differences in full price. It is certainly true that, from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, there have been many such theological differences between Christian sects. Some have rejected belief in the Trinity (seeing this as polytheism), the divinity of Christ (many Unitarians do not accept the theology), some or all of the sacraments (seven for the Roman Catholics, two or three—generally baptism and Holy Communion—for mainline Protestant churches, none for the now defunct Zwinglians and Anabaptists). Transubstantiation is a belief of Roman Catholics that the act of consecration creates the actual not the symbolic recreation of the body and blood of Christ. (Some writers, e.g., Diarmaid MacCulloch,18 see tran-substantiation as a retained element of magic in Roman Catholicism.)

All manner of biblical interpretational differences are held by the various Christian religious forms, and all have retreated to Scripture to justify their own interpretations and beliefs. Importantly, differences in ritual accompany theological or doctrinal differences within these forms. Some rituals (e.g., Mormons, cults, Pentecostals, Evangelicals) carry high time prices and often require service, plain dress, no makeup for women, revivals, born again rituals, and snake and "tongues" ceremonies. Others demand far less of members. The former lend credence to the particular forms of Christian product demanded and, as we have already emphasized, these forms are in constant flux owing to the shifting fit between demander profiles and the particular forms of doctrine and theology supplied by alternative firms. Ideally, one might be able to formulate a test of our basic theory concerning the determinants of the multiple forms of Christian religions, if families of believers (Lutherans) are represented by enough common belief that they are able to encompass both liberal and conservative forms of the general religion. The term "Lutheran" might then be used to represent a unified form of religion. It might be possible to group religions as "fundamentalist" or "traditionalist" with respect to general theology and ritual, but the gross number of Episcopalians or Lutherans or Baptists cannot capture a particular form of belief. Empirical estimations along these lines would be difficult since simple attendance or membership figures for, say, Methodists, cannot actually capture particular forms such as liberal, moderate, or conservative Methodists for whom the full price of religion, including combinations of doctrine and ritual, might be significantly different. Thus, while there are general families of belief, there appears to be as much difference within as between them. Contemporary changes in the many forms of Chris tianity rest not so much on fundamental tenets (the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, etc.), but on interpretations of these tenets for a modern world in which science, technology, culture, and other factors are undergoing rapid and continuous change.

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