Religion Church and Economics

In all history, we do not find a single religion without a church. —Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

A glorious Church is like a magnificent feast; there is all the variety that may be, but every one chooses out a dish or two that he likes, and lets the rest alone: how glorious soever the Church is, every one chooses out of it his own religion, by which he governs himself, and lets the rest alone. —John Selden, Table Talk

The concepts of religion and church are so intertwined as to be inseparable in most people's minds. By one set of definitions, religion is an organized system of beliefs, and church is an organized body of worshippers. At first blush, economics seems far removed from these constructs. In the complicated nexus of relations between the sacred and the profane, most people would place church and religion among the former and economics among the latter. But if we are rational about such things, we must recognize that organized bodies imply organization and administration. Therefore, in order to understand the workings of organized bodies, it makes sense to turn to a science like economics that seeks to explain the behavior of organizations. Economics and religion, therefore, are not such strange bedfellows after all.

The premise of this book is that the history and contemporary state of organized religions can be better understood if one uses economic principles to analyze their evolution and development. In order to do this, we must adopt a new mindset. We must be willing to employ the language and analytical methods of business and economics. This might be considered heresy to some, but there is cumulative evidence that old thought patterns are giving way to new ones, even among those ideologies most tightly wound to tradition. No church is more dominant in the history of Western Christianity than the Catholic Church. Yet the editor in chief of the Catholic Herald, Damian Thompson, recently wrote, using the language of business, "One of the discoveries in the sociology of religion in the last twenty-five years has been the extent to which, mutatis mutandis, patterns of religious allegiance in a pluralist society resemble those of consumption in the marketplace. People are attracted to strong brands that protect their identity; they enjoy products that suspend the boring reality of everyday life; and they demand near-infallible standards of professionalism.''1 Moreover, Thompson implicitly endorses a view we2 advanced nearly a decade ago: "The Pope is a CEO, not a chairman, and as such has two priorities. The first is to make sure that staff and services bearing the label "Catholic" are what they say they are...[His] other priority is to improve the quality of the Church's greatest service, the liturgy of the Eucharist.''3 Although Thompson makes specific reference to the Catholic Church, the notion that organization is an essential feature of all churches is self-evident. He has, in other words, embraced the mindset that we employ in this book.

Religion and church are universal concepts. There are, by loose count, nearly two dozen major world religions. It is possible, indeed probable, that an economic approach to the study of religion may be fruitfully applied to any and all of them. But all scientific studies are bounded by theoretical or practical limits. Ours is no different. Here we confine our study to Christianity for three reasons: It is the largest of the world's organized religions;4 it is the fastest-growing religion in developing countries around the world; and it has played a major role in the history and development of Western civilization. This book is not a work of history, but we wish to use history as support for our theory and its application. We will concentrate on the central transformation that occurred in Christendom in the sixteenth century—the Protestant Reformation—and its aftermath, including the initial and ongoing reaction against Protestantism by the Catholic Church. In economic terms, Protestantism may be represented as a successful penetration of a religious market dominated by a monopoly firm (the Catholic Church). Hence, the competitive process is at the heart of our inquiry. In the persistent rivalry that followed the Reformation, all manner of product differentiation was introduced; this process continues to this very day. We hope to show that as the story of Christianity unfolds it becomes increasingly evident that economics provides a useful framework for interpreting its evolution.

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