The Churching of America, 1776-1990

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, from Rutgers University Press. The newer volume of this is The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.

Roger Finke Rodney Stark The Churching of America, 1776-2005 from Rutgers University Press

According to their first few paragraphs, Finke and Stark began this book with the very modest ambition of lending quantitative documentation to an unoriginal narrative of church demographics in the United States. As they admit up-front, however, they provide both a substantial contradiction of the secularization meta-narrative for American religion, and refutations of the customary construal of numerous episodes of American religious history. In most cases, they account for the inaccuracies of earlier accounts on the basis of a myopic focus on the “mainstream,” where decline in previously successful churches receives anxious attention, while up-and-coming sects are dismissed as lacking religious propriety.

As far as secularization goes, Finke and Stark document an uninterrupted growth in total religious participation among Americans throughout the history of the United States, rising from 17% to 62%. (15-16) They also undermine the arguments of secularization champion Bryan Wilson, by noting that his arguments about the 1960s are focused on the secularization of “high church” bodies, while disregarding the ongoing boom among sects. (230) While refuting the idea that the United States as a whole has undergone secularization at any stage of its history, they retain the idea of secularization as an effective description of the process of accommodation and relaxation that tends to occur among religious bodies that have succeeded in attaining established status (in either the legal or the customary sense).

Specific “myths” of US religious history countered in this volume include:

· Colonial piety, and the Revolutionary “low-ebb tide” of religion,

· “Great Awakenings” as spontaneous collective events,

· Massive defection among Roman Catholics in the 19th-century US,

· “Urban irreligion” in general,

· rural American sectarianism as self-defeating,

· a sudden turn of secularization in the 1960s,

· the “New Age movement” as a significant change in the late 20th-century religious landscape, and

· Ecumenical sentiment as either especially characteristic of or appropriate to 20th-century America.

Finke and Stark are sociologists of religion, and Stark’s work is strongly identified with the “rational choice” theory that is opposed to explanations of religion as a pathological phenomenon. (251-2) Another element of theory that is critical to the overall treatment in The Churching of America is their modification of Troeltsch’s church/sect distinction, and its attendant “process.” (40-42, 237-8) Related to this process is Laurence Iannaccone’s notion of “high cost” as adding value to religious membership, by mitigating or eliminating the “free rider problem” inherent in collective action. (253-5)

From the subtitle forward, the authors show themselves to be powerfully committed to the market metaphor for religious activity—indeed so much so, that they don’t even seem to consider it to be a metaphor. They present religion as a collective enterprise with economic prerequisites and consequences, and they look at the “market for” religion in material terms of population and wealth, and at the marketing capacity of religions in terms of organization, sales personnel, product and marketing technique. (17-21) They explicitly cite Adam Smith, and emphasize the value of the “‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace” in religiously plural environments. They make the valuable observation that “the primary impact of religious pluralism is to provide a broad spectrum of specialized religious firms competing to attract and hold a segment of the market.” (205)

However, I think that they err when stressing that pluralism is fostered through an “unregulated” propagation of religion. (52, 237) More sophisticated economic treatments recognize that certain types of regulation are necessary in order to foster competition, which is the sine qua non of religious pluralism. A truly unregulated (or rather, deregulated) religious milieu would tend toward religious monopoly, or at least oligopoly. (This caution is not to take issue with the clearly deleterious effects of state subsidy on religious participation.) Stark and Finke actually observe the manner in which the “invisible hand” leads to the “ecumenical” impulse, and—in the more honest terms of their preferred metaphor—“cartel formation” among mature firms. It is the sort of libertarian regulatory environment provided by First Amendment rulings in the American legal tradition that continues to provide space for the “church-sect process,” in the absence of the frontiers of territorial expansion. Although the authors make a vigorous case for their lessaiz-faire perspective, I’m not persuaded that “secularization is self-limiting.” (46)

Stark and Finke have no particular sympathy for ecumenism; they rather paint it as the kiss of death: a goal evident only among churches in decline, and one which contributes to their downfall in lost participation. Similarly, they see the institution of professionalized, academically-oriented seminaries as deleterious to the health of the churches which sponsor them and use them for clergy formation. Such seminaries serve as a consistently secularizing influence, which is difficult to overcome, even when an effort is made to do so. The authors provide an especially illuminating examination of this contest with respect to the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminary relationships.

The sources for this book include novel applications of census data and church records. (6-15) In particular, the authors innovate in emphasizing “market share”—a proportional measure adjusted for the eligible population—rather than raw membership or activity statistics, in order to gauge participation in various religious bodies. Their presentation makes heavy use of tabulated data, as well as occasional boxed insertions of long quotes from primary historical documents. [via]