Guest Commentary: Competition and the American Religious Marketplace

(UNDATED) A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found 44 percent of American adults have switched away from the religious affiliation in which they were raised. Cause for concern? Maybe, maybe not.

One of the report’s major findings is that Catholics and mainline Protestant denominations are the big losers, while evangelical and non-denominational Protestants are the big winners.

Changing one’s church often does not reflect a lack of faithfulness or indifference to theological variations among the denominations. Nor is it a symptom of impending religious decline. To the contrary, church-switching reflects the vigorous good health of American religion.

The Pew study refers to the American “marketplace” of religions where people shop around for the religious theologies, practices, and communities that suit them. Some may try on a number of faiths until they find the one that fits.

This is one of the great benefits of the First Amendment’s protection from government sanction of any particular religion, which allows many faiths to thrive. Competition means individuals are unshackled by theologies they do not believe or communities of faith that they find spiritually or otherwise unfulfilling. There are many choices available where people can find the religious home that they seek — or choose nothing at all.

High levels of religious activity in the United States is the result of pluralism. American denominations must compete to attract and hold members — or else face decline or extinction. That competition, in turn, leads to clear differences among the religious “products” that denominations offer.

To understand the impacts of several centuries of competition, consider that in 1776, fewer than one in five Americans belonged to a local church; today, that figure is about 70 percent.

These gains occurred precisely because Americans change churches so often and so easily. Church-switching is not anything new; Americans have always flocked to the more effectively competitive faiths. Congregationalists, for example, went from being the largest denominations in 1776 to one of the smallest (in the United Church of Christ) today. Methodists had just begun to grow, and within 100 years were the largest U.S. denomination, and now face a period of serious decline.

The notion that church-switching is symptomatic of religious discontent is only a partial truth. A person leaving one denomination does indicate a sense of dissatisfaction; but when he or she settles in another, that indicates that they simply found satisfaction elsewhere.

If pluralism greatly increases the general level of religiousness by satisfying the diverse religious tastes of the public, it has two other consequences: it strengthens religious freedom and promotes religious civility.

The Founding Founders chose the course recommended by Adam Smith, who envisioned a society “divided into two or three hundred, or perhaps as many (as a) thousand small sects, of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb public tranquillity.” Smith also argued that the leaders of these many sects would necessarily learn to be respectful and agreeable, since each was surrounded on all sides by potential adversaries.

The American religious model encourages religious groups to challenge one another for adherents, urges the adoption of the moral values, and the creation of a civil society that reflects faith but is not burdened by it.

A recent spate of anti-religious polemics portrays religion as the ultimate evil. Yet religious competition in the American model does not foster warring factions, inquisitions, or even much religious strife. America may not be entirely free of religious animosities, yet the competition of ideas has produced cross-fertilizations and the emergence of new religious forms. It has also fostered a sense of mutual respect and acceptance unequaled in the world.

Most cultures abandon religion on the road to “harmony,” or impose religious restrictions and stifle religious freedom. In the U.S., competition among religions has led to the emergence of new religious ideas and ideals and the creation of a more vital civil society. The free enterprise model produces more tolerance and reduces bigotry.

While some religions grow and others decline, the overall result is something that is integral to the American spirit.

(Rodney Stark teaches at Baylor University and is co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Gary Tobin is president of The Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.)