The God Market

Apropos of Romney's talk about Europe's empty cathedrals, Matt writes:

... whatever you may say about Europe's relative lack of religiosity, it's not a lack of entanglement of religion in public life that led to it ... In the United Kingdom ... there is, after all, an established church. And so it goes across northern Europe where each country traditionally had its own established Protestant church. And then across southern Europe, the Catholic Church always had official or quasi-official status. There was no question of pushing the church out of the public square. It's just that many people (the image of Europe as an all-atheist land tends to be overblown, there are churchgoers there, just not as many as in the US) wound up turning their backs on the church. This development most likely seems specifically related to the undue public-ification of religion in Europe. American religious groups, by contrast, have traditionally had to compete in a market of sorts for congregants. A church nobody wants to attend winds up shutting down, a popular church grows. Consequently, people have found ways to keep bringing people into the pews.

This point of view - that market competition is good for religious faith - has become the conventional wisdom nowadays. That doesn't make it wrong: America's most successful churches do behave a lot like successful corporations, and its most successful pastors like successful CEOs and pitchmen. I'm more convinced, though, that our free market in religion explains faith's success in America than that its supposed absence explains faith's eclipse in Europe. America, after all, doesn't just have a free market; it has a free-market culture, where people are used to be treated like consumers and thinking like consumers in almost every walk of life. The social geography of American life, in particular - car culture, suburbanization, and big-box stores - habituates people to constant mobility and competition, and thus makes the idea of church-shopping a natural fit in a way that isn't necessarily the case in Europe.

So it probably isn’t a coincidence that New England, arguably the most "Euro-American" part of the country, has the fewest megachurches of any American region; as Frances Fitzgerald noted in a recent New Yorker:

In Maurilio Amorim's opinion, New England is still the hardest place in the country to work as a church-growth consultant. Local television, he says, doesn't bring very many people to church there, and direct mail isn't as effective as it is elsewhere. Amorim believes that the main problem lies in the "bigger disconnect between the culture and the church." What he means is that church is not a pervasive way of life, as it is in the South. But there are other reasons. In Thumma's view, the strength and independence of the New England towns has militated against the development of regional churches. People just don't like to leave town in order to go to church. Also, in these towns, the civic culture has been shaped by the Protestant churches on the town greens, and the Catholics have fully participated in it. In New Milford, the clergy-mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews-long ago reached an unwritten agreement to respect one another's boundaries and to coöperate in community-service programs. (As a part of this agreement, they don't send mailings to members of other churches; Faith Church, of course, does.) In the urban and suburbanized parts of southern Connecticut, the towns may be losing their coherence, for regional churches have begun to spring up. All the same, New England remains a hard place to build a megachurch.

It isn’t that there isn’t the possibility of religious competition in a small New England town, or that the Establishment Clause somehow doesn’t apply; it’s just that the fabric of everyday life is woven in such a way as to discourage it. Which makes me skeptical that all the Continent’s churches need is disestablishment of religion, followed by an infusion of pastorpreneurs. It isn’t enough to have churches that behave like Wal-Mart; you need a culture and a social order that conditions would-be parishioners to think that shopping for a church is a normal thing to do.

It's also worth noting that the official establishment of Anglicanism (to take just one example from the European context) didn’t prevent a denominational free market from flourishing in England for hundreds of years: If anything, evangelicalism was strongest in Great Britain at a time when Anglican prerogatives were more jealously defended than they are today. (Go tell the Wesley brothers that the Church of England’s establishment hampered evangelization.) The opportunity for start-up churches and cross-congregation competition has existed in Britain for centuries, and preachers and religious entrepreneurs have taken advantage. Which suggests, in turn, that whatever's causing the recent turn away from Christianity runs deeper than the fact that Queen Elizabeth is addressed as Defender of the Faith.

If I were to look for a single factor driving the trend toward secularization, I’d single out the sheer size of the European welfare state, which reduces the need for many of the tangible services that religious communities provide, and crowds out the space where they would grow. (It isn’t a coincidence that European religion thrives in immigrant communities, where the welfare state’s writ runs weakest.) But obviously the explanation has to be more complicated than this. In an earlier discussion of this topic, Daniel Larison proposed a slew of plausible factors at work in Europe's turn away from God:

Here is a list, by no means exhaustive ... scientific advances, materialist philosophies, the uprooting and deracinating effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, the introduction of ideological politics and mass political mobilisation, the material and moral ravages of the two wars, followed by the effects of two essentially materialist worldviews that claimed to “deliver the goods” more effectively or justly than the other.

Where the experience of Europe clearly differs from our own, and one of the reasons why Europe has gone further in its secularisation, is in their experience of the wars. I have to wonder whether Americans would have been church-going and believing in the numbers that we are today if we had experienced the full horror of these conflicts and had endured the same losses.

I wonder too, though I believe the immediate aftermath of World War II produced a (short-lived) religious revival on the continent, coinciding with the ascendancy in Western Europe of self-consciously Christian politicians like Konrad Adenauer. (The enormous post-war expansion of the welfare state was, among many other things, an attempt to put a particular interpretation of Catholic social teaching into action; that it may have led to an eclipse of religion is one of those ironies that History specializes in. It’s also one reason, among many, that I’m wary of drawing parallels between “Sam’s Club conservatism” and Europe’s Christian Democrats.)

Perhaps it just took a while for the true horror of the World Wars to sink in; certainly the Holocaust, with all its implications for theodicy, has received steadily more attention as the conflict that made it possible has receded. Perhaps war itself and the aftermath of war make people more likely to fear God – no atheists in a foxhole and so forth - while the memory of war, particularly in a welfare-state society that places a premium on material comfort, makes people more likely to resent Him, and doubt His existence entirely. The experience of suffering breeds faith, in this reading of human nature, but meditating on suffering breeds atheism. Particularly when the suffering in question was caused by totalizing, pseudo-religious ideologies; after listening too closely to Marx and Hitler, today's Europe seems to have decided, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, that "the dwarves are for the dwarves."