The free market is a wonderful thing. Left alone without excessive regulatory prodding and social engineering it finds the most efficient way to deliver exactly the goods and services desired to those that need them at the value they are worth. The old Soviet Union, the old eastern Europe, and today’s North Korea learned that lesson the hard way after enduring years of shortages due to vast efforts at central planning. Unfortunately some even in today’s U.S. haven’t learned that lesson and still believe the government can do a better job.
Free market reality goes beyond traditional goods and services… and even touches religion. Those of you that get the Saturday issue of the Wall Street Journal were treated yesterday to a rather unique front-page article titled In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead. This great piece described a new theory on why religion is rejuvenating in Europe.
Most scholars used to believe that modernization would extinguish religion in the long run. But that view always had trouble explaining why America, a nation in the vanguard of modernity, is so religious. After decades of secularization, religion in Europe has slowed its slide toward what had seemed inevitable oblivion. There are even nascent signs of a modest comeback. Most church pews are still empty. But belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young, according to surveys. Religion, once a dead issue, now figures prominently in public discourse.
What is this new theory on why religion is making a comeback? Why, supply-side free markets of course!
God’s tentative return to Europe has scholars and theologians debating a hot question: Why? Some scholars and Christian activists are pushing a more controversial explanation: the laws of economics. As centuries-old churches long favored by the state lose their monopoly grip, Europe’s highly regulated market for religion is opening up to leaner, more-aggressive religious "firms." The result, they say, is a supply-side stimulus to faith.
Just as grocery stores in the old Soviet Union were inefficient and just plain inadequate as a result of being shielded from the competitive pressures of the free market, so were the direct- or indirect- state-sponsored religious institutions in Europe. There was no incentive to satisfy their customer.
"Monopoly churches get lazy," says Eva Hamberg, a professor at Lund University’s Centre for Theology and Religious Studies and co-author of academic articles that, based on Swedish data, suggest a correlation between an increase in religious competition and a rise in church-going. Europeans are deserting established churches, she says, "but this does not mean they are not religious."
The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported — but also controlled — the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.
A little competition can create rather startling results.
Consider the scene on a recent Sunday at Stockholm’s Hedvig Eleonara Church, a parish of the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran institution that until 2000 was an official organ of the Swedish state. Fewer than 40 people, nearly all elderly, gathered in pews beneath a magnificent 18th-century dome. Seven were church employees. The church seats over 1,000.
Just a few blocks away, Passion Church, an eight-month-old evangelical outfit, fizzed with fervor. Nearly 100 young Swedes rocked to a high-decibel band: "It’s like adrenaline running through my blood," they sang in English. "We’re talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." Passion, set up by Andreas Nielsen, a 32-year-old Swede who found God in Florida, gets no money from the state. It holds its service in a small, low-ceilinged hall rented from Stockholm’s Casino Theatre, a drama company. Church, says Mr. Nielson, should be "the most kick-ass place in the world." Jesus was "king of the party."
The theory behind this phenomenom is fairly well developed.
Rodney Stark, a pioneer of religious supply-side theory at Baylor University in Texas, first developed the notion of a "religious market" in the 1980s as a way to explain America’s persistent faith. It posits that people are naturally religious but that their religiosity varies depending on the vigor of what he calls religious suppliers. "Wherever churches are a little more energetic and competitive, you’ve got more people going to church," he says.
And the countries that openly supported a state religion are beginning to embrace "religious competition." Take predominantly Catholic Italy, for example.
In Italy, the state used to pay the salaries of Catholic priests, but in 1984 it began letting taxpayers choose which religious groups get financial support. The result is an annual beauty contest ahead of a June income-tax deadline, as churches try to lure taxpayer money with advertising campaigns. Catholics get the lion’s share — 87% of nearly $1.2 billion in 2004, the last year for which figures are available. But according to a 2005 study by Italian lawyer Massimo Introvigne and Mr. Stark, the system "reminds Italians every year that there is a religious economy."
Amazing how a little competition can give customers what they want. Even in their search for a greater power… presumably even greater than the power of the free market.