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Faith in the market

Faith in the market

This week, Molly Worthen wrote about how Mormonism may affect the foreign policy positions of GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Mormons tend to get singled out in discussions of international religion because of their active missionary culture, relatively recent founding, and the fundamental American-ness of their founding doctrine.

But in fact, Mormonism is hardly alone on the list of America’s religious exports. Of the world’s 35 largest protestant denominations, 24 are headquartered in the United States, making the U.S. the world’s largest single exporter of Protestant Christianity. The most significant of these if Pentecostalism, a movement that originated in the United States in the early 1900s and involves a literal reading of the bible as well as "ecstatic" worship practices, such as speaking in tongues. Today, Pentecostalism has 600 million adherents worldwide today, accounting for 26 percent of all Christians.

These facts come from a fascinating new paper by economists Gordon Hanson of U.C. San Diego and Chong Xiang of Purdue University, titled, "Exporting Christianity: Governance and Doctrine in the Globalization of U.S. Denominations." The paper takes the novel approach of looking at religious sects as types of multinational enterprises, whose success or failure is determined by how well their "product" responds to local market conditions.

They found, among other trends, that denominations with stricter religious doctrine are more successful in countries with a high degree of economic uncertainty – war, natural disasters, etc. The also found that when pastor "productivity" can be higher, because of better communications and transportation infrastructure, it benefits denominations with a more decentralized structure.

I asked Hanson how the U.S. came to be the world’s top religious exporter:

Forget about religion for a second and just think about the U.S. capacity to innovate. Seen in that light, our success in religion isn’t much different than our success in movies, or electronics, or commercial aircraft. We’re a country that leads the world in entrepreneurship and religion is no different. 

You could look at historical factors associated with freedom of religion and religious tolerance, but that’s only part of the story. We’re also a place where people are constantly creating new organizations, whether to serve a business function or a social function.

And what about Pentecostalism accounts for its success?

I don’t think there’s anything really special about Pentecostalism. It’s the last century’s brand of revivalist, fundamental Christianity. If you go back to the 19th century, it was the holiness movement and the first group of fundamentalist Christians including 7th Day Adventists, Mormons and so forth. As these groups mature and institutionalize, they get less extreme. And being less extreme loses some of the features that got you explosive growth in the first place. Looking ahead to the next century, I don’t see that growth coming from existing Pentecostal groups.

Hanson and Xiang’s work also suggests that, just U.S. manufacturers lost their global edge to countries in East Asia, the real innovation and dynamism in the religion industry has shifted to the developing world:

There are a number of countries that are at the forefront of creating new successful global religious groups. In that list would be Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines, Guatemala, Chile. If you think about innovation in religion the thing that makes it different is that it’s very hard to enforce property rights. It’s all supposedly based on the Bible. This means that whenever you get a new form of faith you get imitators. Look at the beginning of Mormonism. Joseph Smith was fighting it out with half a dozen pretenders to the throne. His ascension to leadership is not guaranteed.

Now we see these developing world multinationals heading our way. Walk through Harlem and you will see a bunch of Nigerian Pentecostal churches.

The Anglican Church, a venerable, old European brand, faced up to a version of this trend a few years ago when several U.S. Episcopal congregations decided to join the Nigerian diocese to protest the mainstream Episcopal Church’s more moderate stance on homosexuality. Given that U.S. evangelicals have been credited with exporting anti-gay attitudes to Africa, it would be ironic if conservative Americans of the future found Africa’s brand of Christianity more to their liking than mainstream U.S. churches.