The Divine Marketplace Is Pretty Crowded

May 16, 2024 History

Religions aren’t just spiritual communities. They’re also businesses.

On Feb. 24, 2022, nearly 3,000 Russian battle tanks, accompanied by many thousands more troops in trucks and lightly armored vehicles, invaded Ukraine. Inside the tanks were thousands of young people, many barely more than schoolchildren, who had been ordered into battle to defend an idea. It was fundamentally a nationalist rather than a religious idea, but it had been supported by some heavy religious artillery the previous day in a fiery sermon by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Over the following weeks and months, Kirill would redouble his rhetoric in support of the war. He urged soldiers to fight as their patriotic duty and promised them that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”

In the days and weeks to follow, priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches would use prayer and biblical exhortation to stiffen their compatriots’ will to resist. And among the outpouring of support and offers of military and humanitarian supplies, many thousands of rosaries have been manufactured and delivered to Ukraine to raise the morale of both civilian refugees and front-line troops. Rhetoric and rosaries are just two of an immense variety of religious technologies deployed throughout the ages to harden the resolve of young people—usually men—ordered into combat.

Warfare is only one of the many theaters of religious persuasion. From battlefield to ballot box, from boardroom to bedroom, religious movements enjoy immense power in the world today.

How did they come to gain such power? When we see politicians instrumentalize religion, it’s easy to conclude that the most important source of religious power is political influence. It’s true that political leaders have often granted vast powers to religious movements. But this doesn’t explain why political leaders—who, as a rule, don’t like giving power to anybody—should want to grant it to the leaders of religion. They do so because religious movements have gained their power independently, and political leaders are envious of the legitimacy that comes with this.

Religions flourish because they preach a particularly moving spiritual message—a narrative that speaks to important human needs. The most powerful religions succeed in moving their hearers more than others do. After all, most of the spiritual movements that were ever founded have disappeared without trace. What makes the best religious messages so moving, then—so enchanting? There’s a surprising answer to this question: It’s economics.

The history of religious movements has focused overwhelmingly, and for good reason, on the personalities of their founders and the poetry in the messages that they communicate. Yet while religious movements may preach in poetry, for their work to be effective they must minister in prose. The organizations that make up these movements—churches, mosques, madrassas, synagogues, temples, prayer groups, ashrams, monasteries, and meeting houses—must engage in what the 19th-century economist Alfred Marshall called “the ordinary business of life.”

These institutions recruit, raise funds, disburse budgets, manage premises, organize transport, motivate employees and volunteers, and get their messages out. They are keenly aware that they compete—for funds, loyalty, energy, and attention—with other religious organizations, as well as with secular rivals and the pull of lassitude, indifference, skepticism, or outright hostility. Without economic resources behind them, the most beautifully crafted messages will struggle to gain a hearing in the cacophony of life. The velvet glove of enchantment clothes an iron fist of organization.

Saying that religions compete does not imply that they are motivated by greed or profit (though they might be) any more than a restaurant owner, winemaker, theater director, or manager of a biotechnology or software start-up. They may be driven by passion or pragmatism, but competing is what they must do to command the necessary economic and human resources to survive and flourish.

Religions, in short, are businesses. Like most businesses, they are many other things as well—they’re communities, objects of inspiration or anxiety to observers from outside, cradles of ambition and frustration to their recruits, and theaters of fulfilment or despair to those who invest their lives or their savings within them. But they are legitimate businesses, and they need to be understood in terms of their structure, logistics, and corporate culture, as well as in terms of the mission they inherit from their founders.

Successful religions are a special kind of business—they are platforms. Platforms are organizations that facilitate relationships that could not form, or could not function as effectively, in the platforms’ absence. They build communities. Platforms reward those who create and manage them by appropriating some of the benefits that those relationships make possible. And it’s their development as platforms that explains the enduring dynamism of religious movements in the modern world.

That may sound strange to someone viewing religion from North America or Western Europe, where Christianity seems to be on the decline. But in the world as a whole, Christian communities are flourishing—no less than those within Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and an array of other movements old and new.

It may also seem strange that the power of an otherworldly message to move multitudes could be shaped by such a worldly constraint as economic competition, but to Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith in the 18th century, it was only common sense.

Theologians in the Church of England of Smith’s time were preoccupied with the growth in popularity of the so-called New Dissenters­—and particularly the Methodists, a group led by John Wesley. Methodist preachers were accused of “bewitching” their listeners, making “people go mad,” and persuading them that the parsons of the established Church were “blind guides and false prophets.” But one Irish minister may have revealed more than he meant to when he set about the Methodist preacher John Smythe with a club, reportedly exclaiming, “how dare you go about preaching, setting the whole neighborhood out of their senses, and thinning my congregation.”

For Smith, what was going on was competition to attract an audience. He thought the reason the Methodists were good at it was that they had stronger incentives. As Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, Methodists faced a different set of economic rewards than the parsons of the Church of England. Parsons typically enjoyed a comfortable salary independently of how well they preached. But a Methodist minister who could not summon an enthusiastic congregation would not earn a living.

As Smith put it with gentle sarcasm: “The clergy of an established and well endowed religion frequently become men of learning and elegance, who possess all the virtues of gentlemen.” But they were much less interested in, and therefore much less good at, filling the pews.

Smith was interested in how economic incentives might shape not just the quality, but also the content of the message delivered by churches. This was literally a matter of life and death. Europe in Smith’s time still bore the scars of the violent wars of religion that had convulsed the continent for more than a century leading up to the end of the Thirty Years’ War. There were periodic outbursts of religiously fueled violence as well as persistent repression of religious minorities such as the Protestant Huguenots in France.

Smith began writing The Wealth of Nations in 1764, during a long visit to my home city of Toulouse in southwest France. Toulouse had been wracked during the previous two years by recriminations over the torture and execution of Jean Calas, a Protestant, on the false charge of killing his son. The evidence indicated that the son had killed himself, but it was alleged that Calas had murdered him to stop him from converting to Catholicism. The case had been taken up by the philosopher Voltaire, who made it a centerpiece of his attacks on the intolerance of the Catholic Church.

Voltaire often wrote as though he thought religion was essentially intolerant. Smith strongly disagreed. Whether religions preached a tolerant or an intolerant message, Smith wrote, was not the result of some quality inherent in religion, but the result of the incentives that religious leaders faced. Just as Smith concluded that competition was good and monopoly was bad for ordinary people in other fields of life, he argued that when many religions competed on an equal basis, they would preach a more benevolent message. It’s clear Smith was referring to rivalry between movements that had the freedom to shape their own messages, including rival Protestant churches in the same town. Only if the number of religions in a society were limited to a very few, he claimed, would their leaders be able to preach violence and discord. And this was likely to happen only if political leaders granted protection to some religious movements over others.

So why would political leaders want to do this? Smith thought they might, for example, offer protection to one or a small number of faiths, sheltering them from competition in return for legitimation of the state’s political leaders by the religion’s ideological leaders.

He developed a theory of the natural life cycle of religious movements: New movements would be energetic and dynamic, and the successful ones would attract the envy of political leaders, who would offer them privileges. Politicians like nothing better than to have priests, pastors, rabbis, or imams preaching on their behalf. But Smith warned that protection would weaken religious leaders’ incentives to listen to their members, so they would eventually become unable to compete effectively against the even newer religious movements that challenged them in turn.

Smith’s point was not that the content of the message preached by religious leaders didn’t matter—far from it. Nor was he suggesting that religious leaders were interested only in economic gain. His point was rather that their teachings responded to economic and political circumstances. There was no point in urging the churches to change any given message if that was the one that was in their interest to deliver.

And as poor Calas discovered, a church that was entitled by law to break him and kill him if he disagreed with its teachings had no incentive to do the hard work necessary to make those teachings more persuasive.

In the two and a half centuries since Smith wrote his best-known work, we have learned much more about economics and religion, and of course our societies have changed almost beyond recognition. Yet while Smith’s conclusions are often inaccurate in describing today’s world, his way of thinking about the problems of his time remains astonishingly relevant.

Religion today is big business—a study published in 2016 estimated that faith-based organizations in the United States received revenues equal to $378 billion. That’s an enormous inflow of resources, greater than the revenues in the same year of Apple and Microsoft combined, and greater than 2 percent of total personal income in the United States that year. It’s 60 percent of the revenues of the media and entertainment industries. And that doesn’t even count the time, energy, and contributions in kind made by members of faith-based organizations.

It’s impossible to get comparable international figures. But there are many majority-Christian countries with a strong Pentecostal presence, particularly in Africa (such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa) and Latin America (such as Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), where revenues of faith-based organizations are likely similar relative to the size of their economies.

The 21st century will not see religion disappear, because religious communities will continue to minister to real human needs more effectively than most available alternatives. But precisely because its success is legitimately acquired, powerful political interests will continue to manipulate religion to send soldiers to the battlefield and voters to the ballot box, and some citizens will continue to be intoxicated by the call.

Constraining religion to wear its power more lightly than it has done so often in the past is therefore a project that ought to unite all reasonable people of any faith or of none. Religious movements enjoy privileges, and they should acknowledge obligations. It’s time to treat them more pragmatically and more demandingly—not with reverence, but with respect.

Article published in Foreign Policy, May 5, 2024

Illustration: Photo de James Coleman sur Unsplash