Gendered Critique of the Religious Economies Mode

Explaining Religious Market Failure: A Gendered Critique of the
Religious Economies Model∗
EVELYN BUSH
Fordham University
According to the religious economies model, religious supply in open religious
economies should adapt to the demands of diverse market niches. This proposition is inconsistent with the finding that, although women constitute the majority of
religious consumers, the majority of the religions produced in the American religious
marketplace favor men’s interests relative to women’s. Three modifications to the
religious economies model are suggested to account for this contradiction. The first
modification is a respecification of “religious capital” that takes into account unequal distributions of power among producers of religious value and their differential
effects on the beneficiaries and targets of religious norms. The second modification
theorizes religion’s linkages to other social institutions as sources of cost and benefit
that are taken into account by religious entrepreneurs. The third modification accounts for status-based discrimination and unequal distributions of capital as sources
of constraint that influence the production of religious supply. Several directions for
future research are proposed.
Across several subfields of sociology, economic theories of human behavior have been
the subject of frequent debate. In the sociology of religion, this debate has centered
on the religious economies model (REM), which posits religious fields as being
organized and transforming according to a market logic (Finke and Stark 1988,
1992; Gill 2001; Iannoccone 1991; Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and Iannoconne
1994; Warner 1993). This article takes a gendered approach to the REM, paying
particular attention to its inability to account for an important contradiction. While
women’s levels of religious participation and commitment are disproportionately high
relative to men’s (Chaves and Anderson 2008; Warner 1993), the gender ideologies
promoted by most religions tend to favor men’s interests over women’s. This pattern
is inconsistent with the REM’s core proposition that religious supply in open markets
will adapt to the demands of diverse market niches. I argue that the REM’s inability
to adequately account for this contradiction is rooted in several assumptions that
underpin the particular economic framework upon which it is based.
In general, although the REM’s proponents claim to provide a supply-side model
of religious participation and commitment, they fail to take into account several
supply-side factors that influence the forms of religion that predominate. Specifically,
even in free-market religious economies, women are confronted with institutionally
sanctioned restrictions that preclude equal control over religious production. In effect, they are restricted from access to a critical form of religious capital necessary to
∗Address correspondence to: Evelyn Bush, 402D Dealy Hall, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458-9993. Tel: (718) 817-3873. E-mail: [email protected]
The author wishes to thank Orit Avishai, Penny Edgell, Ike Wilson, and three anonymous reviewers at
Sociological Theory for their useful insights and comments on earlier drafts of this article.
Sociological Theory 28:3 September 2010
C 2010 American Sociological Association. 1430 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20005
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 305
compete within the religion industry and, by extension, to determine how the benefits of religious products are to be distributed. This neglect of gendered supply-side
considerations exists not only within the REM, but more generally in research on
women’s religious participation, which usually seeks to explain the gender paradox
through a focus on women’s religious preferences (i.e., why women choose patriarchal
religions), while failing to interrogate the restrictive conditions under which the supply of religion is produced. By ignoring these supply-side considerations, sociologists
of religion paint a picture of religious markets as free, when in fact they are tightly
controlled.
I suggest three modifications to the REM. While none of these requires abandoning economic theory as a tool for understanding religion, they do require an
opening of the study of religious economies to more critical economic approaches,
particularly those that, first, take into account unequal distributions of power among
producers within industries and, second, recognize states as playing an active role
in the construction of open markets. These modifications point toward a framework
that is still economic, but is nonetheless different from the REM, insofar as the
latter assumes free markets to be naturally occurring phenomena in which states for
the most part only interfere, and posits market success to be primarily a function of
product appeal, while downplaying variation in the power and resources that allow
for production and distribution.
GENDER AND THE RELIGIOUS ECONOMIES MODEL
The REM rose to prominence in the sociology of religion during the 1980s and
1990s, largely on the basis of the challenge it posed to classical secularization theory,
which itself had reached paradigmatic status by the mid 20th century (Warner 1993).
The secularization paradigm proposed numerous mechanisms through which modernization would lead to a decline in religious authority, beliefs, and practices, such
as the rising hegemony of science, the growth and expansion of modern capitalism
(Weber 1958), and the functional differentiation of society’s institutions (Luckmann
1967; Luhmann 1982).
REM scholars are primarily interested in secularization theory’s claims about one
form of institutional differentiation—the separation between religion and state. According to classical secularization theory, in the absence of state protection of religious monopolies, religions come to be organized in pluralist, competitive markets,
thereby eroding the plausibility structure necessary to maintain belief in any particular religion and, by extension, religion more generally. As a result, religion declines
in terms of its public importance, and recedes into the private sphere (Berger 1967).
Proponents of the REM do not take issue with the claim that religion has come to
be organized according to a market logic,1 but they disagree with the implications
that secularization theory derives from market rationality. For the REM, institutional differentiation and pluralism (now termed “competition”) should not result in
a decrease, but an increase, in aggregate levels of religious participation and commitment. This is because, just as, in theory, free and competitive markets for material
goods create the conditions for the production of diverse and better quality products,
so too it is with religion. By fostering competition, pluralism creates incentives for
1Stark and Finke (2000:193) define religious markets as consisting “of all the religious activity going on
in any society: a ‘market’ of current and potential adherents, a set of one or more organizations seeking
to attract or maintain adherents, and the religious culture offered by the organizations.”
306 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
religious entrepreneurs to improve the quantity and quality of religious consumer
choices. This, in turn, attracts more consumers, raising aggregate levels of religious
participation. Importantly, an institutional separation between religion and state (a
lack of religious market regulation) is a precondition for such pluralist and free
religious markets to flourish (Stark and Finke 2000:36). Over the years, the REM
has become well established in the sociology of religion and informs a large body of
empirical research aimed at explaining rates of religious membership, participation,
commitment, and vitality. These variables are hypothesized to be positively correlated with religious competition, defined in part in terms of religious pluralism and
in part as an absence of state regulation (for reviews of REM literature, see Chaves
and Gorski 2001; Gill 2001; Sherkat and Ellison 1999; Warner 1993).
Sherkat and Ellison describe two schools of thought—supply-side and demandside—that have developed within the REM. While demand-side theorists highlight
“shifting preferences and the influence of social constraints on individual choices… .
supply-side theorists emphasize the importance of constraining and facilitating factors on the collective production of religious value” (Sherkat and Ellison 1999:378).
In explaining religious market dynamics, the REM theoretically privileges supply,
rather than demand, as the determining factor. That is, the demand for religious
goods is assumed to be stable across time, and whether or not a society has high
levels of religious participation has little to do with changes in the aggregate need
or desire for religion and much to do with the quantity and quality of religious
goods that are available to mobilize latent demand (Stark and Finke 2000:193–95).
But even from a supply-side perspective, demand is important, especially in terms
of religious diversity. This is because many of the REM’s core propositions rest on
“micro propositions that establish the existence of natural segments in any religious
market on the basis of ‘normal’ variations in the human condition, such as social
class, age, gender, health, life experiences, and socialization” (Stark and Iannoconne
1994:233). Thus, where there exist high levels of religious participation, it is likely
due to a supply of religion that is abundant and diverse enough to respond to market
niches that correspond to that variation.
When applied to the issue of gender, and research on gendered variation in religiosity, the logical extension of these micro propositions is that the supply of
religious goods in vibrant, free-market religious economies must in part—in fact, in
large part—be tailored to women’s preferences. I say “large part” because research
consistently shows that women have significantly higher religious participation rates
than men (Adams 2007; Ozorak 1996; Sherkat and Ellison 1999:367). For example,
in a recent General Social Survey, 37 percent of women reported attending religious
services nearly every week or more, compared to 26.8 percent of men. Similarly,
37.8 percent of women described their religious affiliation as “strong,” whereas only
29 percent of men described their affiliation as such. With regard to prayer, 69.7
percent of women reported praying one or more times per day, compared to only
43.6 percent of men (General Social Survey 2008). If participation rates are determined by the supply of religious goods being of sufficient quality and diversity to
meet the demands of segmented markets, and individuals’ choices as to whether or
not to participate are rationally determined, it logically follows that the higher rates
of religious participation and commitment among women must be due to the supply
of religious goods favoring women’s interests and preferences. Furthermore, women’s
higher participation rates indicate that women play a greater role than do men in
the production of religious value. That is, religious production is disproportionately
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 307
the outcome of women’s collective religious labor and inputs.2 Since women are the
majority producers (and consumers) of religion, it should logically follow that the
products they produce would reflect their interests.
We additionally need to bear in mind that a core function of religion is the regulation of relations between men and women, especially in the realms of family, sexuality, and biological reproduction. Indeed, “religious beliefs and commitments are
central for establishing and reinforcing gender roles” (Sherkat and Ellison 1999:372).
With the regulation of gender relations so central a feature of religion, if we take
the REM to its logical conclusion, women’s higher rates of religious production
must be due to a supply of religious goods favoring not only women’s interests and
preferences but also, where gender conflict exists, women’s interests and preferences
relative to men’s. This is a logically necessary proposition if we want to remain true
to rational choice theory’s core assumptions that all behavior is both self-interested
and rational, and that markets tend toward efficient outcomes.
To empirically support this proposition would require showing the majority of the
religions on the market to be matriarchal, or at least egalitarian, in terms of the
gender ideologies and practices they promote. But even in the United States, home
to one of the most unregulated religious markets in the world, the mainstream of
the religious market is dominated by patriarchal religion. Usually, when scholars
have attempted to explain why women are nonetheless the majority consumers of
religion, they have done so by trying to explain women’s preferences. The following
section will both establish the preponderance of patriarchal religion in the American
religious marketplace, and illustrate why its pervasiveness cannot be explained in
terms of demand.
WHY DEMAND-SIDE EXPLANATIONS DO NOT WORK
To establish a preponderance of patriarchal religion, we can begin with the two
largest producers in the American religious marketplace—evangelical Protestantism
and Catholicism. Taken together, these suppliers serve 55.2 percent of American
religious adherents (Baylor Religion Survey 2007). Both groups’ leaders have used
their organizations’ resources for political activism aimed at legally restricting access
to contraception and abortion, while promoting gender ideologies requiring that all
biological reproduction take place within the context of legally binding, traditional
marriages.
In the evangelical case, within these legally binding marriages, women are expected
to submit to male heads of households. Importantly, evangelical women have been
challenging this doctrine of female submission for more than two decades, and they
have done so in part on explicitly feminist grounds (Bartowski 1997; Stacey and
Gerard 1990). In light of this sustained feminist movement within evangelicalism,
we cannot assume that the doctrine of submission is a product of religious entrepreneurial adaptation to women’s preferences. Even the argument that there exists
a decoupling between discourse and practice, and that patriarchal religions are not
as patriarchal in practice as their discourses suggest (Gallagher and Smith 1999;
Stacey and Gerard 1990; Wilcox 2004), only further begs the question of why there
should be a doctrine of female submission to male heads of household at all.
2Iannoccone (1990:299) describes religious inputs as including purchased goods, sacrificial offerings,
money, labor, and time, such as that which is expended while praying, reading religious texts, attending
service, or contributing to charity.
308 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
In the case of Catholicism, church authorities arguably prioritize restrictions on
family planning over all competing considerations, including women’s health. For
example, the Vatican continues to universally oppose the use of condoms, despite the
millions of deaths that have resulted from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This opposition
to condoms includes countries where married women are more likely than unmarried
women to contract HIV as a result of being “powerless to refuse sex with their
husbands, even if they suspect they have been unfaithful” (Catholics for Choice
2008:12–13). The Vatican’s opposition to abortion not only applies to pregnancies
conceived through rape, but even to those conceived through the genocidal act of
enforced impregnation (Allan 2001). As with the evangelical doctrine of submission,
it cannot be convincingly argued that the church’s positions on these issues are
aligned with women’s preferences, since 88 percent of American Catholic women
have used forms of contraception banned by the church, and 75 percent of Catholics
believe that abortion is acceptable in the case of rape (Catholics for a Free Choice
2004:9–17).
Of course, gender ideologies refer to issues that extend beyond reproductive matters
and distributions of power within the family, and beyond the political activism of
the two largest providers. To establish the prevalence of patriarchal religion more
generally, we could also refer to pervasive patriarchal symbols and doctrines such as
depictions of supreme deities as exclusively male or interpretations of creation stories
that attribute blame for “mankind’s” fallen nature to women. Admittedly, when we
move away from political activism and into the realms of discourse and symbol, what
is or is not “in women’s interest” becomes increasingly ambiguous. After all, even the
biblical creation story, which is popularly interpreted as blaming Eve (read: woman)
for humankind’s fall from grace, has been interpreted by some theologians in ways
that have been seen as empowering for women. What is more, cross-culturally, there
is considerable variation in women’s interests and preferences (Keck and Sikkink
1998:191–92), making the problem of interpretation and evaluation of the costs and
benefits of religious belief even more fraught with ambiguities.
Variation and ambiguity do not, however, mean that religious discourse and symbol should be abandoned altogether as indicators of gender ideology. Rather, it
suggests that what is important is the authority to interpret them. For example,
Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish feminists have identified control over religious interpretation, rather than features inherent in religions themselves, as the key factor
explaining the predominance of patriarchy within their respective traditions. They all
see their religions as doctrinally justifying gender egalitarianism, but maintain that
through processes of interpretation, patriarchal meanings come to be established
(Friedl 1997).
Thus, rather than evaluating individual components of religious ideology case by
case and from context to context, a more efficient and reliable indicator of gender
bias would be one that accounts for who produces and controls these contested
ideologies to begin with. To what extent are women granted authority within their
religious traditions to select and interpret the kinds of ideologies that their religions
promote? After all, although it is true that women’s interests and preferences vary
across contexts, it would strain credibility to advance the argument that, in any
given context, women’s interests are best served when women are denied authority
to voice their own interests, and interpret the norms, narratives, and symbols that
would support or deny them.
Here, the dearth of matriarchal and egalitarian religion becomes most apparent.
Currently, women hold only 5 percent to 8 percent of all head clergy positions in
the United States (Adams 2007:81; Chaves and Anderson 2008:432), and women’s
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 309
advancement through the professional ranks of American parishes, even in denominations that formally ordain women, has been stagnant since the 1970s (Sullins 2000).
By these measures, not only is there a lack of egalitarian religion, but the market
does not appear to be correcting itself. Importantly, the ideological justifications
for women’s marginality are found within religions and denominations themselves,
as those that refuse to ordain women often cite religious belief, such as the biblical injunction that women remain silent in church and submit to their husbands
(Chaves 1997:2) or the theological claim that men are more Christ-like than women
simply by virtue of their being male (Chaves 1997:117). Thus, the evidence suggests
that patriarchy is indeed a pervasive feature of American religion. Furthermore, as
described previously, religion’s patriarchal features cannot be shown to be the result
of women’s demand for them.
However, other kinds of demand-side explanations for the preponderance of patriarchal religion have been offered. Specifically, some researchers suggest that the
patriarchal features of religion are simply peripheral to women’s religious experience
(Ozorak 1996). For example, even in patriarchal religion, women can derive intrinsic
or spiritual benefits, such as internal well-being, feeling close to God, or a belief in
rewards to be secured in an after-life (Stark and Finke 2000:15). Researchers have
also identified “this-worldly” and extrinsic benefits that women enjoy, such as social support (Ozorak 1996), leadership opportunities (Sherkat and Ellison 1999:368),
marital intimacy, fidelity, and respect from their husbands (Gallagher and Smith
1999; Wilcox 2004), and rhetorical affirmations of the roles of wife and mother
(Davidman 1991; Stacey and Gerard 1990).
We could doubtless think of many more. In response, however, we could also
construct an equally long list of reasons why women would choose not to consume patriarchal religion. But to venture down an endless path of competing ad hoc
explanations for why women do or do not (or should or should not) consume religion would be to miss the point. While all of the explanations offered for women’s
religious consumption indeed seem rational, they are nonetheless inadequate as explanations for a preponderance of patriarchal religion in the religious market. The
very fact that patriarchal control and adherence to patriarchal norms are preconditions for the religious benefits identified by researchers betrays a profound inequality
between men and women in terms of the costs of religious participation. Women are
forced to make choices about religious participation that men are not required to
make, as systematic subordination to others on the basis of their gender is typically
not a condition of men’s religious participation. Thus, although women may derive
real benefits from religion, they are required to pay more for those benefits than are
men.
Put another way, even if we were to concede that patriarchal religion is ultimately a
source of net benefit that accrues to women, the question would still remain as to why
patriarchy should be a necessary, even pervasive, precondition for those benefits.3 Not
one of the benefits that demand-side researchers uncover logically requires (without
appealing to men’s interests) that religion take patriarchal form—“soft,” “neo,” or
otherwise. If women want religions that prioritize home and motherhood, offer
opportunities for female leadership and social support, or even strictly intrinsic
3Similarly, even if we reject rationalist explanations altogether, and claim that women’s (and men’s)
religious preferences are simply the product of socialization, the question remains as to why patriarchal
religion should have such a monopoly on religious socialization to begin with. “Socialization” is a demandside explanation that still leaves unanswered questions about why the supply of religion takes the forms
that it does.
310 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
benefits, is it not conceivable that they would find these benefits in religions that
are egalitarian? Or, why not matriarchal? Instead of patriarchal religion, why are
women in search of spiritual fulfillment, leadership opportunities, or commitment
and respect from their husbands not flocking to religions that not only valorize home
and hearth, but also give prerogatives pertaining to men’s sexuality, reproduction,
dress, work, money, and public speech to women? The important question, then, is
not “do women derive benefits from religion?” Of course they do. The question that
remains unanswered is that of why women are not finding religions with better terms
of exchange for the benefits that they derive.
The answer, of course, is that in the mainstream of any given religious market,
such religions scarcely exist, even under free market conditions. The more interesting
and important question is not one of why women would choose one patriarchal
religion over another, but why most religions on the market are patriarchal to begin
with. If, in free markets, entrepreneurs are driven to attract consumers, and if they
do so by offering products that are consistent with consumer preferences, why would
the products offered fail, on balance, to offer terms of exchange that are favorable to
that segment of the market most likely to consume them? The question that needs to
be answered, then, is indeed a supply-side question: Why does the aggregate supply of
religious goods overwhelmingly legitimate men’s power over women? Answering this
question requires a focus on the conditions under which religious supply is produced.
Unfortunately, current assumptions and analytic strategies within the REM render
it inadequate to this task. The remainder of this article will describe these analytic
strategies and suggest alternatives for analyzing the supply side of the religious
economy.
STRATEGY ONE: DEFINING “RELIGIOUS CAPITAL”
Although the REM formally acknowledges demand-side diversity on the basis of
status characteristics, including gender (Stark and Iannoconne 1994:233), it operationalizes religious supply diversity primarily in terms of levels of religious “strictness” and “tension with society” (Stark and Finke 2000:143). Unfortunately, the
REM does not consider how “strictness” might be differentially experienced by people of different genders, races, or sexual orientations. The same can be said of “costs”
and “benefits,” which are not typically disaggregated for different status groups. This
conceptual asymmetry is problematic because religious beliefs and practices that are
beneficial for one status group can impose significant costs for members of others.
James Coleman refers to these behavioral prohibitions and proscriptions as disjoint
norms (1990:247) and points out that, in many societies, the disjuncture between
the beneficiaries and targets of disjoint norms exists along lines of gender. That is,
stringent norms are often imposed on women but not on men, and to men’s benefit
(Coleman 1990:262). Applied to the REM, the implication of Coleman’s distinction
is that religious strictness, tension, costs, and benefits cannot be assumed to be
experienced equally across genders.
What is more, patterns of cost and benefit derived from disjoint norms are neither
spontaneously emergent nor randomly distributed. Instead, Coleman points out, they
are determined according to distributions of power and resources, such that “those
actors having more power will be able to impose disjoint norms to govern the actions
of those having less power” (1990:262). In religious institutions, an important set of
resources conferring such power consists of the rights to control religious interpretation, rights that are overwhelmingly reserved for men. As Friedl describes, “the
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 311
selection of texts from among a great many that give potentially widely divergent
messages and their exegesis are unavoidably influenced, if not outrightly motivated,
by the political programs and interests of those who control the formulation and
dissemination of ideologies” (Friedl cited in Tohidi and Bayes 2001:49). Thus, although men’s and women’s interests can be expected to vary across contexts, we can
expect that ideologies will favor the interests (whatever they may be) of the groups
that control ideological production and dissemination.
Patterns of gender discrimination within American religious organizations reflect
the importance of interpretation as a key dimension along which power is distributed.
For instance, 59 percent of religious leadership positions that do not require speaking
in front of congregations are actually held by women, consistent with the female majority of most congregations’ membership. However, when we turn to positions that
involve speaking, women’s leadership declines, and dramatically so (Adams 2007:84).
Parallel to this, Sullins finds that gender inequality in American Christianity only
exists in parish—not administrative—positions (Sullins 2000). Thus, “while religious
organizations draw on religious ideology to justify barriers to women’s leadership,
the arguments they offer are predominantly focused on leadership in the form of
speaking in worship services” (Adams 2007:99). In other words, women’s labor, in
the forms of participation and marginal leadership, is critical to the production of
religious value; at the same time, control of the products of that labor, in the form
of rights to religious interpretation, is overwhelmingly reserved for men. This stratified division of labor, combined with distinctions in status between the targets and
beneficiaries of religious norms, must be taken into account if we are to explain why
the aggregate supply of religion, in markets where both demand and labor inputs
come predominantly from women, would be a source of predominantly patriarchal
gender ideologies.
Within the REM, one way to account for this gendered distribution of labor
would be through a more precise specification of the concept of “religious capital.”
Iannoccone (1990), drawing upon insights from research on human capital, defines
religious capital in terms of religious skills and experiences, especially familiarity
with religious doctrines, rituals, and traditions, and friendships with other members.
He highlights the relationship between religious participation and religious capital,
explaining that the latter is both a prerequisite for and consequence of the former
(Iannoccone 1990:299). According to this formulation, since women’s religious participation is greater than men’s, it would follow that women have more religious
capital. But if this is true, why would religions impose higher costs for women than
for men?
An alternative formulation of religious capital is offered by Pierre Bourdieu (1991),
who delineates two different forms of religious competence that can be used as “capital.” The first is similar to Iannoccone’s conception and consists of the practical
mastery of the beliefs and practices that define membership in a given religious
community (Bourdieu’s 1991:10). Bourdieu’s second form of religious competence,
however, goes beyond Iannoconne by stressing the socially defined right to control
religion and spirituality, especially their institutional production and interpretation.
Bourdieu describes this form of religious competence, knowledgeable mastery, as
oriented toward “the corpus of norms and explicit knowledges, explicitly and deliberately systematized by specialists belonging to an institution socially mandated to
reproduce religious capital by an expressly pedagogic action” (Bourdieu’s 1991:10).
Religious capital, then, does not consist merely of knowledge or competence in the
use of religion, but of an institutionally sanctioned status as a legitimate authority
312 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
in religious and spiritual matters. A priest, imam, or rabbi, to the extent that he or
she has this status, would have greater religious capital than would a lay believer,
regardless of levels of participation, commitment, or even knowledge.
For Bourdieu, these different forms of religious competence are not equally valued,
and their differences are implicated in relations of domination. The development of
an ecclesiastical class, he writes, “goes hand in hand with the objective dispossession
of those who are excluded from it and who thereby find themselves constituted
as the laity (or the profane, in the double meaning of the word) dispossessed of
religious capital (as accumulated symbolic labor)” (Bourdieu 1991:9). As Dianteill
(2003) describes, Bourdieu identifies this same class of religious specialists as the
defining feature marking the development of a relatively autonomous, hierarchically
ordered, religious field, “characterized by the production, reproduction, and diffusion
of religious goods and services” (2003:536) and constituted by “the complete system
of positions between religious agents, their objective competitive relations or their
transactions” (2003:532).
Thus, similar to the REM, Bourdieu posits religious arenas in economic terms—
that is, as arenas of production, distribution, competition, and exchange. However,
there are critical differences between them in terms of how they see the religious
professional’s relationship to the production process. For REM scholars, religious
organizations are “firms dedicated to the production of religious value” and congregations are “franchises led by entrepreneurial salespeople (ministers), who create
value for consumers” (Sherkat and Ellison 1999:379). In contrast, for Bourdieu,
ecclesiastics are not entrepreneurial salespeople who create value for others, but a
privileged class that claims the rights to appropriate the value produced collectively
by a dispossessed laity. As with the appropriation of industrial labor (Marx and
Engels [1844] 1987), when collective religious labor is appropriated, it can be used in
the interests of the class that does the appropriating, against the interests of those
whose labor went into its production. In terms of gender, the implication is that, in
the absence of holding formal positions of authority, women’s religious inputs are as
likely to be sources of exploitation as they are of benefit, since female religious labor
can be appropriated by males who assume the authority to interpret the products of
religious labor and, by extension, to determine how the rewards of that labor will
be allocated.
By theoretically decoupling inputs into the religious production process from control over exchange ratios, this Bourdieusian formulation of religious capital, especially
when combined with Coleman’s recognition of disjoint norms, would allow the REM
to account for a preponderance of patriarchal religion in markets where women are
the majority producers. If capital were merely the accumulation of experience, competence, or mastery, the aggregate accumulation of religious capital among women
should by now have produced a greater array of female-friendly religious options.
But, if we define religious capital in terms of control of the institutions where religious value is produced, religious products designed to reflect the interests of women
are not necessary outcomes of women’s inputs any more so than the maquiladora
factory system would be expected to reflect the interests of its predominantly female
work forces.
The potential explanatory advantage of a focus on control of religious production, and the distinction between the targets and beneficiaries of religious norms, is
hinted at by some seemingly anomalous findings from research on women’s leadership and religious strictness. Specifically, Adams (2007) found that female leadership
and congregational strictness are positively correlated. Consistent with the implicit
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 313
assumption that female leadership should be associated with less strict religious
norms, Adams’s working explanation for the finding that the opposite is true is that
male leadership functions as a symbolic substitute that signals strictness in situations
where churches cannot otherwise claim to be strict.
But if we relax the assumption that “strict” necessarily means “patriarchal,” and
think in gendered terms about the targets and beneficiaries of religious norms,
Adams’s finding does not appear all that anomalous—especially if we consider how
“strictness” is often measured in terms of behaviors such as household spending,
drinking, or gambling (e.g., Olsen and Pearl 2005; Tamney 2005). If we ask, “strict
for whom?” and “who are the beneficiaries of the type of strictness being measured?”
many of the kinds of strictness that are measured in sociological research require
greater changes in male than female behavior, and to women’s benefit. Therefore,
it should come as no surprise if strictness is found to be positively associated with
female leadership. What are needed are studies that look for relationships specifically
between gendered control of religious messages on the one hand and measures of
strictness that are disaggregated by gender on the other.
Thus far, I have argued that a more precise specification of religious capital, one
that accounts for authority to control religious interpretation, along with a distinction between targets and beneficiaries of religious norms, is better equipped than
conventional REM definitions of religious capital to explain the preponderance of
patriarchal religion in societies where women are the majority religious producers.
But at least one question remains unanswered: if religious producers’ interests lie
in capturing market share, and women are more likely than men to consume religion, why have men who control religious capital not sought to compete with other
producers by offering religions that favor women’s interests? Would this not be in
religious entrepreneurs’ interests, regardless of their gender, as competitors within the
religious field? The following section addresses this question by looking at how REM
scholars have defined religious interests and by suggesting an alternative framework
for doing so.
STRATEGY TWO: LOCATING RELIGIOUS INTERESTS
IN LINKED INSTITUTIONS
Before turning to the interests at stake for religious entrepreneurs, it will be instructive to begin with the interests of religious consumers, the group to which the
REM gives the balance of its attention. In general, for REM scholars, religious
interests and benefits are defined not primarily in terms of “real-world” relations
of exchange, but more so in terms of otherworldly, or spiritual, rewards (Stark and
Finke 2000:88–90). One advantage to this approach is that it avoids reducing religion
to an epiphenomenal reflection of material interests (Stark and Finke 2000:33). But
proceeding as if the benefits of religious participation reside predominantly in the
supernatural also draws attention away from religion’s nonetheless real relationship
to interests in the secular spheres. This is not to say that REM scholars have failed
to identify profane rewards offered by religion, but the rewards they identify, such
as social capital, mutual aid, or even fun (Stark and Finke 2000:150), are usually
accrued within the institution of religion itself. Similarly, the costs that are paid
for those rewards—money, attendance at services, volunteering in church-sponsored
programs—are paid to religious institutions.
A more comprehensive way to think about religious rewards and costs is to examine religion not in isolation, but in the context of its linkages to other social
314 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
spheres, and the relations of exchange that religion prescribes therein. The secular spheres are important because the expenses that individuals incur in exchange
for religious rewards—even rewards accrued within religion—are often paid in the
context of relationships with other humans in this world and beyond the walls of
religious institutions. Female submission to male heads of household, obligations of
the wealthy to care for the poor, and requirements that both sexes practice sexual
monogamy would be examples. But, as we have already established, adherents are
not all expected to pay the same price for religious rewards, and the costs often
differ systematically by social status. Insofar as religions essentialize and accentuate
differences between the sexes, not only will the terms of exchange with the gods vary
by gender, but the terms of exchange between men and women, which are bound up
in the negotiations with the gods, will also vary by gender.
Turning to the supply side of the religious economy, as with the costs and benefits
incurred and accrued by religious consumers, suppliers’ interests also lie both inside
and outside of religious institutions. As Verter (2003) describes, “individuals inhabit
multiple fields. An individual specimen of homo academicus may also be viewed as
a specimen of homo religious, homo aestheticus, homo politicus and so on” (Verter
2003:163). At the same time, recall that the authority to produce and control cultural
capital—including religious capital—is not distributed equally in societies, but varies
across groups of different statuses (Coleman 1990:262) and across positions within
social hierarchies (Bourdieu 1991:11). Significantly, although fields of cultural production are relatively autonomous one from the other, they tend toward homologous
hierarchical structures, such that classes who hold large amounts of capital in one
field are likely to also hold them in others (Bourdieu 1991:31).
Thus, the religious entrepreneur’s simultaneous residence across multiple institutions, fields, or social spheres has implications for the types of interests that will
be reflected in religious production and interpretive processes. Those who control
religious capital will be best positioned to produce and reproduce ideologies that
favor the interests of their own status groups in neighboring arenas. Similarly, those
who control capital in neighboring arenas have power to influence religious institutions through the conferral or withholding not only of material resources, but of
legitimacy. As Rey (2004:331) describes, alongside the struggle for control over religious capital is a related struggle over the relative legitimacy of competing forms of
religious expression that vie for dominance within any given religious field. That is,
in addition to struggling over the production, accumulation, and control of capital,
agents also struggle over the relative valuation of the competing forms of capital that
they produce, accumulate, and control. In the religious field, this competition over
valuation generally takes the form of conflict between orthodoxy at one end of the
spectrum and heresy at the other (Rey 2004:331).
Because fields overlap in terms of their members and influence, the relative valuation of any particular form of religious capital will partially depend upon the
extent to which it serves the interests of the more powerful groups in neighboring fields, such as politics, economics, or the family (Verter 2003:164). Legitimated
religion—religion whose capital has the highest valuation—will tend to be that which
legitimates power held in these nonreligious fields. It does so by providing a cultural
account of the “naturalness” of distributions of power within a given social order
(Bourdieu 1991:31–33). Thus, the costs and benefits of legitimated religion for members of any given status group will depend upon that status group’s position within
that social order. To understand status-based variation in religious exchange ratios,
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 315
we must take into account religion’s linkages to other institutions and fields, and
how capital is distributed across status groups within them.
An example of institutionalist scholarship that foregrounds the links between institutions is Edgell’s work (2005), which takes as its central problematic the link between
religion and family. Edgell begins with American religion’s extensive institutional development during the 1950s, when the nuclear family emerged as the hegemonic
family form and had tremendous influence on the assumptions and programmatic
objectives that shaped religious institutions. She then explores congregational responses to changes in family form since that time, acknowledging from the outset
that change in one institution has potential implications for the other.
This “linked institutions” approach can be usefully extended to the study of religious markets by bringing in external factors (beyond the state) that influence religious production. Assuming from the outset the embeddedness of religious interests
in relations of exchange and power in secular spheres foregrounds the relative costs
and benefits that the owners of religious capital stand to accrue, not only in terms
of success in the religious market, but also in terms of institutions such as the family
or workplace, as a result of different religious production options. It also allows us
to better account for the devaluation of existing capital that entrepreneurs might risk
should their products fail to legitimate the interests of the dominant groups within
the social order more generally. Even though male producers of religion might stand
to attract an increase in female consumers by offering more female-friendly products,
the resulting profits in the religious sphere might be negated, either by subsequent
costs in spheres that are institutionally linked with religion or by a devaluation of
religious capital. By taking into account these factors, we can better arrive at an
interests-based explanation for the failure of the religious market to meet the needs
of the broadest segment of its consumer base.
Thus far, I have argued that female religious entrepreneurs suffer from an undersupply of religious capital, and I have offered an explanation for why male religious
entrepreneurs who control religious capital might be slow to produce religions that
favor women’s interests. My explanation for religious market failure remains incomplete, however, because it already presupposes a male-dominated religious field. A
key question that remains to be answered is that of why women’s movement into
the production side of the religious market has been slow to begin with and why,
when there has been movement at the margins, the result has not been larger-scale
transformation within the religious field as a whole. In the absence of governmental
restrictions against women’s entry, should not the free market have corrected for
existing gender imbalances by now? The following section will address this question
by proposing that religious markets perform inefficiently in the absence of either
level playing fields or state interventions aimed at ending discrimination in markets
for religious capital.
STRATEGY THREE: RECONSIDERING DEREGULATION
AND COMPETITION
In theory, if there are no governmental constraints on innovation and entry into
the religious market, the market should adapt to the diverse preferences represented among the natural segments of a given population. Applied to gender, the
market should eventually produce a supply of female-friendly religion proportional
to women’s demand, as increasing numbers of entrepreneurs bring to the market
products that reflect women’s interests both inside and outside religious institutions.
316 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
Although this proposition may accurately describe supply-side tendencies on level
playing fields, such optimal outcomes cannot be assumed in markets where there
exist gross capital inequalities between established firms and aspiring competitors,
and where there exists discrimination in markets for capital, both conditions that
are present in the American religious marketplace. Under these conditions, as will
be outlined below, markets will favor the growth of more established producers, who
benefit from accumulated capital and economies of scale, as well as from stable relationships with longstanding customers. New entrants who lack these assets will have
difficulty acquiring them and will be subject to a “liability of newness” (Stinchcombe
1965:148–50). Thus, resource disparity among producers can be expected to influence relative market success, independent of the features of the actual products on
offer. As will be further elaborated, discrimination in markets for religious capital is
critical because it ensures that these disparities among producers are both patterned
and stable across time.
To begin, entrepreneurs seeking to enter a market or increase market share are
confronted with several challenges. The first challenge, recognized within the REM,
is simply to offer a more appealing product, since potential consumers will require
incentives to justify the costs of religious switching or first-time joining—costs that
they have an interest in keeping low (Stark and Finke 2000:118–25). But even then, in
order to be competitive, firms with appealing products must find ways to produce,
market, and distribute their goods as efficiently as possible. That is, they must
continually find ways to lower production costs.
One way to lower production costs is to extract greater contributions from lowerranking producers within the organization. REM scholars posit this strategy when
they explain how strict churches grow, or at least “stay strong” (Iannoccone 1994).
But in addition to economizing in terms of labor costs, firms can keep production
costs low by limiting investment in fixed capital, which a firm can do by taking
advantage of whatever assets it already has at its disposal. For the larger, more
established firms, this strategy not only provides “a most certain means of driving
out small competitors … [but also creates] formidable barriers to entry” (Chandler 1981:405). In the religious economy, fixed capital appears in forms such as
churches, hospitals, educational institutions, divinity programs, and communication
infrastructure, ranging from computers to radio and television networks. Some of
these resources, such as educational institutions and media, are important not only
as sources of capital, but because they are instruments of widespread socialization
(Dianteill 2003:545). New entrants into the market, having to newly acquire these
assets, will be at a major disadvantage in their attempts to produce and distribute
their products.
This resource disparity between old and new producers is exacerbated by established firms’ extensive ties to preexisting customer bases that, in many cases, will
have developed their loyalty through generations of exchange with the more established brands (Stinchcombe 1965:149–50), and who will be reluctant to give up the
religious and social capital that they have accrued through long-term exchange with
dominant producers (Stark and Finke 2000:118–25). New entrants, in contrast, must
build their customer bases, as well as their fixed capital, from the bottom up. To the
extent that women are disproportionately represented among the ranks of the new
entrants, their firms will be disproportionately subject to these resource limitations.
Of course, an alternative to competing as an independent producer is to work
for one of the larger, established firms and distribute one’s cultural goods through
them. But this arrangement is not likely to lead to large-scale radical innovations
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 317
in cultural production along lines of gender. This is because religious organizations
are not simply “rational instruments engineered to do a job”; rather, they are institutions and, as such, must respond to the norms of, and power exercised in, their
broader environments (Selznick 1957:5; Stinchcombe 1965). As historical institutionalism teaches us, the survival of an organization that adopts an innovative form
requires that it has “an elite structure of such a form and character that those people in the society who control resources essential to the organization’s success will
be satisfied that their interests are represented in the goal-setting apparatus of the
enterprise” (Stinchcombe 1965:161).
Similarly, in the religious sphere, and related to the argument about linked institutions laid out earlier, “the position of power that a religious formation occupies
within the [religious] field depends on the power of the social group from which it
draws its support … the dominants of the religious field base their domination on
that of the dominant classes of the social order” (Dianteill 2003:538). To the extent
that the people who control resources within the religious sphere and within the
social order more generally are male, substantial religious innovations in direction
of greater gender equality will be risky indeed. Thus, feminist entrepreneurs within
established, male-headed congregations and denominations stand a high probability
of being confronted with resistance.
But in the religious field, individual entrepreneurs working for existing firms still
have yet another option—sect formation. That is, an entrepreneur can break off from
an established church and found an alternative that, although sharing the original
church’s broader tradition, situates itself in higher tension with society (Stark and
Bainbridge 1985). In some respects, this is the most viable option for challengers,
since they can take with them a preexisting customer base and a corpus of organizational traditions and knowledge needed to run a religious organization. Their
liability of newness is much reduced compared to that of an entrepreneur who is independent from the outset. And, observing established patterns, and keeping in mind
that strictness does not necessarily equal patriarchy, this appears to be a particularly
promising option for entrepreneurs who are women. As described previously, female
leadership is positively associated with sect-like features of congregations, particularly strictness (Adams 2007) and, women’s leadership does tend to be associated
with religion at the margins (Wessinger 1993). After all, given that male leadership
is a dominant feature of the religious landscape, it logically follows that congregations with female leadership are by definition in high tension with their external
organizational environments.
But if church-sect theory as outlined by Stark and Bainbridge (1985) is correct, although sect formation may be a promising avenue for individual female
entrepreneurs, it is not likely to result in an aggregate increase in female-headed
religious organizations in the mainstream of the religious economy. Recall that, according to their theory, sect growth is associated with ideological movement toward
the center, as religious entrepreneurs respond to the shifting preferences of their
increasingly middle-class memberships. If we conceptually replace class stratification
with gender stratification, the corollary is that, among congregations that are initially
led by women, we would expect growth to be associated with both a decrease in
strictness and a decline in female leadership (a movement toward lower tension);
conversely, those organizations that maintain female leadership will not only remain
strict, but will also have slower rates of growth. Thus, although there is certainly
space in the religious field for “the marginalized to subvert, deform, or poach upon
an oppressive cultural market” (Urban 2003:356), in the case of gender, the obstacles
318 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
to these critiques and subversions finding their way to the center of the religious field
are considerable. Although a full exploration of this proposition is beyond the scope
of this article, the centrality of the family to religion—and the extent to which people
consume religion as heterosexual couples—would have to be given serious consideration in explaining why growth in initially female-headed congregations would require
an accommodation to more patriarchal models.
It appears, then, that closer consideration of the effects of resource inequality
among religious producers and their potential customers has potential to enhance
the explanatory power of the supply-side REM, especially with reference to the
glacial pace at which women’s presence is increasing among the leaders of American
parishes. But, ultimately, the large-scale growth and mainstreaming of innovative
religion produced by women is limited for an even more fundamental reason—overt
and legal discrimination against women in markets for religious capital. Thus far,
market mechanisms have been discussed here as if we were in fact referring to
an open market. However, the market for religious capital is not open for women
as it is for men, since some of the most powerful institutions that control religious
capital bar women from access to it, especially by refusing to ordain and/or promote
them. This discrimination in markets for religious capital will retard any drift toward
woman-centric religion that might otherwise occur through free market mechanisms.
Of course, throughout American history, discrimination in markets for capital has
appeared in a variety of industries, such as education, housing, and lending, and there
has been movement toward greater equality in these fields. Why should the market
for religious capital be any different? The answer lies in a key mechanism through
which disadvantaged groups have broken into discriminatory markets: a state that is
responsive to social movements and pressure groups who demand equal opportunities
to acquire capital. Examples of movements oriented toward opening markets for
human capital include those leading to Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities
Act, affirmative action, and school desegregation. A movement on behalf of women’s
ordination similarly exists, but religious movements are confronted with a unique
institutional barrier with which secular movements have not been confronted—a
separation between religion and state that strictly defines religion as a private good,
and therefore precludes claims to equal protection under the law (Katzenstein 1998).
Collective actors do not succeed in a vacuum, but in interaction with governments
who hear their grievances and mandate that offending institutions rectify inequalities (Tarrow 1996:72–73). Most important for our purposes here is that the U.S.
government has typically addressed discriminatory access to human capital not by
removing itself from the picture and leaving markets to diversify according to their
own mechanisms, but by asserting itself , by opening markets through the force of law,
to ensure that particular status groups are not systematically discriminated against.
In the case of religious capital, which is a form of human capital, the private legal
status of religion constrains such government intervention.
Katzenstein (1998) illustrates the importance of the state in her comparison of
women’s movements in the U.S. military and the American Catholic Church. In the
military, women have been able to advance through the ranks as a result of the
military’s institutional proximity to the state, and the attendant requirement that
it conform to equal rights legislation. In contrast, the protection that the Church
receives through its constitutional separation from the state has limited the movement’s strategic and tactical options, and subsequently success, in pursuit of women’s
ordination (Katzenstein 1998).
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 319
Chaves’s (1997) research similarly demonstrates the importance of the state in facilitating equality within organization fields. In examining research comparing women’s
ordination to women’s advancements in law and medicine, he comes to the conclusion that institutional distance from the state is “a more important variable than
differences either in numbers of women seeking previously male roles or differences
in the resistance of ‘clients’ and ‘constituents’ to female practitioners” in explaining
formal gender equality across the three professions (1997:42). He also reports that,
cross-nationally, “among western liberal societies, religious organizations more institutionally tied to the state have tended to ordain women earlier than denominations
not tied to the state” (1997:43).
What Katzenstein’s and Chaves’s findings suggest is that a lack of state intervention
presents an additional barrier (beyond that of a nonlevel playing field) to women’s
advancement in the religious field. It does so by safeguarding men’s control of the
institutions, credentials, and accreditations that confer rights to produce religion.
As a result, religious doctrines will continue to be interpreted in ways that more
often than not assume male standpoints, and require women to pay higher costs for
the benefits of religious inclusion. Thus, the separation between religion and state
identified by the REM as conducive to religious diversity, when analyzed from a
gendered perspective, actually reinforces gender-based homogeneity. The assumption
that an absence of state regulation will ensure a supply of goods that is adequate to
meet the demands of diverse niches does not hold in the religious field.
IMPLICATIONS FOR SUPPLY-SIDE AND DEMAND-SIDE THEORIES
The purpose of this article has been to illustrate the theoretical payoff of a more
critical examination of the supply side of the religious economy. The point has
been to move away from demand-side explanations for a particular phenomenon—
religious market failure—that can more productively be analyzed as a supply-side
problem. By shifting our attention away from demand and focusing instead on
supply, we open the REM to a variety of new avenues for research, the relevance of
which extends beyond the gender paradox at issue in this article. I will conclude with
suggestions for moving forward with an economic approach to religion that takes
seriously the conditions of religious production, especially distributions of power and
resources among producers of religious value and constraints on production that are
exercised beyond the state.
First, as Chaves and Gorski (2001) have pointed out, REM scholarship can benefit from more precise measures of religious competition, whether at the level of the
individual entrepreneur, the religious organization, or the religious economy. At both
the individual and organizational levels of analysis, we must not assume that an entrepreneur’s or firm’s probability of success is solely, or even primarily, a function of
the features of its product. In addition to the attractiveness of a given product to a
set of potential consumers, the amount of capital at the disposal of a given producer
should also be considered. While some of the relevant capital will indeed take the
form of what REM scholars have already identified as distinctly “religious capital”
(Iannoccone 1990), equally important are forms of capital that are not unique to
the religion industry, such as buildings, hospitals, schools, universities, and broadcasting networks. While a relative lack of these resources will not preclude religious
production altogether, it will certainly put entrepreneurs and start-up firms at a disadvantage when it comes to distributing their goods. Thus, while there is certainly
room for innovation at the margins, the center will largely be dominated by the
320 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
better-resourced producers. Similarly, when measuring the competitiveness of entire
religious economies, we must move beyond the use of indicators such as pluralism
and distribution of market share (Chaves and Gorski 2001), and also include measures of how various forms of capital are distributed among competing producers.
With regard to distinctly religious capital, the institutionally recognized right to
authoritatively interpret religious doctrine is perhaps most critical for understanding
women’s control of religious supply. Not only is this form of capital important in its
own right, since it confers legitimacy on its owner, but it is also important because
its presence (or absence) determines access to leadership positions within some of the
more established religious brands—such as Catholicism—who hold large amounts of
the more concrete forms of capital described above.
It is here, with regard to access to religious capital, that the need to rethink the
role of the state becomes most apparent. As Weber pointed out, even industrial
capitalism did not emerge in the absence of rational structures and institutions—
such as formally guaranteed law and a rational judiciary and administration—to
support it (Andreski 1983:82–84). The same is true of religious markets. In addition
to accounting for states as sources of regulation that impede competition, we need
to take into account the role that states play in ensuring equal access to a diversity
of religious options, as well as to the capital needed to produce and distribute the
goods of salvation (Gill 2008). State interventions aimed at opening religious markets
can include, for example, the creation and enforcement of laws against discrimination
in religious employment, or the legal apparatuses necessary to adjudicate disputes
among religious claimants, especially in cases where coercion might otherwise be used
to suppress or extract conformity with religious beliefs. In the absence of institutional
structures that codify and guarantee freedom within and across religions, markets
are just as likely to result in status-based cartels and oligopolies, and to function
through coercive means, as they are to result in a diversity of options that transform
through mechanisms of free enterprise.
These considerations do not require that we abandon economic approaches to
religion. In fact, what this article has hopefully illustrated is that the language of
production, distribution, exchange, costs, benefits, interests, and the like can effectively illuminate relations of power involved in the interpretation and production of
religious meaning. Although I take a critical approach to the REM, the criticism is
not that economic theory cannot be usefully applied to religion. Rather, it is that
the range of economic perspectives employed within the sociology of religion has
been too narrow, remaining largely within the parameters of economic liberalism.
If the evidence in support of the REM’s core propositions is inconclusive at best
(Chaves and Gorski 2001), rather than discarding economic theory altogether, the social scientific study of religion might benefit from fuller incorporation of competing
economic perspectives that, in other subfields (organizational sociology, global and
transnational sociology) have fruitfully challenged assumptions of liberal economic
orthodoxy. The focus on gender and religious supply has been particularly useful for
elucidating the benefits of engaging more critical economic perspectives because of
the glaring disparity between men and women in terms of access to capital within the
religious field. But the modifications that this gendered approach calls for certainly
could be applied to other issues of interest to sociologists of religion, such as denominational disputes over sexual orientation, racially and ethnically based religious
market segmentation, or winners and losers in the global competition for converts
(Bush 2009).
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 321
But returning specifically to how the “classic” features of the REM can be modified to better explain the gender paradox, future research could also benefit by
clarifying distinctions among several concepts that currently tend to be conflated.
First, the distinction between strictness and patriarchy must be clarified. When we
disentangle these two concepts, findings such as that strictness and female leadership
are positively associated no longer seem so anomalous. One way, methodologically,
to incorporate such a distinction would be to use measures of strictness that are disaggregated by gender. In doing so, we could begin to test a core hypothesis implicit
in this article—that male leadership will be associated with norms that are stricter
for women, and female leadership will be associated with norms that are stricter for
men. This simple but potentially important hypothesis cannot be tested without first
asking the question, “strict for whom?”
Along these same lines, clarification of the relationship between gender ideologies and “tension with society” opens up interesting questions that can be usefully
explored within church-sect theory. But first, following Chaves (1997), a prior distinction will be useful, namely, that between “tension with society” and “tension
with the organizational environment.” Although a focus on tension with society is
critical for establishing religion’s linkages with other institutions and fields, in some
cases, substituting “organizational environment” for society will be useful, since the
features of an organizational population will often be easier to agree upon and measure than would be the features of a reified “society.” For example, the question
of whether or not female leadership is in tension with “society” is more difficult
to answer than the question of whether or not female leadership is in tension with
the prevailing model of organizational legitimacy within a particular industry, or
organizational field.
Applied to church-sect theory (Stark and Bainbridge 1985), is it the case, as proposed earlier, that female-headed religions are destined to remain at the margins of
the religious economy precisely because female leadership is in high tension with its
broader organizational environment? That is, will growth in female-headed congregations necessarily be associated with movement toward “the center”—the “center”
in this case meaning more patriarchal leadership structures and norms that favor
men? To answer this question through systematic, empirical analyses would first
require that we disaggregate variables like “strictness,” “costs,” and “benefits” by
gender. It would also require that we clarify what and whose interests are at stake
when we speak of “tension with society” and how those interests are expressed
in organizational forms that are perceived as most legitimate within the religion
industry.
And finally, a distinction must be made between pluralism on the one hand,
and diversity, on the other. If race, gender, sexuality, and class are recognized as
significant sources of heterogeneity in the demand side of the economy, it follows
that they should be taken seriously as sources of heterogeneity in supply. From
a gender perspective, a religious market that offers 100 patriarchal religions may
indeed be more pluralist than a market that offers only 50 patriarchal religions. But,
a market offering 100 patriarchal religions is arguably less diverse, or heterogeneous,
than a market that offers only 50 religious options, but of which 20 are matriarchal
and 10 cater to same-sex couples. Diversity would be the better indicator than would
be pluralism, or the mere numbers of religious options, of how much choice women
have. In fact, as sociologists, we need to reconsider how meaningful it is to talk about
religious choice for women if a large majority of religions within a given market are
produced and controlled by men.
322 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
To clarify, the point of this article has not been that some women are “irrational”
by virtue of their religious choices.4 I adhere to the assumption that women are
indeed rational actors and that those who choose to participate in religion, including
patriarchal religion, can and do derive real benefits from it, benefits that have been
described in previous research, and that are cited earlier in this article. But the fact
that women make rational choices among religious options does not mean that they
determine the distribution of products on offer, nor does it mean that the options
are designed to reflect their interests. It also does not mean that terms of exchange
are fair or invariable across status groups. Women do not choose from the religions
on offer because they are the best imaginable options, but because the institutional
and market conditions do not exist that would be conducive to an adequate supply
of the best options emerging.
But, for the sake of argument, and to bring supply-side considerations to bear on
questions about demand, one might ask what would happen to women’s religious
consumption if discrimination in markets for religious capital were to end. If we
assume that female control over religious interpretation would result in more egalitarian gender ideologies, the effect on women’s religious consumption would depend
upon how women’s religious choices are related to inequality to begin with. On the
one hand, it could be, as others have argued, that women’s higher religiosity exists
despite patriarchy. That is, the most determinative rewards that religion offers are
rewards (such as friendship or spiritual comfort) accrued regardless of gender ideology and that, for reasons unrelated to inequality, have greater appeal to women. If
so, a reduction in the cost of religion for women might lead to even higher rates of
women’s religious participation than currently exist.
But on the other hand, we need to seriously consider the possibility that women’s
higher demand for religion has something to do with their subordinated status in
society to begin with. For example, perhaps mothers are more likely than fathers
to be met with social disapproval if they regularly engage in sports or hobbies,
or gather at local pubs after work each evening. If so, religion can be one of the
few sources of socially approved social capital that mothers have at their disposal,
making them more likely than fathers, who have a greater diversity of options,
to consume it. Or, maybe women experience greater stress in their home or work
environments than do men and are therefore more interested in the spiritual, mental,
and physical rejuvenation that religion might provide. More generally, perhaps gender
inequality, like class-based inequality (Stark and Bainbridge 1985), creates in women
a greater need for otherworldly compensators. Whatever its manifestation, if gender
inequality is driving women’s higher rates of religious participation, to the extent that
egalitarian and matriarchal religion would play a role in reducing gender inequality,
a greater supply of female-friendly religion might, paradoxically, result in a decline
in aggregate levels of women’s religious involvement over time.
Here again, however, the need for a fuller theorization of religion’s links to other
institutions becomes apparent. For as long as religion remains a source of patriarchal
gender ideology, we can expect spillover into neighboring social spheres. For example,
Sullins (2000:261) points out that full gender equality has not been achieved in
arenas where the courts have intervened (e.g., politics, marriage, fair-wage legislation).
Rather than simply concluding from this that state intervention is ineffectual, a focus
4The author wishes to acknowledge an anonymous reviewer at Sociological Theory for pointing out
that my argument could be misinterpreted as being that women are less rational than men.
RELIGIOUS MARKET FAILURE 323
on linked institutions forces us to consider how the persistence of gender equality
in the secular spheres is related to the state’s protection of gender inequality in
the religious sphere. After all, religious institutions are the sites where the gender
ideologies that inform both public and private social relations are given their deepest
anchoring and most explicit articulations. They are also powerful vehicles of political
activism aimed at using the force of law to institutionalize particular kinds of gender
relations.
The implications of these linkages, from a practical standpoint, are considerable.
By permitting discrimination against women in access to religious capital, the separation between religion and state that is assumed to secure each individual’s religious
freedom actually denies women equal rights to co-produce their religions—religions
that prescribe the norms by which women are expected to live, regardless of whether
or not they claim any formal religious affiliation (Sundar 2002). To the extent that
women are denied voice in institutions that create norms by which they are expected
to abide, they are subject to a cultural form of “taxation without representation,”
a circumstance that begs us to question whether an absence of state regulation is a
sufficient precondition for “religious freedom.” With regard to sociological theory,
to better account for limitations on religious choice, and the free market’s failure to
produce a sufficient diversity of options, we must redefine “free” not only in terms
of the demand, or the freedom to choose among goods for consumption, but also
in terms of supply, or access to religious capital and rights to religious production.
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