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
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
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
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
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.
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