Dynamist Blog


Devout Christians like Hugh have a tendency to equate equate morality, which is universal, with mitzvot (or taboos), which are particular and serve to establish and reinforce ties to a tribe or community of faith. As economist Laurence Iannaccone has written, such strictures are important in maintaining coherence among conservative religious groups. From my NYT column on his work:

Among the questions he has explored are why strict churches -- those that in some way limit members' activities outside the church -- are strong, and how conservative churches adapt when social norms become more liberal....

Strictness can manifest itself in dietary restrictions, distinctive clothing, geographical separation or prohibitions on activities like dancing or drinking. It can also entail such requirements as sending one's children to the church school, observing unique holidays or attending Wednesday night services in addition to Sunday services.

Joining a strict group may sound irrational when there are less costly alternatives. "Why become a Mormon or a Seventh-day Adventist" -- let alone join a so-called cult -- "when the Methodists and Presbyterians wait with open arms?" Professor Iannaccone wrote in "Why Strict Churches Are Strong," a 1994 article in the American Journal of Sociology.

His answer is that high costs screen out "free riders," deadbeat members who would otherwise enjoy a church's benefits without contributing energy, time and money. If everyone in the group has to pay a visible price, free riders will not bother to join and a committed core will not end up doing all the work. The group may attract fewer members at first, but it will be stronger over time. Distinctiveness also gives people a reason for affiliation and a sense of camaraderie. Why join a religious group if it is identical to the rest of society?

As tolerance for gays has grown, expressing public disapproval of homosexuality (regardless of one's views on sodomy laws) has become an important marker of traditionalist Christian faith. That's why Rick Santorum is not going to turn into Trent Lott, at least not any time soon. Jim Crow is dead, but a lot of voters still identify with Santorum's statements, and with his willingness to make them. Ostracizing Santorum only encourages them, which is why it's important to ask politicians the fundamental policy question: Regardless of what you believe in your private life, what should the criminal law be?

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