Religion in the News: What Does it All Mean?

by Richard Flory

Several news stories about religion in the U.S. have caught my attention over the last couple of weeks, and they each highlight a different lens on what the future may hold for these and other groups, and how the public perceives religion as an enduring (or not) institution in society. First, and this has been a long time coming, the Crystal Cathedral has finally met its demise. After bankruptcy, the sale of the landmark sanctuary to the Orange County Roman Catholic Diocese and now the (somewhat ungraceful) exit of the entire Schuller family, the fate of the formerly iconic megachurch has been sealed. Whatever the future holds, the Crystal Cathedral will no longer enjoy its identity of the past 40 years—a cultural landmark melding Christianity, American consumerism and celebrity.

As the Crystal Cathedral story was making headlines, including on the “CBS This Morning” show (alas, my interview ended up on the digital cutting room floor!), just up the freeway from the Cathedral’s home in Garden Grove, the Los Angeles City Council was working on an important but complex redistricting plan. Buried two-thirds of the way into a recent Los Angeles Times story recounting the final approval of the plan were quotations from two of “several African American pastors” who were in attendance at the City Council meeting. These pastors spoke against the plan as it would, from their point of view, adversely impact the economic growth and development of large swaths of South Los Angeles. In contrast to the Schullers, these pastors were from [Read more...]

What Paintball Taught Me about the Market in Relationships

My 12-year-old son and I play paintball about once every three or four months. (If it was up to him, it’d be every other weekend.) For a morning, we are mimicking soldiers—although without much strategy other than a “You go that way, and I’ll go this way”—attempting to win battles and avoid getting shot. Paintball is a unique social event—apart from the mild fear of being smacked in the head or neck by balls of tinted mineral oil sailing along at 300-feet-per-second —because  it’s one of the few venues in my social life where I’m nearly completely surrounded by men doing what they largely perceive to be a masculine thing. I say “nearly completely” because it’s not entirely comprised of men, and there’s no rule about it. Typically in a crowd of, say, 40-50 paint-ballers there will probably be 2-3 women. 20-to-1, of course, is quite a sex ratio, unmatched in most other social activities. (Such a radically-skewed ratio reminds me of the film Paint your Wagon, which details, in a very fictionalized way, life during the Gold Rush with oodles of men and few women).

While boyfriends or husbands often accompany the participating women—so far as I can tell—the women’s presence is noticeable simply for what it does to the other men. They perk up. They’re aware of the women. And they’re often more deferential and complimentary to the women. In other words, they notice. And it doesn’t much matter whether the women are 10s, 7s, or even 4s (to use a gross measure of attractiveness employed by another University of Texas faculty member). When something desirable—the company of a woman—is rare, it becomes more valuable just because. [Read more...]

Coming apart, coming together, coming…?

By Julie J. Park

I’ve been meaning to write an entry on Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, for a few weeks now. The book is divided into two main parts that address two sizable chunks of the population, elite White folks and lower-income White folks. You can skip Part I if you’ve read Bobos in Paradise or your fill of David Brooks columns–it basically talks about the rise of the meritocrats/creative class/latte-town. Murray’s contribution is documenting the rise of SuperZips, clusters of highly educated, influential folks in various pockets (including but not limited to people who watch Portlandia and their parents, people featured in Stuff White People Like, etc.).   [Read more...]

The Social Construction of Christian Leaders as Hypocrites

Several years, ABC’s newshow, 20/20, ran a story about a Southern California pastor, K.C. Price, and it showed a film clip of Price saying:
“I live in a 25-room mansion, I have my own $6-million yacht, I have my own private jet and I have my own helicopter and I have seven luxury automobiles.”
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it. Yet another instance of Christian leaders gone bad! Why, Diane Sawyer even expressed shock that a preacher would have this kind of wealth.
There’s only one problem… it’s not true. Price prefaced this statement by saying he was hypothetically “quoting a hypothetical person with great material wealth who failed to follow a righteous path.”
So, 20/20 was dead wrong; they’ve issued retractions, and now they are being sued. (Story from the LA Times).

This raises an interesting issue: Why does the media so frequently portray Christian leaders as hypocrites?

One reason is that it’s interesting.
A fundamental motivation for the media is increasing viewership, so any story that would broadly appeal will be prominently featured. This is why they carry endless stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
It’s also why we think crime is always getting worse when in fact it has mostly gotten better over the past two decades–murder and crime makes for a good story.
It’s also why so many people [Read more...]

Are Religious Organizations Like Firms?

Can ideas from economics, such as that monopolies are lazy and that competition leads to better products, be applied to understand religion? Every year I teach my students–both those in my class on economic sociology and those in my class on sociology of religion–about the economistic or the rational choice perspective on religion.

Most people think individual religious behaviors and religious organizations are driven by emotions, theology, and/or tradition. But rational choice theories of religion are modeled are assumptions about human behavior now current in mainstream economics: humans are rational, self-interested beings who seek to maximize rewards and minimize their costs. What makes religion so powerful in motivating  human behavior is that most religions promise rewards or punishment in another life.

One path-breaking book which applies the rational choice perspective to American religion is Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy,” which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Given that the U.S. has never a state-established religion, religious groups here have always had to win over adherents. To explain which religious groups thrive under these conditions of an open market for religion, [Read more...]


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