Bryan Caplan  

Lindbeck, Weibull, and God

Some Counterproductive Candor ... The Good News Will Cost You...
Modern American Catholics reject many Catholic teachings:
According to a recent Gallup Poll, 78 percent of American Catholics support allowing Catholics to use birth control, 63 percent think priests should be able to marry, and 55 percent think women should be ordained as priests. Last week Gallup reported that more Catholics than non-Catholics believe that homosexual behavior, divorce, and stem-cell and human-embryo research are morally acceptable.
Question: Why don't these Catholics switch to a church that shares their doctrinal views?  For example, why not just go Episcopalian? 

Perhaps this seems like a stupid question.  Many Catholics will object, "We can't 'just switch,' because Catholic is what we are."  But what exactly does this indignant response mean?  It can't literally mean that Catholic identification is written in stone; the Church has lost adherents over doctrine before.  Remember the Reformation?

What it means, rather, is that in matters of religion people have both doctrinal preferences and denominational preference.  Even if a new religion came along that exactly agreed with their current religion, most people would still strictly prefer their current religions.  From a slightly different perspective, this means that people will - within some range - stay loyal to one religion even though a competing religion is, in purely doctrinal terms, a better fit. 

As a result, religious leaders have some slack to deviate from the rank-and-file.  And when you think about it, using this slack to push unpopular doctrines may be relatively benign.  A religion with a devoted flock could also use its slack to cover up child abuse, knowing that few members will switch service providers if the ugly truth comes out. 

I bring this all up because this story about religion is exactly analogous to the recently-discussed Lindbeck-Weibull model of voter choice.  The key assumption in the Lindbeck-Weibull model is that voters have both policy preferences and party preferences.  Even if Democrats and Republicans had identical platforms, many Republicans would still strictly prefer Republican candidates.  Why?  Because many Republicans are Republican in the same sense that Catholics are Catholic.  Belonging to this group is "part of who they are."  And if enough people have these party preferences, the result is that political leaders have some slack to deviate from the rank-and-file on matters of both policy and common decency.  Indeed, if party preferences are sufficiently lop-sided, the result is one-party democracy.

The Lindbeck-Weibull model is pretty obscure even in economics.  But the more I reflect on it, the more this simple model seems to explain a lot of facts that other models of religious and political competition can't. 

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Eddy Elfenbein writes:

I think Tim Russert used to say that in Buffalo people are registered Catholics and baptized Democrats.

greenish writes:

And most of the policy preference is so superficial it should be split again into rhetoric and policy, the larger part going to rhetoric.

Bingapon writes:

This is the main reason libertarian Republicans refuse to switch to the Libertarian Party, even though the Bush-McCain statist faction has taken over the party.

Fabio Rojas writes:

People identify with their group? Ummm... welcome to soc 101?

Jacob Oost writes:

Bingapon, given our current highly-regulated political market, which (major political catastrophes aside) virtually guarantees that the Demoncraps and Rethuglicans (I made a funny!) will be ALWAYS be the two parties in our otherwise fine "two-party system," then switching from one of the bigger two to a smaller third party is a whole other animal than switching from one of the big two to the other.

That said, I continue to marvel at the large number of black Americans who disagree, sometimes very strongly, with much of the DNC platform, yet stick with it. Same goes for Southerners. While I'm at it, I don't get why left-leaning Republicans (you know the kind I'm talking about) don't just switch.

And while I'm at THAT, why are so many economists Democrats? Of the two main parties, the DNC is the most hostile to free market economies. I understand some of them want expanded social services, but really, people like Larry Summers strike me as far more suited to the Republican party than the Democrat party.

Joe Marier writes:

Did you ever hear feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther's explanation for why she still identified as a Catholic?

"That's where the mimeograph machines are."

Economics trumps all! For dissenting theologians anyway.

Jeff writes:

I was brought up Catholic. Catholicism claims that it is the religion founded by Christ, and that everything it teaches is what God wants it to teach. The reason to believe its doctrines and follow its precepts is that they are true. I suspect other Christian denominations preach similar doctrines.

Now if you believe such a doctrine, it's obvious why you don't switch. If you don't believe it, that's not a reason to switch to another religion, it's a reason to be agnostic or atheist. What I've never understood is why anyone would give up a substantial part of their weekends and a considerable chunk of their income if they don't actually believe that what their pastor is telling them is really true.

Chris writes:

Is this why (anecdotally) libertarians tend to trend atheist/agnostic? By mustering the ability to break the bonds of association in one area it is easily applicable to the other?

Mario Rizzo writes:

The discussion presupposes that Catholicism is what the Church hierarchy says it is. In fact, even within Catholic theology the Church is the whole people (not only the hierarachy). So perhaps the hierarchy is becoming increasing irrelevant to the mass of Catholics in the United States. In fact, I know of priests who quietly approve of their "flock" using "artificial" birth control, for example. A Church is not like manufacturer's product. Is is to a large extent self-defined.

Franklin Harris writes:

So, as a general rule, we may have something Hansonian: "Religion is not about God."

Troy Camplin writes:

I must be a real oddball, then. I've defected from Baptist to Catholic, from Republican to Libertarian (and back again, though as a Ron Paul-type Republican), from creationist to Big Bang-evolutionary theory believer, from biology B.A. to English M.A. to Humanities Ph.D., from interventionist to free market supporter, from free verse poet to formalist poet . . . I have e tendency to change positions when the information on the ground changes. A thoughtful consistency of world view is what I've always tried to achieve.

Tracy W writes:

A simple reason why people would prefer their demonination is that people generally build up a lot of social capital if they belong to the same organisation for a long time. If you switch churches, you need to start making those links all over again.

You also need to learn a whole lot of new rituals, or at a minimum not to use the old rituals.

All in all switching is expensive.

George writes:

First, Bryan, when you dig up a four-year-old article, you could warn us: something like, "According to a recent [April, 2005] Gallup Poll...".

Second, the article doesn't say what "Catholic" means (e.g. Mass attendance, education, sacraments); we're left to assume it's people who say "Catholic" when asked what religion they are by a pollster in a telephone call.

Third, thanks for the gratuitous and oh-so-clever smear: "A religion with a devoted flock could also use its slack to cover up child abuse, knowing that few members will switch service providers if the ugly truth comes out." Go look up the numbers on public school-teacher child sexual abuse, and see how it's an order of magnitude worse than anything that happened in the Church. Here's a starting point:

But the most important point Bryan's missing is the one Tracy W brought up: you don't just "identify" as Catholic -- you go to a particular Catholic parish, and you know the people there, and your kids play together, and you drive all the way back to New Jersey for funerals at your old parish, and you drop cans or coats or school supplies in the box at the front, and you worry about the finances of the parish school if you're lucky enough to have one, and you talk about who's stuck at home and could use some help or a casserole.

It's not just a social club, but the social (as in, social support) aspects are a much bigger practical matter than the doctrinal aspects.

This is even more pronounced with a lot of Protestants, who can be somewhat hazy about which actual denomination they belong to, and can make these choices for seemingly arbitrary reasons (cf. P.J. O'Rourke's story about his Presbyterian mother sending him to the local Methodist church because "that's where all the nice people go").

On another point: you say, "religious leaders have some slack to deviate from the rank-and-file".

Would you ever dream of saying that you "have some slack to deviate from" the economic opinions of your students? One of the points of a church (and certainly of the Catholic Church) is to teach. Yes, I know you think there's absolutely no substance to the teaching, but that's worthless in understanding the behavior of believers, who are there to learn.

Finally, lots of the "adherents lost" during the Reformation didn't exactly sit down and pore over doctrine. The vast majority's thought process was more like, "Hey, my prince/bishop is Lutheran now. Guess I'm Lutheran, too, since the alternative is fleeing or being killed." And, of course, most of those "Lutheran" and "Catholic" peasants probably had supernatural beliefs that would count as heretical, in the right light (are they leaving a bribe for a pixie, or a sacrifice for a minor god?).

Michael writes:

Catholics don't "just switch" when they disagree with certain teachings or rules of the Church because they still believe that the Church is the one, true church founded by Christ. This doesn't necessarily mean that everything the Magisterium teaches is correct at all times; the Church only makes that claim for the Sacred Magisterium. So it is quite consistent to oppose priestly celibacy, for example, without rejecting the Church as a whole.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top