Writing in Slate, Judith Shulevitz visits a 1994 article by economist Lawrence Iannaccone, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” to consider whether there are some very good reasons for people to submit to the moral strictures of a church. Shulevitz observes,
“. . . economist Laurence Iannaccone makes the counterintuitive case that people choose to be strictly religious because of the quantifiable benefits their piety affords them, not just in the afterlife but in the here and now.
“What does the pious person get in return for all of his or her time and effort? A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another’s lives and more willing than most to come to one another’s aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams. Religion is a ‘”commodity” that people produce collectively,’ says Iannaccone. ‘My religious satisfaction thus depends both on my “inputs” and those of others.’ If a rich and textured spiritual experience is what you seek, then a storefront Holy Roller church or an Orthodox shtiebl is a better fit than a suburban church made up of distracted, ambitious people who can barely manage to find a morning free for Sunday services, let alone several evenings a week for text study and volunteer work.”
Shulevitz points out that a church that becomes too restrictive creates a situation in which the costs to an individual outweigh the rewards, and she astutely notes that “America, one of the few countries with no state religion and a truly open market in religion, should be home to so many varieties of fundamentalism and orthodoxy. The explosive growth of conservative Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and the slow decline of more genteel denominations such as Episcopalianism may well represent not the triumph of reactionary forces, but the natural outcome of religious competition.”
In describing churches as liberal or conservative, it is important to note, Shulevitz is talking about the level of commitment they expect from their members, not a political position.