The College of Cardinals met in conclave on Tuesday to begin the process of electing a new pope. The cardinals have been getting plenty of advice from American journalists.
The Catholic Church, they say, should open up the priesthood to women and allow priests to marry.
It should abandon its ban on contraception and endorse same-sex marriage. It should stop being so dogmatic about its dogmas.
As a non-Catholic, I don't presume to offer any advice. The church has managed to exist for nearly 2,000 without my counsel. But I do have some observations.
The journalists' advice is based on the premise that the church will lose members if it continues to adhere to what these journalists think are outmoded rules. And it risks antagonizing moderates who may admire its ritual and share some of its beliefs but want it to be more in line with contemporary thinking.
This resembles the advice journalists give to conservative (but not usually to liberal) politicians. You have to modify your beliefs to attract voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum.
Sometimes that advice is good; sometimes not. The assumptions behind it were validated by the defeat of Barry Goldwater but refuted by the victories of Ronald Reagan.
In the religious sphere, however, history soundly refutes the idea that watering down your beliefs strengthens your appeal and attracts new converts.
Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark tell the story in their book "The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy."
As they note, Americans inherited a free market in religion from our colonial beginnings.
The religious settlement following Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 maintained an established church, funded by taxpayers, but allowed for free religious practice by other Protestants and by Catholics and Jews, as well.
The religious marketplace was especially free in the North American colonies, whose founders included Anglicans, Calvinist Puritans, Roman Catholics and Dutch Reformers.
The Founding Fathers took note of this diversity. In the Constitution, they specified that there be no religious test for public office. In the Bill of Rights, they barred Congress from passing any law regarding an establishment of religion.
Note that they didn't bar states from having taxpayer-funded established churches. Massachusetts had one until 1833.
But churches and clergymen (and clergywomen) were free to compete for Americans' allegiance. And they did so vigorously, with interesting results.
One is that church membership rose enormously, from surprisingly low levels in the colonial period.
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