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Cult apologists and Christian Right

Luigi Corvaglia

The Theory of Religious Economy

Rodney Stark is an American know-it-all scientist who vehemently advocates Darwinism in all fields except the one that is its own, biology (in his opinion, evolution is an invention to discredit religion) [1].

This is how blogger Miguel Martinez sums up this character. An effective and keen synthesis that's enriched in the following lines:

Rodney Stark's main concern is to justify neoliberalism theologically, as is evident from the triumphant title of one of his books, The Victory of Reason. How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. A concept we might translate as, "If they foreclose on your house, it's because Jesus wanted it that way" [2].

The author is witty and shows very well the conditions under which the "American know-it-all" works. However, to say that Stark merely "justifies neoliberalism theologically" falls short; in fact, his main concern is to justify theology on "neoliberal" grounds. We should proceed in order. We can say it better. Rodney Stark can be considered the founder of the theory of religious economy. This is the notion that the religious is a "market' equal in all respects to the commodity market. As in all markets, different consumers buy goods, which in this case are the "religious goods" (the various creeds) of competing religious enterprises (the more or less organized religions) [3]. Consistent with this paradigm, the theory states that.

as in any other market for material or symbolic goods, and contrary to what some theorists of secularization think - also in (institutional) religion competition is good for the market and within certain limits supply feeds demand [4]

As evidence of this, authors working in the wake of this mercantilist conception point out that.

The countries with the greatest religious pluralism - that's, with the greatest competition among religious enterprises - such as the United States (...), are also the countries where the total number of religious practitioners remains stable or increases [5].


Where, on the other hand, the state obstructs religious pluralism and, in particular, opposes the entry into the market of new entities branded as "cults" or enemies of national identity, there-as in France and Russia-the number of religious practitioners generally declines spectacularly [6].

In other words, the conclusion is "more market and less state," according to the classic Lassiz-Faire paradigm. This position is based on two premises and an implicit assumption. The first presupposition is that the increase in the number of people practicing religions is a positive and desirable fact; the second presupposition is that the "consumer," the actor who makes his choice in the market of religions, is "rational" and knows what he's buying, in short, that this person is the homo oeconomicus imagined by neoclassical economics, who tends to maximize his own utility; the implicit assumption of the theory is that the various religious "firms" compete with each other and try to satisfy the buyers they compete for better than the others.

The consequences are manifold. If the basic assumptions are accepted, it follows that there's a need for strong "deregulation" of the religious market. Stark and Iannaccone write:

To the extent that a religious economy is competitive and pluralistic, overall levels of religious participation will tend to be high. On the contrary, to the extent that the religious economy is monopolized by one or two state-supported enterprises, participation tends to be low [7].

In short, it appears that the enemy of the religious market, as with any other market, is the state; for it's natural for state institutions to favor monopolies to the detriment of free competition and to brand new potential competitors as "sects" or destructive cults. The attraction that the Theory of Religious Economy has for some cult apologists is obviously due to this ideological notion, which relabels criticism of abusive cults as an attempt to suppress the free market in favor of monopolistic religions protected by a planning state that seeks to protect them from competition. The implication, then, is that anti-cult activism is interested work carried out by people who're somehow connected to the state and/or the religious apparatus. In other words, the conspiratorial idea that's already part of relativist and postmodern apologetics reappears in a discrete form. Of course, only the large organized religions can claim a monopoly, certainly not the secular states of the West, whose founding value is precisely secularism. Nevertheless, the anti-cult movement has no relation to institutional religions, to the point of being accused of "secularism"...

The profane reader of the religious economics, however, is still unsatisfied with the curiosity of how the various religions can compete with each other to satisfy customers better than their competitors.The answer is simple: the religions that satisfy customers the most are the most demanding and restrictive. One of the proponents of this mercantile view is Massimo Introvigne, president of CESNUR, the best example of what I call the differentialist apologists. He places great emphasis on this aspect of competitors improving the quality of the offer. He writes, for example:

... there is a kind of Darwinian struggle even in the religious field. The most demanding religious proposals tend to prevail: among Jews, the Orthodox, in Islam the fundamentalists, and among Catholics, the most rigid movements and congregations [8].

Competition would select the faiths that are more rigid and strict in demanding adherence, in short, the more integralist and fundamentalist versions. Competition, then, selects the fundamentalisms. The more neutral term used by these authors is "strict." This selection of extremist versions can be explained by the phenomenon of free riders who literally "travel cheap." Those who want to enjoy the benefits of a collective enterprise, but don't want to bear the costs, travel without a ticket. In the religious realm, the collective enterprise is a church or faith community. An organization can tolerate a few free riders, i.e., uncommitted members, but not too many. Introvigne writes:

In the realm of religions, the less strict and rigorous organizations, which charge low admission fees and unobtrusively check that members have paid their admission ticket, i.e., that they're sufficiently committed, take on board such a high number of free riders that they offer their faithful a diluted and unsatisfying religious experience, (...) The more rigorous organizations charge a more expensive admission ticket and check that everyone pays for it: In this way, they allow fewer free riders, and the symbolic goods of a group where there are no free riders are usually perceived as more satisfying by consumers [9].

One concludes that the outcome of this beneficial competition between religions is an increase in religious zeal and commitment, i.e., an increase in what's most hostile to competition (in this case, other commitments and zeal). This competition feeds the monopolistic claims of fundamentalisms, which are by definition incompatible. A free market that generates hostility to the free market! This is an incompatibility that cannot be reconciled and cannot harmonize in an ecumenism precisely because of the rigidity chosen by the market.

In conclusion, any representative of a conservative spiritual vision who wanted to strengthen it would have to work to ensure the continued existence of all other faiths on the market and to defend even the most controversial spiritual groups (e.g. Scientology) with all their might. This would have the double effect of strengthening his own incontrovertible "truth" and at the same time - paradoxically - becoming a defender of religious freedom.

Defending the indefensible: the crypto-paleolibertarianism of apologists

Murray Rothbard

This free market, with its less than liberal results, is very reminiscent of the "paleolibertarian" strain of a doctrine known as anarcho-capitalism. Anarcho-capitalism or libertarianism is one of the directions of contemporary political and legal philosophy that proposes the abolition of the state and replaces it with market relations. The main intellectual reference for anarcho-capitalism is the economist Murray Rothbard [10], who in the 1960s proposed a political theory that focused on the inviolable sovereignty of the individual. Based on the axiom of non-aggression [11], an ethical principle of natural law that states that it's not legitimate to attack the person and property of an individual, all forms of taxation that constitute a theft of individual property and all coercive measures by the state, which is seen as inherently authoritarian, should be abolished. In this society, every service would be provided by private individuals on a voluntary basis. A less extreme version is called mini-archism, and its proponents want to maintain a "minimal state" whose only function is to legitimize the protection of individuals from aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud. Both versions agree on the central idea that the state wouldn't be authorized to use its monopoly to interfere with free transactions between individuals. Every transaction between individuals is a "market" transaction, even those that cannot be monetized in a concrete sense, such as the choice of friends or partners, because they're based on incentives and disincentives, on costs and benefits. Freedom and economic prosperity can therefore only be guaranteed by universal laissez-faire, in the economy as in any other sphere. The state, even minimalist mini-archism, therefore has no right to interfere in individual choices such as sexual orientation, drug use, lifestyle, and religious affiliation.

When using European political categories, American libertarianism is usually considered "right-wing" in economic terms and "left-wing" in rights terms because of its radical advocacy of individual liberties. However, many of those who held this view were culturally conservative and considered total freedom in the area of personal choices to be libertine excess. Therefore, in 1990, an article by Lew Rockwell [12] gave rise to a conservative current called "paleolibertarianism" which traces its origins to the old American paleoconservative right of Ludwig von Mises and Albert J. Nock. What distinguishes it from classical anarcho-capitalism, especially in its "left" version, is the strong defense of traditional values and customs, especially those associated with Christian morality. This creates a correspondence with the European criteria of the "right", since paleolibertarianism combines economic conservatism and cultural conservatism. This current is historically associated with the Von Mises Institute, an academic organization that sponsors hundreds of conferences and meetings to combat etatism and promote conservative moral values. Von Mises, the Austrian economist to whom the institute is dedicated, based his praxeology (the science of human action) on the assumption that "human action is always rational." [13]

The results of this logic may seem confusing to advocates of market libertarianism. In a classic of anarcho-capitalist thought entitled Defending the Indefensible [14], Walter Block goes so far as to exonerate and justify behavior deemed reprehensible on the basis of the individual's free and consensual choice. "The 'blackmailer,' the 'filthy male chauvinist,' the 'employer of minors,' the 'garbage distributor,' the 'loan shark,' the 'homeless man,' the 'corrupt policeman,' even the 'person who yells 'fire' in a crowded club,' and other unsympathetic figures are defended on the basis of the principle of nonaggression. To give an example of the otherwise brilliant argumentative style that characterizes this provocative book, this excerpt from the speech in favor of the blackmailer is worthwhile:

What exactly is blackmail? Blackmail is the offer of trade. It is the offer to trade something, usually silence, for some other good, usually money. If the offer of the trade is accepted, the blackmailer then maintains his silence and the blackmailed pays the agreed-upon price. If the blackmail offer is rejected, the blackmailer may exercise his rights of free speech and publicize the secret. There is nothing amiss here. All that is happening is that an offer to maintain silence is being made. If the offer is rejected, the blackmailer does no more than exercise his right of free speech.The sole difference between a gossip and a blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking — for a price. [15].

Among the 28 figures that benefit from Block's defense, the one of "guru" or "leader of a coercive group" is missing, but it can be argued with reasonable certainty that the arguments used would be based on the principle of non-aggression and on free intercourse between individuals. Moreover, it's the same defense that Block voices with respect to the "capitalist pig exploiter of labor." These arguments overlap with those of cult apologists of all kinds, who're generally also extremely pro-free market.

Press reports on slave auction run by Father Sirico

The connections and sometimes the overlaps between the characters and institutions of the various environments considered here, i.e., the conservative Christian environment, that of promoting aggressive economic laissez-faire, and that of the cults, are consistent, even if little known. Suffice it to look at the Acton Institute [16], an American think tank with a Christian and ultra-lassez-faire matrix founded by Robert Sirico and Amway. Sirico is a Catholic priest with a background as an evangelical Pentecostal pastor and founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, a church that advocates for the rights of homosexual believers. At the age of 19, he joined the Jesus People Army, founded by Linda Meissner, which later merged into the Children of God. The Jesus People Army, like the Children of God, emerged in the context of the hippie Christian revival movement, which grew out of the counterculture and mysticism of the 1960s. In 1976, Sirico was arrested after a police raid on a Hollywood club equipped with rooms with leather ropes and iron chains where an auction of young nude male slaves was taking place [17]. Charges against Sirico, who was the organizer of the event and the financial beneficiary of the auction, were dropped because it turned out that the slaves were all consenting adults who were members of a sadomasochistic organization called the Leather Fraternity. Sirico joined the libertarian ideology in 1977 and became a spokesman for Libertarians for Gay Rights. He later converted to Catholicism and paleolibertarianism. He was subsequently ordained to the priesthood. In 1990, he co- founded the Acton Institute with Betsy DeVos, from the family that owns Amway. The latter organization and others associated with it fund the Acton Institute, which, incidentally, is located in the same city as Amway, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Amway is a multinational multi-level marketing (MLM) company that sells various soaps and detergents and whose executives are evangelical activists closely associated with the American economic, political and military right who claim to speak directly to God. According to many scholars, MLM organizations are themselves cults, though not religious ones, based on the Ponzi scheme [18]

Relations between the DeVos family and foundations and organisations of the American Christian Right

This multinational Ponzi scheme, in turn, is part of a vast network of Christian free-market organizations called the Atlas Network [19], controlled by the Atlas Institute, which explicitly refers to the thought of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was a thinker who extolled the virtues of selfishness and capitalism, and author of the "superhumanist" novel Atlas Shrugged [20], hence the name of the Institute. Ayn Rand is a source of inspiration for much of miniarchist thought. However, many don't recognize themselves in her absolute lack of mercy and charity toward others. In fact, Rand considered altruism to be "immoral." Unchristianly, the leading figure in the galaxy of these Christian associations believed that it was unjust and immoral to sacrifice oneself for others [21]. It's interesting to know that Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, declared that his Satanism was "just the philosophy of Ayn Rand with added ceremonies and rituals" [22].

At this point it's particularly interesting to return to and reflect on a biographical episode in Sirico's life, namely the slave auction. For voluntary slavery is a topic that serves as a good metaphor for the situation of the followers of coercive cults and is also one of the most discussed topics in the libertarian world. Paleolibertarian Walter Block, for example, defends so-called "slave contracts" as the result of private ownership of one's own body rather than imposed voluntary choices [23]. For Rothbard, on the other hand, the will, that's, control over one's own body and mind, is a structural and immutable fact of human nature and therefore inalienable [24].

"There is no such thing as an 'involuntary relationship' for the female slave whose owner is a pimp. In her slave contract, she has already alienated her body for these sexual services. "W. Block

In this framework, the theory of Religious Economy fits perfectly, because it corresponds to a forma mentis that's mercantilist and Christianist (a neologism that denotes the use of Christianity for political purposes). At the very least, the convergence of religious economics and paleolibertarian theorists on common goals that represent areas of ideological overlap for the two groups that we could only euphemistically call extensive is natural. It's no accident that the Acton Institute calls itself the "Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty." The two aspects are brought together in one. For this reason, we see that the same people keep meeting in the two contexts.

For example, in Italy in 2001, Robert Sirico was among the signatories of a manifesto in favor of capitalist globalization, along with Michael Novak, the leading theorist of the Theocons, and a large part of the board of Alleanza Cattolica, the traditionalist organization whose main Italian disseminator of the theory of Religious Economy, Massimo Introvigne, was "Reggente Vicario" [25].

The embrace that becomes an inextricable tangle between the market without controls and the defense of "religious freedom" allows some reflections. Among the latter is the clear recognition that the constant denial of thought manipulation by a certain group of scholars of the "New Religious Movements" isn't a real denial of its existence, but rather a form of "anti-prohibitionism" based on libertarian thought. This would be consistent with the tenets of leftist anarcho-capitalism, but the paleolibertarian vulgate that seems to unite most of the cult apologists is characterized by a conservatism and such disregard for alternative lifestyles that defending the sole right to join a religious group seems truly inconsistent.


[1] Martinez, M., Fiamma Nirenstein, Rodney Stark e due enigmi da risolvere, Kelebek Blog, 21 Ottobre 2010 (

[2] Ibidem

[3] Stark, R., La Vittoria della ragione: Come il cristianesimo ha prodotto libertà, progresso e ricchezza; traduzione di Gabriella Tonoli, Torino, Lindau, 2006 (Ed. It.)

[4] Introvigne, M., Mercato religioso, fondamentalismo e conservatorismo islamico: il caso della Turchia, La Critica Sociologica, 152, 10 Febbraio 2005, pp. 43-56, p. 43

[5] Ibidem

[6] Ibidem

[7]Stark, R., Iannaccone, L.R., A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularization” of Europe, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 230-252, Settembre 1994, p. 233

[8] Beretta, R., Contrordine: non siamo più atei. Intervista con Massimo Introvigne, Avvenire, 8 Ottobre 2003

[9] Introvigne, M., Mercato religioso, fondamentalismo e conservatorismo islamico: il caso della Turchia, La Critica Sociologica, n. 152, inverno 2004-2005 [10 febbraio 2005)], pp. 43-56, p. 43

[10] Rothbard, M., L’etica della libertà, Liberilibri, Macerata, 1996 (Ed.It)

[11] Barnet, P., The Non-Aggression Priciple, Americanly Yours, 14 Aprile 2011 (

[12] Rockwell, L. H., The Case for Paleo-libertarianism, Liberty, Gennaio 1990, 34-38

[13] Mises, L., L’azione umana. Trattato di economia, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli, 2016 (Ed.It.)

[14] Block, W., Difendere l’indifendibile, Liberilibri, Macerata, 1995 (Ed.It)

[15] Ivi, p. 34

[16] Sito ufficiale:

[17] Engel, R., “The Sirico Brief” makes news again - controversial priest to address Catholic men’s conference,, 12 Aprile 2012 (

[18] Morelli, G., Schema Ponzi: Cos’è e come funziona la Truffa del Secolo. Esempi e Tecniche,, 1 Giugno 2019 (

[19] Page dedicated to Acton Institute on the official website of the Atlas Network:

[20] Rand, A., Atlas Shrugged, Random House, New York, 1957

[21] Rand, A., Le virtù dell’egoismo, Liberilibri, Macerata, 1999 (Ed.It.)

[22] Lewis, James L. (2001a). "Who Serves Satan? A Demographic and Ideological Profile"(PDF). Marburg Journal of Religion. 6 (2): 1–25.

[23] Block, W., Toward a Libertarian Theory of Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Kinsella, Gordon, and Epstein, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 30 Luglio 2014

[24] In Vernaglione, P., Il libertarismo. La teoria, gli autori, le politiche, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli, p. 28

[25] Martinez, M., Il Manifesto dei Cristianisti, Kelebekler, 1 Dicembre 2002 (

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