Achieving the status of a government-backed religion usually creates a dependence on state political and financial support that erodes the ability of faith groups to attract new followers and foster participation, a new study has found.
“Further, the involvement of the state in the affairs of the favored religion — which often goes hand-in-hand with official status and fiscal support — runs the risk of stripping that institution of its theological distinctiveness and spiritual vitality by essentially turning it into a branch of government,” scholar Dan Koev reported in “The Influence of State Favoritism on Established Religions and their Competitors,” published by Cambridge University Press.
Koev, an associate professor and chair in government, history and criminal justice at Regent University in Virginia, analyzed the effect of government backing on religious traditions around the world from 1990 to 2010.
“My findings suggest that … religious institutions that receive favorable treatment from the state lose ground relative to those that do not,” he summarized.
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty described Koev’s research as especially relevant in an era when Christian nationalists seek to have their brand of conservative religion recognized as exclusively legitimate in the U.S.
“The results of this study confirm what many proponents of religious liberty have long held: that religious favoritism by the state does religion no favors,” BJC wrote on its website. “We don’t need data to recognize that when the state supports religion, either through the nudge of indirect funding or the pressures of government endorsement or the outright establishment of a state religion, the soul freedom necessary for a truly free act of faith is jeopardized.”
BJC added that the research makes it “increasingly clear on a large scale that state support of religion does not make the supported faith more attractive; if anything, state support enhances the allure of other faiths. As BJC has emphasized for decades, religion must be voluntary to have vitality. This data seems to show that, when placed on the pedestal of state favoritism, a faith’s vitality fades.”
Koev’s project analyzed 34 nations where a single faith or religious institution enjoys constitutional establishment and preferential access to government resources. Those included Muslim nations like Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, and Christian countries like Argentina, Denmark, Greece and the United Kingdom, among others.
“In only 10 (29.4%) of those states did the favored religion perform better than other religions in the state (i.e. it gained more adherents or lost fewer adherents) in the period 1990–2010. The remaining 24 states (70.6%) saw the relative decline of the favored religion.”
Examples of nations whose state-backed religions experienced net declines in affiliation included Lutheran Iceland at 11.58%, Muslim Bahrain at 14.47%, Buddhist Bhutan at 10.53% and Catholic Argentina at 6.21%.
In general, majority religions in countries without such governmental support fared better than those who enjoy state funding, Koev reported. “The analysis reveals some striking differences between states with and without policies favoring a single religion. In states with an established and preferentially funded religion, the dominant religion of the state declined as a share of population by 3.4%.”
In general, majority religions in countries without such governmental support fared better than those who enjoy state funding.
Religious groups that fell outside officially favored and funded recognition, however, often benefited from their outsider status in terms of adherents. The study found non-dominant faiths in those nations grew by nearly 27% on average, compared to only 12% growth in countries without a state-supported denomination or faith.
The most growth among non-dominant faiths occurred in Muslim Kuwait and Orthodox Christian Greece, where affiliation with minority religious groups increased by 197.03% and 146.38%, respectively. Other significant gains occurred in Iceland (94.62%), Lutheran Denmark (66.84%), and in Catholic Malta (27.98%). Non-dominant groups also grew in Buddhist Cambodia (22.81%) and in Muslim Maldives (49.29%).
Koev used economic metaphors to illustrate the positive and negative outcomes of government support for religion, explaining that “the weaknesses that state-backed favoritism engenders in the favored religion should create opportunities for other religious firms to step in and provide the types of religious products lacking on the market. Unless they are prohibited from doing so by overt government repression, alternative religious bodies should actually benefit from the vacuum in the market created by an increasingly hollow, complacent and inefficient church. In other words, if demand for religion holds fairly constant but the product offered by the dominant state religion is increasingly unattractive, other religious bodies should enjoy an opportunity for growth.”
The subsequent declines experienced by official state religions in part results from their inability to meet consumer demand, he said. “Thus, I proposed that preferential treatment will hurt the very institutions it is meant to support, creating the conditions for them to be displaced by rival religious organizations.”