It’s fairly common for a national government to explicitly favour one particular religion or sect. This support can take many forms – financial, political, or legal – but the common factor is that the dominant religion gets a helping hand from the state.
Now it probably wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that states inclined to interfere in religious expression are also more likely to place a controlling hand on political and civic freedoms, However, proving that relationship is not so straightforward.
Just defining “State Religion” is tricky enough. Several teams have created scorecards for country freedoms, but they disagree over the number of countries that have a state religion (somewhere between 48 and 75).
Even so, Steven Kettell at the University of Warwick in the UK, has pored over these statistics and come up with some interesting findings.
First off, he confirmed that countries with a state religion really do have substantially lower than average levels of political rights and civil liberties. This was chiefly down to countries with a Muslim majority, which are disproportionately likely to have fewer freedoms and also a state religion.
They also have higher levels of “social regulation” of religion – meaning that there are informal, unofficial barrier confronting other religions and favouring the state religion. They also have higher levels of religious persecution.
However, the striking thing was that, whereas general social and political freedoms were higher in nations with greater human development (a mix of wealth, health and education), there was no relationship between human development and the presence or absence of a state religion. There was also no connection to religious diversity or religiosity in general.
That lead Kettell to conclude that:
…the lower levels of freedom found in countries with state religions may have less to do with their particular socio-cultural conditions, and more to do with the institutional mechanics of state religions themselves. Given that the entire point and purpose of a state religion is to support the promotion of one particular religious perspective over other world-views, and given that this objective invariably involves the provision of various financial, legal and political privileges, it is not hard to see how these dynamics can lead to the curtailing of political and religious freedoms.
So, state religion and freedom: cause or effect?
The question matters, because religious protectionism is on the rise in the West. If such protectionism actually leads to other infringements of civil liberties, we could be in for a rough time.
Kettell, S. (2013). State Religion and Freedom: A Comparative Analysis Politics and Religion, 1-32 DOI: 10.1017/S1755048312000600