Does Establishment Lead to Decline?

I hope our readers are following tonight’s very interesting debate – no, not that debate, though you can watch the presidential candidates, too, if you like — between Barak Richman and Dan Crane on the application of antitrust laws to religious organizations. I just want to respond to one point Dan made in his post this evening. Dan points out that monopolies are bad for religion itself: contrast the moribund established churches of Europe with the thriving churches of the free-wheeling American religious marketplace.

This is a venerable argument that, in the US, goes back at least as far as Madison’s Remonstrance. And there’s evidence to back it up. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the evidence is not as one-sided as we may think. True, establishment can lead to a lazy, self-satisfied clericalism that corrodes a church from within, and a free religious market can lead to competitive, vibrant denominations. But France provides a counterexample. Church and state have been strictly separated in France since at least 1905, and the religious market in France is not exactly thriving. Many factors other than a church’s monopoly status — underlying cultural and ideological trends, for example — can factor in its decline as well.

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2 responses to “Does Establishment Lead to Decline?

  1. Maybe a different but related point is that the unregulated marketplace of disestablished religion may strengthen certain kinds of religious belief and experience which Americans are already culturally predisposed to think well of, while (further) weakening those which Americans are generally culturally predisposed to reject. That is, culture precedes law and is reinforced by it, and not the other way around.

  2. I don’t really understand how France is a counterpoint to the idea that a monopolistic position is bad for a religious movement. The point, it seems to me, is that a monopolistic position will tend to result in a lazy, self-satisfied clergy. This will, in turn, result in people who are interested in religion becoming, on the whole, less interested in religion. Of course, if the general populace is uninterested in religion, then religion will languish. If the populace is uninterested in a particular religion for reasons having to do with its core theology, then a “competitive religious market” will not help it.

    That is to say, a competitive market between religion and secularism, and amongst various religions, can only give an incentive to religious movements to compete; it cannot guarantee their victory, or even their survival.

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