New study finds political privilege damages Christianity's growth

It’s not education and affluence that spell doom for Christianity, according to new, peer-reviewed sociology research. It’s political privilege.

The study, published in academic journal Sociology of Religion, found that as government support of Christianity increases, the number of Christians declines significantly.

In a statistical analysis of a global sample of 166 countries from 2010 to 2020, the study found that the most important determinant of Christian vitality is the extent to which governments give official support to Christianity through their laws and policies.

“Religious persecution … does not allow faith believers to become complacent”

The study’s authors, Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda, conclude that Christianity spreads most successfully in countries with a legal commitment to religious pluralism, and also in countries that actively discriminate against the Christian faith.

“Religious persecution … does not allow faith believers to become complacent,” the study’s authors write. But, in many contexts of persecution, the church has “defied the odds, not only continuing to exist, but in some cases, thriving. In these environments, believers turn to their faith as a source of strength, and this devotion attracts those outside the faith.”

The authors acknowledge that persecution can – and has – greatly damaged Christianity in some places, not least in places like modern-day Iraq, where the Christian population has been decimated. Where once there were as many as 1.4 million Christians in the country, fewer than 250,000 remain – an 80 per cent drop in less than two decades.

Yet across the border in Iran, where Open Doors has ranked the country as the eighth worst place in the world to be a Christian (Iraq is listed as No. 11), Christianity is experiencing startling growth, with some estimates of as many as a million Iranian believers.

In Afghanistan, where it is illegal to convert from Islam (and ranked No. 2 in the Open Doors list of most persecuted countries), the study’s authors say that the available evidence – while patchy – points to steady growth in the underground Afghani church.

The authors argue that the secularisation narrative is wrong: it is not that western countries have become more affluent and therefore less religious. Rather, the church in those western countries enjoyed widespread state support which led to complacency.

A state will usually favour the majority religion, “in an attempt to ensure political stability”, they write. This might look like funding from the state for religious purposes, special access to state institutions and exemptions from regulations imposed on minority religious groups.

In Russia, for example, the Russian state has extended numerous privileges to the Russian Orthodox Church – funding for sacred sites, access to state institutions and authonomy over its own affairs – while imposing restrictions on other religions. Those restrictions include denial of visas to foreign clergy, deportation of missionaries and withholding land rights.

However, political priviliege can also mean a lack of competition.

“The state-supported religion [can become] ‘lazy’, owing to the fact that state support has removed the incentive for religious producers to be responsive to religious consumers. Religious institutions attempting to curry the favor of the state become distracted from their sacred missions as they become engrossed in the things of Caesar rather than in the things of God in order to maintain their privileged stations.”

With political privilege, spiritual fervour dissipates.

The study does not touch on the Australian context. Professor Patrick Parkinson, chairperson of Freedom For Faith, an organisation that advocates for religious freedom, told Eternity that while the study was “interesting”, its conclusions could not be played out successfully in many places, including Australia.

“Australia has never had a ‘state church’. In places like England, or in Scandinavia, the early cradle of Christianity, you can certainly see the effects of an official state religion. In some of those places the government would actually collect taxes on behalf of the church! Australia has never had anything like that,” Parkinson said.

“We are a multicultural, pluralistic society. No one here is advocating for churches to have a more privileged position over other faiths.” Professor Patrick Parkinson

“We are much more like the United States in this regard,” he says.

However, he acknowledged that Christianity had a “culturally privileged position”, though he says that things like prayer in Parliament or an annual blessing on our courts of law are of examples of “ceremonial Christianity” that are merely perfunctory.

“We are a multicultural, pluralistic society. No one here is advocating for churches to have a more privileged position over other faiths.”

The National School Chaplaincy Program might be the closest thing to political privilege, says Parkinson. Even then, there is no requirement to be Christian but the program is serviced primarily by Christian organisations. Access to state institutions like schools, in the form of programs like scripture, is “faith neutral” says Parkinson – all religions are able to participate.

And yet, Christianity in Australia is declining. Only one in two Australians (52.1 per cent) self-identify as Christian. In 2011, that number was 61 per cent.

Parkinson says it’s not state sponsorship that’s the problem in this country. It’s a combination of post-modernism, individualism and the sexual revolution. And he finds it difficult to unravel these effects from the decline of Christianity elsewhere in the world – whether they have a history of politically privileged Christianity or not.

The study’s authors, writing for Christianity Todayobserved that the United States was also experiencing a decline in Christianity, despite having no official state religion.

“While the US, unlike its European counterparts, does not have official state support for religion, this does not mean that Christianity has not become entangled with the state. As Christianity has become increasingly intertwined with partisan politics, the US has been undergoing a simultaneous decades-long decline in religiosity,” they write.

“Conservative Christians initially became involved in politics in the 1970s as a way to fight against the erosion of “Christian values” in society and to “take America back for God.” … The intertwining of religion and politics in this way, however, has repelled people from Christianity who see the Christian faith as supporting a certain kind of politics they personally disagree with. As a result, politicised Christianity is able to appeal to an increasingly narrow group of individuals, even as it drives liberals and moderates away from the church.”

Speaking to Eternity, historian and theologian John Dickson questioned whether state sponsorship was always a bad thing. “I think there’s a difference between state ‘sponsorship’ and state ‘support’,” he says.

The first historical example that comes close to state-sponsored Christianity would be the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 AD. Though Dickson says Constantine didn’t make Christianity the state religion. “That’s a misconception,” he said.

“Constantine announced he was a Christian and ended the persecution of Christians. But he just granted the church the same freedoms as the pagans and philosophers had. It put Christianity on the same footing as everyone else. And that was a massive move.”

However, Dickson points to legislation that was clearly influenced by Constantine’s newfound Christian beliefs including a series of laws from 313 to 322 AD designed to get food and clothing to the poorest of the poor to prevent them from killing their babies because they couldn’t afford them.

“Exposing babies to the elements to kill them after they were born was very common,” Dickson said. “[With these laws] Constantine allowed imperial money to go to church programs that tried to stop this practice. The church was the only institution doing these types of social programs.”

“Viewed that way, state sponsorship isn’t such a bad thing, right?”

“Yes, Christians certainly became bullies when they got more and more power,” says John Dickson.

Dickson’s latest book Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History outlines much of this history.

Take Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century AD, several hundred years after Constantine. Justinian is considered a “second Constantine”. Dickson writes, “Whereas Constantine favoured Christianity in an official mood of toleration toward the old religions, Justinian did so with prejudice and severity.”

“Yes, Christians certainly became bullies when they got more and more power,” Dickson told Eternity. “Justinian was one of the biggest Christian bullies in world history.”

Justinian dismissed all pagan tutors from imperial universities. He introduced laws against blasphemy and effectively banned non-Christian religion.

“But he’s also the guy who ensured every city had a public hospital for the poor,” says Dickson. Justinian believed that charitable services like medical facilities should be available to everyone – not just the rich – as following the teachings of Christ.

“Just think of the laws that we have: public hospitals, foreign aid, childcare, elderly services … these only came into our society because Christians had significant political power.” – John Dickson

Dickson says that such changes in the Roman world – and that permeate our world still today – would never have come about if a ruler like Constantine had not become a Christian and ‘institutionalised’ the faith, supporting the Church’s activities with state funds.

“I’m quite conflicted about this. My theoretical preference is a pluralistic approach where government supports all religions equally. But I am well aware that [in history] where the church has had more real political sway, it has done enormous good – for the marginalised especially.

“Just think of the laws that we have: public hospitals, foreign aid, childcare, elderly services … these only came into our society because Christians had significant political power.”

The study’s authors write that “the politicisation of Christianity has served to do a great deal of harm to proselytisation efforts by encouraging apathy among Christians.”

“Even if that were true,” says Dickson, “It has overall been much better for the marginalised of society to have state-sponsored Christianity.”