Free Markets

We have three ways of explaining the situation. Either Europe is following the natural path of secularization, from which the United States has deviated; or the United States represents a normal trajectory, while Europe is different; or else secularization theory itself is flawed. In explaining Europe's Exceptional Case, Grace Davie argues that Europeans have not so much accepted secularism en masse, but rather that their history has led them to see religious institutions almost as public utilities, to provide services as needed, rather than as in the United States, where believers see churches as voluntary associations demanding their support and participation.46

Even so, we must wonder why American and European trajectories should be so very different. Why would the United States be so conspicuously more actively religious than other nations, a fact noted by European observers since the earliest years of the Republic? In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that "there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." De Tocqueville found part of the difference in the role of church establishment: Europeans created formal links between church and state, linking religious practice to political loyalty, while Americans separated church and state. "In Europe," he noted, "Christianity has been intimately united to the powers of the earth. Those powers are now in decay, and it is, as it were, buried under their ruins. The living body of religion has been bound down to the dead corpse of superannuated polity; cut but the bonds that restrain it, and it will rise once more."47

In modified form, many contemporary observers still see weight in this argument, believing that American religion flourishes in a free market environment that contrasts to the monopolistic character of European churches. According to this view, religious practice is highest in competitive situations, and weakens under the force of monopoly. The larger and more varied the supply available to fickle consumers, the higher is the demand. Some European nations did and do grant particular churches official status and a preferred role in public life, so that even the most liberal nations of northern Europe pursue practices utterly puzzling to Americans, such as collecting a church tax. And in some of these nations, especially in Protestant northern Europe, the decline of the state church seems closely linked to the near-collapse of institutional Christianity.48

Denmark offers a classic case study of the dead hand of monopoly: 83 percent of the population are nominally affiliated with the Lutheran state church, the Folkekirke or People's Church, but only 1 percent or 2 percent attend with any regularity. Meanwhile, church resources are overwhelmingly devoted to the upkeep of historic buildings and virtually nothing to education or evangelism. Many argue that the church tax itself discourages religious participation, since payers feel that they have already done enough for their religion and feel no need to attend services. Nor does the church care particularly about the beliefs of its clergy, or at least that was the lesson of a recent scandal in which pastor Thorkild Grosboll kept his job after proclaiming his rejection of basically every Christian doctrine, including the existence of God and the Resurrection. In this instance at least, the state church monopoly looks like a recipe for the gradual uprooting of religious belief. One study of the church's role in Danish life is aptly titled The Distant Church, and the institution seems to recede further into the background with every passing year.49

Official monopoly, moreover, sometimes accompanies the active discouragement of rival churches that can provide alternative vehicles for those disenchanted with the official religious regime. Spain's Catholic Church long enforced its religious hegemony and made life difficult for Protestant rivals: under Franco, the official ideology, religious and political, was Nacionalcatolicismo. When Catholic practice declines, therefore, no other forms of Christianity are available to believers, who face the choice between official religion and no religion at all. In theory, at least, dissidents find secularism the only viable alternative.50

In other cases, though, we see the limitations of the free market argument. For one thing, the fact that a state church long succeeds in suppressing all rivals does not mean that such competitors cannot emerge quite successfully when that stranglehold is removed. Across Latin America, Catholic churches long exercised an official power quite comparable to their counterpart in Spain, yet this history has not prevented Pentecostal and evangelical churches from surging in popularity over the past thirty years. The question is not why Spaniards or Danes were unable to organize new churches beyond the establishment, but why they have not felt the need to do so. When we note that states with monopoly religions have low levels of religious observance, we should not confuse cause and consequence. Perhaps the religious monopoly just means that people have not felt the need to set up rival religious bodies.

In other European countries, too, religious establishment by no means implied monopoly, since granting legal privileges to one particular denomination does not mean that disaffected believers were not free to move to other denominations, or to create their own free market if they chose. In western Europe at least, it is some centuries since most states had the will or the ability to suppress religious dissidence outside the official establishment. In England or Wales, the established character of the Church of England meant that more radical Protestant groups such as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists labored under some legal difficulties, but these Nonconformist sects still managed to flourish. From perhaps 1840 through 1960, the sects substantially outnumbered the official church population in industrial regions of the country, where they probably represented the Christian mainstream. England and Wales long offered an example of a competitive free market quite as vibrant as that of the United States. During the late twentieth century, though, these Nonconformist or Free Churches experienced a collapse in numbers at least as dramatic as that of the Anglican establishment.51

Ireland offers a still clearer example of the chasm separating the legal fact of establishment from the creation of a working monopoly. From the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, the legally established church of Ireland was the Protestant Anglican body associated with the British Crown. Only in the 1860s did the government give up the shallow pretence that this body was anything other than an elite minority denomination massively outnumbered by the Catholic presence. In France, the obviously powerful Roman Catholic Church was not established, and at various times in the twentieth century it was in acute conflict with the secular regime.52

Elsewhere, we find strong evidence of thriving religious practice in countries where churches enjoy near-monopoly status. Ireland again offers a convincing example of a church near-monopoly on religious life, and as we have seen, for all its recent difficulties, the Catholic Church still maintains a hold over a large section of the population. In Poland too, a nonestablished church holds the loyalty of the overwhelming body of the people, and by any statistical measure, religious life flourishes. Consumers freely exercise their power of choice, but they do so by attending different churches or parishes of the one Catholic entity. Whether legally enforced or not, neither legal establishment nor monopoly status does much to explain the relative weakness of organized Christianity in much of modern Europe.

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