Religion

New Study Suggests State Support Weakens Christianity

A view inside the Esztergom Cathedral in Esztergom, Hungary, April 14, 2021 (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
Official support for the religion tends to speed its decline, while the lack thereof speeds its growth.

A peer-reviewed study published this month in the academic journal Sociology of Religion finds a paradoxical correlation between the growth of Christianity on the one hand and the support given to it by the state on the other. As the study’s authors detail in a piece for Christianity Today, their “statistical analysis of a global sample of 166 countries from 2010 to 2020 [finds] that the most important determinant of Christian vitality is the extent to which governments give official support to Christianity through their laws and policies.” But, they say, the relationship between the two is the opposite of what Christians might expect: “As governmental support for Christianity increases, the number of Christians declines significantly. This relationship holds even when accounting for other factors that might be driving Christian growth rates, such as overall demographic trends.”

It turns out that Christianity spreads most successfully in countries with a legal commitment to religious pluralism and countries that actively discriminate against the Christian faith. In their piece for Christianity Today, the authors, Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda, provide a list of the nations in which Christianity is spreading at the quickest rate:

Top 10 Fastest-Growing Christian Populations

(Low/no official support for Christianity in bold)

1) Tanzania

2) Malawi

3) Zambia

4) Uganda

5) Rwanda

6) Madagascar

7) Liberia

8) Kenya

9) DR Congo

10) Angola

Many religious thinkers on the American right have expressed grave concern over the past decade about the decline of Christianity nationwide. Most of them seem to believe that the increasing indifference and/or hostility toward Christians and their values on the part of the federal government has been a cause, and not just a symptom, of Christianity’s decline. The small group of reactionary academics warming their hands around the fires of Catholic integralism, for instance, argue that the failure to marry the power of the church with the power of the state is, in fact, the main cause of the decline. But the list above would appear to suggest otherwise.

Those who favor a closer relationship between Christianity — or at least “Christian values” — and the state might reply to Saiya and Manchanda by pointing out that the countries listed above are in such a fundamentally different situation than Western nations that they don’t have much to tell us about the fate of Christianity in the West: These are pre-Christian countries undergoing mass evangelism, not post-Christian countries that were evangelized centuries ago and are falling away from the faith of their fathers. Perhaps then, the exercise of government power in defense of Christianity is necessary in the West to arrest the decline of an already-established faith?

This appears to be the view of thinkers such as Rod Dreher. Mr. Dreher has made the study of Christianity’s decline in the West his life’s work. He’s also written often of his admiration for the Orbán regime in Hungary, which aligns itself very self-consciously with a muscular, conservative Christianity and often uses state power to defend Hungary’s “Christian values.” He’s not the only prominent Christian thinker in the West to express sympathy for Orban’s Fidesz party, either: The British theologian John Milbank has argued that “we too readily accuse Poland and Hungary of authoritarianism. Liberals underrate the degree to which their leaders have to take a strong approach both to resist the residual power of corrupt ex-communist crony networks and to prevent their cultures being undermined by consumerism.” Given the Christian bona fides that these men and others like them attribute to Orbán and his party, it’s interesting to note just how quickly Christianity is declining in Hungary. Here, per Saiya and Manchanda, are the countries in which Christianity is shrinking at the fastest rate:

Top 10 Fastest-Declining Christian Populations

(Moderate/high [official] support for Christianity in bold)

1) Czech Republic

2) Bulgaria

3) Latvia

4) Estonia

5) Albania

6) Moldova

7) Serbia

8) Germany

9) Lithuania

10) Hungary

What are we to make of Hungary’s inclusion on the list?

Even without considering the nature of Christianity in and of itself, there are several possible explanations for the negative correlation between state support of Christianity and the growth of the faith. It’s long been known by economists, for instance, that government subsidies to industries or companies often make their recipients less dynamic and productive by reducing the need to compete for customers. Similarly, state sponsorship of or support for a given religion might tend to make that religion less competitive in the market of creeds than it would otherwise be.

It’s also true that a close alignment between Christianity and a given nation-state can often obscure the difference between the two. To say that Hungary is “officially Christian” is to create a semantic space in which it’s easy to mistakenly see being a Christian and being a Hungarian as the same thing. In this respect, it’s worth noting just how many of the countries on the second list above are officially Eastern Orthodox. In the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe, the intertwinement between church and state is so deep that it’s common for the religion itself to be referred to as “Russian Orthodoxy,” “Serbian Orthodoxy,” or “Romanian Orthodoxy.” In such an environment, Christianity might come to seem like nothing more than an accessory to one’s national identity, at which point the faith can easily be discarded as a relic of nationalism in an increasingly globalized world.

And, of course, there is the sense in which state support for Christianity binds the religion’s credibility to that of the government that claims to represent it.

Last year, I wrote about the consecration of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Moscow as the supreme example of this kind of “Christian nationalism.” In that piece, I argued that Christianity and political power are, or should be, as oil and water to one another:

The passion of Jesus Christ as presented in the four gospel accounts is the ultimate overthrow not only of the power of the Roman Empire or of Second-Temple Judaism, but of power itself. It destroys the idea at the heart of all the world’s great empires: that salvation for the human race is found at the tip of the sword, in the coercive exercise of one will over and against another. Christianity makes the willing and submissive execution of a criminal at the hands of the state the center of the universe. And it sees in His resurrection the founding of another country from which all coercion is excluded, of which all people are citizens, and upon whose claims on human conscience, action, and belief no earthly magistrate can infringe.

Christianity claims that the power of God is a power that excludes coercion. State power, by contrast, is nothing other than coercion. This is why the great Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev described the Kingdom of God as being characterized by “anarchy,” meaning the absence of domination. It should not surprise us that whenever Christian churches forsake the way of the cross for the way of the sword, their witness withers on the vine. It was with this kind of political apostasy in mind that Dostoevsky, the greatest of all Christian writers, lamented the kind of Christian who “has fallen for Satan’s third temptation,” embracing the idea “that Christ cannot reign without an earthly Kingdom.” All earthly states are, ultimately, destined to sink beneath the sands of time. Churches that anchor themselves to these states for salvation and survival are sure to sink along with them.

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