Why do countries have a state religion? The answer perhaps lies with Adam Smith who, keeping market dynamics in mind, argued that having a state religion is to accord a monopoly position to a favoured religion, using the two omnipotent weapons that states use to enforce any policy: creating entry barriers and delivering subsidies. The result, he concluded, was that the quality of service and religious participation fall. Two centuries later, as Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary of Harvard observe in their paper, ‘Which Countries Have State Religions?’, of the “188 independent countries in 2000, 72 had no state religion in the years 2000, 1970, and 1900; 58 had a state religion at all three dates; and 58 had some kind of transition”. As we all know, economists have a nasty habit of breaking down things into a rational-incentive paradigm — people are rational and driven by incentives. Apply that to the study of religion and you’re studying morality from a factual prism, something like an ideal being clouded by facts. In the case of state religion, what’s more interesting is the issue of choice. According to the Harvard duo, this decision is based on a “political calculus that involves interactions between the Government and the religion sector”. The incentives: for the religion, monopoly power; for the state, control over the religious sector. There’s product differentiation too. As they note communist countries and dictatorships avoid state religion to weaken the power of organised groups that would compete with the state, but in theocracies like Iran, the maintenance of an official state religion becomes part of the government’s plan for controlling society.
Opinion in The Indian Express, June 30, 2006