The Perks and Perils of Having a State-Run Church

Johnson and Koyama make an ambitious and original claim about the origins of religious toleration. In brief, certain big shocks to western European society made it difficult for states to base their legitimacy and social control on a pact with the church. In response they had to develop capacity and new instruments which freed them to tolerate religious freedom.


There is a lot to like about the argument. For one, it moves us beyond Charles Tilly’s politics-free notion that “war made states and states made war” and instead asks us to focus on the internal politics of control and the development of capacity. This move is long overdue, and it is exciting.

I have three big issues with the argument, however. First, imagine that it is correct that something sunders the pact between state and church and forces states to rule in different ways. Why does this mean they wish to allow, or promote, religious toleration? What is the mechanism exactly? Is it that once the state exits from its ruling pact with the church, it wants to foment religious competition to undermine the church and make sure that it is, if not a useful ally, at least submissive? I can see how the argument might allow for religious toleration to emerge, but I didn’t see why it happens. It seems possibly necessary, but not sufficient. At the moment the thesis seems to be more a new argument about state formation than one about religious toleration.

My second main issue is whether this argument really makes sense empirically, even in the European case. Take Britain. Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s, expropriated the monasteries, and created the Church of England, with him as the head. That doesn’t sound like a weakening of the state-church pact, it sounds like a nationalization of it. In fact, one would have thought that a Protestant church with the British king at the head of it would have been even more useful as a tool of legitimation and social control than a distant, and not so cooperative, Catholic Church. This moment did indeed coincide with a period of state formation, what Geoffrey Elton called the “Tudor Revolution in Government,” where something like state offices separate from Henry’s personal retainers begin to emerge. But was this due to the separation of state and church, or the latter’s indigenization? Roll on to the next century. If you wanted to pick an even more pivotal moment in British state formation it would be the Glorious Revolution. This led to the emergence of a bureaucratized fiscal system, including the creation of the Bank of England to manage the public debt and other measures. At the heart of 1688 was the overthrow of James II. How was that justified? The Bill of Rights put it like this:

it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom to be governed by a popish prince

No Catholics on the throne! Moreover, one clause of the Bill stated, “That subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable for their conditions and as allowed by law.” No arms for Catholics. The various Test Acts meant that no public servant in Britain, including members of Parliament, could be a Catholic. They were finally repealed in 1828. So the heyday of British state formation was accompanied by systematic and institutionalized discrimination against Catholics. Rather than vanish as a tool for legitimation, the British state created its own more pliable religion to accompany its rise.

Third, let’s think outside the European case and ask about the relationship between religion, religious toleration, and state formation elsewhere. There are cases which certainly resonate with the thesis of the book. Think of the Saudi state, the first version of which formed in the 1740s with the famous pact between Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It was a fusion of a nascent state with an expansionary jihadist religious ideology. The Saudi state remains very weak as a consequence of this pact; for example, the necessary commitment to Sharia and religious judges creates a huge amount of discretion and uncertainty in the legal system, with huge adverse economic consequences. If for some reason this pact was broken, the Sauds might indeed have to build a very different sort of state.

But perhaps the part of the world where powerful states have been most in evident, at least for their economic consequences in the past 70 years, is in East Asia. A plausible hypothesis about why the East Asian Miracle was possible was the legacy of bureaucracy which ultimately seems to come from Imperial China. But what has that got to do with religion? Not much I think. The usual story is that it is linked to Confucianism. Confucius said in the Analects, “promote those who are worthy and talented.” Confucianism also promoted a very different model of state-society relations which wasn’t primarily based on some religious sanctioning—even if the ruler had the “mandate of heaven.” Of more practical importance seems to be the notion that rulers maintain legitimacy by “sowing wealth amongst people,” or as President Xi recently emphasized, quoting Confucius,

He who rules by virtue is like the North Star. It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.

This was not a model based on participation. Confucius also observed, “When the Way prevails in the world, commoners do not debate matters of government.” So meritocracy, no accountability, all legitimized by benevolent rulers. Where is the church? Is there religious toleration in China? Certainly not, because this would promote a different set of loyalties other than those espoused by the ruling ideology. But the lack of religious toleration does not stem from a pact between the rulers, whether imperial or communist, and some organized church, for there is none.

What do I conclude from this? It’s a brilliant argument, and it might be right, though I have doubts as discussed above, but is it, if not Euro-centric, since Medina isn’t in Europe, at least maybe restricted to the domain which generated the great monotheistic religions? There is something about the way the relationship between Catholicism, Islam, and the state played out that seems to generate a particular set of interactions between religion and state. But it is not clear to me that this is true elsewhere in the world. Yet if that is so, it is difficult to disentangle this argument from a whole host of other things that makes this part of the world distinct.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Religion was central to premodern states. So why isn’t it central to the story of how modernity arose? Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that it should be. They argue that states with greater capacity — that is, stronger states — could enforce social rules that were neither personal nor based on religious identity, but that could at least potentially treat all religious believers fairly. Religion, they write, is a cheap source of legitimacy for weak states. Strong states can paradoxically offer more freedom, they argue.

Response Essays

  • James A. Robinson looks at how European states enjoy, or suffer from, a unique relationship to monotheistic religion. The early modern English state did not distance itself from religion as a source of state authority. Rather, it tried to make religion more tractable — while keeping the glow of its authority. Robinson extends his argument with examples from Saudi Arabia and China.

  • Hans Eicholz characterizes Johnson and Koyama’s theory of religious liberty as stadial — and thus as similar to theories expounded by Hegel and Marx. He finds it not so immediately objectionable, however, and he subjects it to a careful critique. He argues that it was not stateness per se that caused toleration to emerge, but rather competition among states, and among the institutions of state power, that brought them to seek the tangible advantages of legal toleration.

  • Dalibor Rohac agrees with the claim that stronger states and more effective protections of individual liberty tend to be found together. While state capacity can often be used for evil, the lack of state capacity is not the option to choose in preference to it. Rather we should understand federalism as an important missing piece of the puzzle because it gives individuals multiple levels of authority to resort to in the pursuit of justice.