After Sohrab Ahmari criticized David French in The New Yorker last year, Google searches for integralism spiked (despite Ahmari rejecting the label), especially around Washington, DC, and its suburbs. The concept rejects liberal democracy and usually holds that the state should be subordinate to the Roman Catholic Church. Though not a theocracy, the government would protect and serve the church to guide men and women to their higher, eternal ends. Nailing down exactly how a government implements an integralist agenda can be tricky. As Andrew Walker notes, some integralist proponents just want “a public square more hospitable to religion,” while others want “a public square or government allied with ecclesiastical authority.” Depending on how one frames integralism, this idea can appear unappealing and foreign for many Protestants.

Yet other American Christians besides Catholic integralists also long for the state to use its power to privilege, support, promote, or otherwise serve their faith. Some do so because they complain about social decay, lower Christian practice, antagonism from the Democratic Party, competition from other faiths, or some other difficulty. A segment also explicitly or implicitly mourns the perceived loss of sacralization—or how religious symbols, rhetoric, and ritual once suffused politics, family life, and other aspects of society. They wish the state would not only protect their right to free exercise but also privilege their faith or hinder other faiths.

Wherever these desires to use the state to promote a church or faith come from, religious economy theory says such efforts would backfire if implemented. So using the state to serve a church should be undesirable for Christianity—assuming the church wishes to maximize the number of people with genuine faith.

Religious Economy Theory & Genuine Religion

Proponents of religious economy theory point to evidence suggesting that religious adherence decreases when a government actively promotes a church or hinders other beliefs.[i] Instead, religious practice increases when a religious free market exists—such as when citizens have reasonable free exercise rights, governments don’t establish a faith or help a church form a monopoly, new faiths or sects can develop relatively easily, taxes do not support clergy salaries or religious building maintenance (though tax-exemption for all faiths seems not to be a hindrance), or citizens can easily find religious communities.

The theory first developed in the early 1990s to describe why Americans attend worship services more regularly than Europeans,[ii] but Adam Smith hinted at the concept in The Wealth of Nations:

The teachers of new religions have always had a considerable advantage in attacking those ancient and established systems of which the clergy, reposing themselves upon their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervor of faith and devotion in the great body of the people.

Other Enlightenment figures recognized elements of the theory. While discussing John Locke’s philosophy at the Cato Institute in April 2019, Providence senior editor Joseph Loconte discussed how religious liberty increases genuine, uncoerced faith. In the subsequent report, he says, “The liberal democratic project helped to make possible the renewal of religious belief in the West.” Religious liberty does so by removing the “corrosive entanglement of church and state.” Following Locke’s arguments, Loconte elaborates:

So the father of political liberalism renewed our commitment to authentic Christianity, uncoerced Christianity, as the foundation for pluralistic society. For thinkers such as Locke, the problem wasn’t religion. The problem was the decline of genuine faith, a spiritual corruption aided and abetted by a culture of coercion… The liberal project, by insisting on the separation of church and state, offered the pathway toward religious renewal and to a more just and humane society.

Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Loconte then demonstrates how religious practice in liberal America was higher than in repressive Europe: “In America one sees one of the freest and most enlightened people in the world equally fulfill all the external duties of religion.”  Loconte therefore concludes that Lockean liberalism “helped the West to recover its Christian conscience.”

Modern Religious Economy Theory

The modern theory that religious liberty increases genuine, uncoerced faith and religious practice initially appears counterintuitive. If religious leaders want to increase church attendance and membership, the most straightforward option is to force people to join the church, promote the church’s interests, or deter people from joining other faiths. This strategy backfires. While people may officially join the privileged church or avoid other faiths, fewer people practice the faith regularly or believe its tenets. In other words, they may be baptized, go to church on Christmas and Easter, get married in a church, or reject “Happy Holidays” in favor of “Merry Christmas,” but many are nominally Christian. In Christian parlance, they don’t follow Christ.

Proponents of religious economy theory—like Rodney Stark, Laurence R. Iannaccone, and Roger Finke—tried to explain why Americans were more likely to practice their religion than Europeans, or better yet, why irreligious Europeans were so different from the rest of the world. They show that Europe appears “secularized” not because Europeans don’t demand religion or enlightened people become atheists, but because the supply of religion is so unappealing—or only appealing to a portion of society. Here regulations restricted the supply of religion for centuries, such as in Italy where government-owned television stations broadcasted hours of Catholic programs weekly but only a few minutes of Protestant content, or in Sweden where the state employed and corralled Lutheran clergy, whose leaders were sometimes atheist or agnostic government servants. If a state removes restrictions on religion and stops supporting a privileged faith, the theory suggests overall religious practice will eventually increase, probably after a lag, whether from new faiths entering the market or from the once-privileged clergy finding new ways to attract active followers. As an example, Massimo Introvigne and Rodney Stark found that once Italy liberalized its religious market, various Catholic organizations vigorously responded to competition from other faiths, which led to an increase in Catholic practice between the 1980s to the 2000s. Later studies after sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests found religious practice in Italy declined. So overall religious practice ebbed and flowed and didn’t decline in a straight line, which indicates that secularization is not mankind’s inevitable fate.

Even if societies lift regulations that limit religious choices, they may not develop a truly free religious market. For instance, while laws may officially allow religious liberty or toleration, in practice government policies often restrict some faiths while still helping the traditional one. Moreover, many people who never practiced the entrenched religion will still resist new faiths until a new religion or denomination can make inroads into society. So while greater religious practice may eventually develop in Europe, including from Islam (assuming the religion develops an image distinct from the extremism seen recently in France), societies will likely change slowly. Such lags could last decades or longer. Stark and Iannaccone showed how religious practice in the United States did not reach its zenith until the twentieth century, even though many states began removing religious restrictions and disestablishing churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some respond that Europe proves educated, enlightened peoples evolve into atheist or agnostic societies because the continent was very religious before abandoning the faith. But evidence shows Europe has been un-Christian or slightly Christian for centuries, at least among the peasant masses. For instance, if most Europeans attended worship services regularly, their old churches should be much larger buildings. As Emmet Larkin demonstrates, if everyone in pre-famine Ireland attended mass weekly, Catholic churches would have needed to serve 1,500 people per service, assuming every priest conducted all the masses the British allowed. But only a handful of chapels in Ireland in 1840 could hold a thousand. Instead of reflecting small populations, tiny churches across the European landscape often reveal great indifference toward Christianity. By this light, the works of Robert Burns probably reflected most Europeans’ faith and mores better than the works of John Milton. Beyond the aristocrats and clergy, people may have been spiritual and believed in the supernatural, but many did not have a strictly biblical or Christian faith. According to some, their faith was even a mix of animism and Christianity. An illusion of universal piety exists because European rulers established and supported churches whose clergy prospered, not because the masses followed Christ.

An established faith can receive high attendance for a spell, such as in Ireland where attendance rose to 90 percent after the famine and the rise of Irish nationalism against British rule. When Stark and Iannaccone first promoted their theory that religious restrictions would decrease regular attendance, weekly church attendance in Ireland remained around 80 percent. Their theory suggested this number could fall—by 2006, 56 percent of Irish Catholics attended weekly services, and by 2011, 30 percent did (close to the estimated pre-famine norm). The sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church help explain the decline, but according to this theory, a free religious market should eventually encourage higher attendance. Stark also listed Poland, Malta, and Quebec as places where the church mobilized a population against external forces, so religious practice was higher than might otherwise be expected. Presumably, unless free religious markets develop in such places, religious practice may decline if the external threat dissipates, a scandal tarnishes the monopoly religion’s image, people who oppose a government or political party also oppose religions that support these rulers, or some other factor motivates people to reduce their religious activity.

Theory in Practice

How might this theory work not just in a textbook but in real life? As the Smith quote above alludes, one popular explanation says adherence decreases because clergy who rely upon state assistance don’t need to attract regular attendees to survive. If a new religion or denomination emerges or if a government stops protecting a privileged religion, the older churches struggle to adjust and lose members. Similarly, a government-protected business produces a poorer product or rarely innovates because customers have no other options. Then when competition emerges, those once-protected companies decline, such as when American car manufacturers initially struggled when Japanese companies began selling a product that didn’t break down while rolling off the lot.

This explanation can make clergy appear unfairly lazy. But then I noticed in America how congregations came together and how members’ faith developed while planting new churches. The endeavor is hard. Members finance new buildings and new ministries, sometimes giving out of their poverty. Often, volunteers must set up and break down a worship space every Sunday, which may be a school auditorium or gym Monday through Saturday. Through sacrifice their faith deepens, increasing the likelihood they continue worshiping, attract newcomers, and teach their children the faith. Cheap faith does not endure as well. In countries like France—where despite laïcité (French secularism) the state owns and partially maintains religious buildings built before 1905, which are overwhelmingly Catholic—many churches do not require the same vibrancy or faith-strengthening sacrifice to survive, even if their clergy aren’t “lazy.”

Other factors may contribute more. A society or government may restrict various faiths and privilege others, thus limiting religious choices. One dominant church or denomination could remain in a town, but its dated worship or bland preaching may only attract a small group. Other people who are open to religion but find the church unappealing have nowhere else to go. So sleeping in on Sunday mornings becomes more enticing. Even if these people say they nominally belong to a faith, they don’t practice it or hear its message. Their religious understanding often becomes superficial, incomplete, or based on stereotypes. They can then misunderstand the church’s positions on grace, forgiveness, love, judgment, salvation, faith, works, and so on. But if the supply of churches increases so that people can more easily find a faith or worship style they like—even if this occurs because a denomination creates plants with different worship styles and leaders—then the percentage of people who regularly attend services will increase.

This second explanation made sense to me after living in a medium-sized French town. Upon arriving, I tried attending Catholic churches near my apartment, but the doors were locked whenever I visited. After a couple of Sundays, I gave up because of the low and unappealing (or seemingly nonexistent) supply of religion. Subsequently, I learned that with so many church buildings in the area and relatively low attendance, Mass did not occur every week in every church. Yet no one was able or willing to explain where a newcomer could attend. Later, a Christian friend invited me to a small, vibrant, young, and multiethnic Pentecostal church in an unassuming building. The worship style was not my favorite, but it offered another option and increased the probability of me attending church. Nevertheless, I never found another church, and this town was the most religiously sterile place I’ve ever been to.[iii]

France is an interesting case here. The country has robust political laïcité that separates church and state, and an unofficial social laïcité discourages citizens from bringing any religion into the public square, even when legally permissible. Such official regulations famously include various restrictions of free exercise. For instance, during my teacher orientation, my employer warned me that while at the lycée (high school) teachers and students couldn’t display religious symbols, like jewelry with a cross or religious clothing like a hijab. Paradoxically, though, the state supports religious communities, such as by paying teacher salaries at private religious schools, most of which are Catholic. During François Mitterrand’s presidency, the socialists tried to change this practice, but after over a million people protested across the country in June 1984, the government abandoned the bill. Moreover, as previously mentioned, the state owns and maintains religious buildings built before 1905. Sometimes “République Française” is written over these buildings’ doors, and where I lived at least a couple of churches had this inscription. And though my lycée did not allow any public displays of religious affiliation, the cafeteria served fish every Friday as its only protein in a nod to Catholic practice. Considering controversies over some French schools serving halal food or pork alternatives for Muslim children, this practice surprised me. Therefore, even though the French widely accept laïcité, these cases—along with debates over laïcité positive, laws banning burqas, the rise of “Zombie Catholics” (once presumed dead, the faithful have returned), and public displays of faith from the likes of President Emmanuel Macron and former Prime Minister François Fillonall demonstrate how what laïcité means practically is evolving, and not necessarily toward complete secularization. Meanwhile, competition in France’s religious economy has appeared, as the Pentecostal church where I lived shows. But overall, factors like restrictions on free exercise, widespread resistance to new faiths, and tradition still hinder a fully free religious market in France.

For whatever reason a free religious market doesn’t fully exist in different European countries, the continent has a large number of non-practicing Christians. Across the region, this cohort is the largest religious group, outnumbering atheists, agnostics, and “nones” combined. In addition to accepting the label “Christian,” they have often been baptized and say they believe in a god and afterlife, but only 24 percent believe in the God of the Bible. Moreover, in my conversation with Tobias Cremer earlier this year, he noted how many European populists say they and their community are Christian because they have a church in their town instead of a mosque, even though they don’t believe Christian tenets. Cremer’s findings reminded me of a conversation I had while living in Europe. Over drinks in a bar, a friend told me, “I’m a Catholic, yes, but I’m also an atheist.” For him, his Catholicism was linked to his national and ethnic identity and distinguished him from his neighbors, but it did not reflect his religious beliefs. In places where people who claim a religious label without practicing the faith (or hearing their religion’s messages about grace, love, forgiveness, etc.) are more likely to participate in an ethnic conflict, this trend can be troubling. If the religious economy theory is right, an improvement in the supply of religion in Europe could change this dynamic and lead to more genuine religion overall. Likewise, if governments elsewhere privilege a religion, leading to a drop in religious practice, these policies may have unintended consequences.

Mourning the Death of Sacralization

While Christians who wish the state would support their faith more can have various motivations, I suspect a significant faction mourns the loss of sacralization in America and Europe, not the loss of genuine belief. Perhaps they fear cultural change. Or maybe they regret how Christian symbols and rhetoric no longer envelop society, even if in reality racism and other un-Christian elements filled their country and churches in the seemingly glorious past.

Nevertheless, sacralization isn’t worth saving, and it is likely better for the church if sacralization dissipates. Then the church can see its neighbors’ real faith and stop assuming they believe religious teachings because faith symbols dominate the public square. When the irreligious’ facade disappears, the church can adjust its evangelism to share its message better.

Mourning the loss of sacralization too much instead of embracing the opportunity to evangelize can expose what a Christian truly values: not neighbors, but symbols. Making the symbol more important verges upon idolatry. Most Christians who miss sacralization aren’t such idolaters, but some seem to love the symbols more than the God they represent.

For others, preserving sacralization isn’t about religion, but political power. So hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at Starbucks represents political decline. Again, many Christians don’t care what non-Christians say in the public square in December. But for some, anger toward this secularization (or de-sacralization) may reveal that they care more about baristas bowing to their power than baristas learning about the God born in Bethlehem.

Still other Christians see sacralization disappearing and can more clearly recognize the social rot that symbols and rhetoric concealed. Christians who believe in human depravity should understand that problems have always filled society and always will, even if the type of rot changes from generation to generation. Yet the rot beyond the church bothers me less than the rot within the church. As the motto of the poor parson in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales says, “If gold rust, what shall iron do?” Depravity within the church threatens its effectiveness and mission to the community. Lately this has meant sex and money scandals, and for years I have worried about racism in the church, especially after hearing blatantly racist comments from leaders and laypeople in churches I attended or visited.

But when scandals or rot consumes a church in America, believers can find another church or new religious leaders to follow because a free religious economy helps religion thrive. For Christians, damaging this religious economy should cause more fear than depravity beyond the church.

Please State, Don’t Privilege the Church

When reading how some Christians want the state to support, promote, protect, or serve their faith, I fear the consequences (not to mention how this likely violates the US Constitution) because ultimately government support doesn’t save religion, but decimates it. Based on the arguments above, I’d expect state interference would weaken the religious free market that strengthens Christianity in America, and decrease the number of people with genuine faith.

Moreover, if a government promotes or serves the faith, it may eventually force the faith to change and support the state’s agenda. Consider Sweden, where the state has long supported the official Lutheran faith, such as by paying clergy. When atheistic socialists gained power, they didn’t disestablish the Church of Sweden but coopted it. Members of parish boards and the church council were elected for their political convictions, not religious fidelity, so church leaders were often nonbelievers. As Stark and Iannaccone report, when the government appointed a commission to create a new Swedish translation of the New Testament that became part of the official Church of Sweden’s Bible, the text controversially diverted from biblical tradition to serve the state’s agenda. (The Chinese Communist Party is creating official religious texts that suit its purposes, too.) So if Christians want the government to support or protect their faith, politicians may eventually require the church to adjust its message or teachings, which won’t always be what devout Christians like.

Granted, the Presbyterian and Baptist churches I’ve attended taught that the church’s overall goal should be maximizing the number of people sincerely following Christ. If others believe society should coerce people to behave a certain way for their own good, regardless of what they believe in their hearts, then the calculus changes. Perhaps baptizing people, having citizens call themselves Christians, or having a sacralized society is sufficient for others, even if these nominally Christian people rarely if ever practice the faith. My tradition dreads how this could turn society into a whitewashed tomb, which looks beautiful outside but is full of dead bones.[iv]

In this light, using political power to privilege a church risks decimating the faith. If Christians want to maximize the number of people who follow Christ, instead of wishing the state would help, they should revel within a religious free market and compete for souls.

[i] I first came across religious economy theory while reading Rodney Stark’s Discovering God. Later while teaching political science courses as an adjunct professor in community colleges, the assigned textbook used the theory to explain religious practice in America. More recently, while reading Mark Royce’s The Political Theology of European Integration, an endnote cited several of the original articles that started the theory, many of which are cited in this article.

[ii] Pew shows 36 percent of Americans attend worship services weekly, compared to 12 percent in France, 8 percent in the United Kingdom, and 15 percent in Spain. Poland is a European outlier at 42 percent. In Western Europe, 71 percent say they are currently Christian, but only 22 percent attend services at least once a month. In Providence, H. David Baer warns about the “Europeanization” of American religion with religious practice declining. He suggests that, after the culture wars drove Christians into the Republican Party, secularization in the United States has increased because people who support Democrats or dislike Republicans increasingly reject churches that says they must vote Republican. If this is so, it can still fit into the overall religious economy theory and its notion that various factors can cause religious practice to increase and decrease.

[iii] In contrast to the French town in the countryside, the small Scottish town where I later lived had much greater religious diversity and higher religious practice, though I suspect this place was a special case. It may have had a greater diversity and concentration of churches because several denominations were trying to reach students in the university town. In more rural Scotland where I stayed often, churches were scarcer and mostly connected to the Church of Scotland, which is the national church but not a state church like the Church of England.

[iv] The argument in this report focus on practical and pragmatic considerations, but some Christians, including integralists, want a more biblical argument in favor of religious liberty. Other articles in Providence give more theological reasons for liberty. Some Christians have countered that Old Testament laws and some Christian traditions would reject religious liberty for non-Christians, but to this I’d say that my tradition interprets those laws as instructions for Israel before Christ, not the church today. I would add that Jesus in Matthew 10 told his disciples that if a home did not welcome their teaching, they should “leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” In this I see a scriptural justification for religious liberty.