Why authoritarian regimes support religion

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Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro

Jean-Baptiste Dodane

Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. Source: Jean-Baptiste Dodane. Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/27998473@N02/9629973934

Depending on how you measure it, the largest Catholic church building in the world isn’t St. Peters in Rome. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest church is Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire (video below). The impressive structure was built and paid for in the 1980s by the country’s authoritarian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The structure features the the largest stained glass window in the world. To placate other religions, Houphouët-Boigny also built the Grand Mosque and the Protestant Temple in his capital.

[tweetable]Why do authoritarian regimes bother to fund and support religion?[/tweetable] This is one of the many questions University of Washington political economist Tony Gill in an EconTalk podcast released today. The podcast is a great primer on how economists view religion and religious liberty.

During the interview, EconTalk host Russ Roberts asked Gill why authoritarian states would tolerate churches and other religious groups whose moral authority could compete against the regime’s claim to legitimacy. Gill’s response in a nutshell: [tweetable]Authoritarian regimes fund religion because it’s cheaper to pay off religion than to squash it.[/tweetable]

Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro

Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. Source: Jean-Baptiste Dodane. Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/27998473@N02/9629973934

Here’s a snippet from the full interview (it’s worth listening to the full hour podcast here).

Gill: …[churches and other religious movements] are able to mobilize people, to get people to act upon their beliefs. And this becomes a big threat to political rulers. So, [religion] is another source of authority; they have a set of rules and behavioral norms that they adhere to.

“And if this is used against us,” [the rulers might say] “well that could threaten our number one priority which is to get up tomorrow morning and make sure that we’re still in office.”

And so from that regard, rulers are very interested:

“Okay, if we can co-opt the power of this religious organization we’ll go ahead and do it. We’ll keep out your competitors. We’ll keep funding you. If you need funding, that’s great.  Just give us ideological legitimation and/or you keep your people from organizing and rebelling against us.”

Russ: That’s a great point. It really is–if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And joining ’em can be cheaper than beating ’em. That’s a great way to think about it.

Gill: Exactly…if there’s ever a change in leadership it would seem that the rational strategy would just be: go to the Church and renegotiate the deal, saying, “Here it is: the old rulers–we put them in prison or hung them, and we’re the new ones in charge, so we’ll keep away your competitors and keep funding you.”

The question though is: to what extent the church can offer a credible commitment in supporting that regime?

And in the case of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was so tied to the Czars that folks like Lenin (with a very rapid change in leadership) would say, “well, I don’t know if we trust you folks. And so it was just easier to crush them.”

What is interesting though is that Stalin…falls into this trap, too, of supporting this church-state bargain, because as WWII starts to roll around and he’s saying, “I’m worried about the Germans off there to our west, and we need to rally the Russians for nationalism.” He turned to the Russian Orthodox Church, “Listen, guys, sorry about all the killing of your clergy, but we need to support you now; we’ll pay you for your clergy,” And they basically set up a modus vivendi (a political agreement to accommodate each other).

[This worked] with the Chinese government as well. The rapid revolutionary change: anything from the ancient regime we have to get rid of rapidly and so we crush all possible forms of dissent. But over time you say, well, I guess we couldn’t really crush this religion, so let’s start to try to deal with this. And you see this in the late 1970s or early 1980s; Deng Xiaoping says, “You want to have religion, we’ll give you an official religion.”…they have some consortium of Christian churches which is officially recognized, and it’s a pretty tame church, and they let that exist. There are also these other groups that are unofficial that they tolerate so long as they don’t pose a threat to the survival of the regime.


  • Earold Gunter

    Good article. It brought to mind one of my favorite quotes, so I thought I’d share.

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. ~Seneca the Younger

  • Chris Boeman

    So if it’s true that authoritarian regimes support religion then why did the Soviet Union essentially close all its churches and synagogues and pursue a policy that was militantly anti-religious and pro-atheist? Was the Soviet Union not authoritarian?

  • Larry

    Because it was associated with threats to the regime. The Orthodox Church and Monarchist forces were closely allied in the Russian Civil War. You ignore the role the church had in supporting the authoritarian regime the Soviets replaced. Anti-clerical feelings are usually present when religion is tied closely to a previous authoritarian regime.

    Stalin had ZERO problems bringing them back when it was convenient to do so during the German invasion of the USSR. Especially when it served the state. So the relationship between authoritarianism and religion is usually a matter of give and take. What is the threat/benefit of the other.

    Of course there are plenty of authoritarian states which operated with cooperation of churches. Nazi Germany had enlisted the support of Catholic and Lutheran churches in the regime. “Gott Mitt Uns” (God is with us) was emblazoned on every soldier’s belt buckle.

    Franco’s Spain was created with help of the Spanish Catholic Church. The government worked closely with the church to human rights and to overlook the mass murder of tens of thousands of people, over the course of 30 years.

  • Gill is the expert on this. Here’s his explanation in a nutshell:

    When Lenin and his regime took over, it went against the Church because of its alignment with the Czar. A few changes in leadership in both the state and the church, and a new arrangement could be negotiated (to use economics language). This is when Stalin worked with the Church. There would be no incentive, however, for Stalin or other Soviet leaders to allow competition from minority religions (Christian sects or other religions) because it needed legitimacy; it wasn’t interested in freedom of religion.

    There are plenty of other examples. Larry mentioned two. In today’s world, think of states like Saudi Arabia or Yemen for close church(mosque?)/state partnerships, China (official religion but not house churches), or many regimes in sub-Saharan Africa whose leaders have the support of churches.

    Final point: like any theory, it doesn’t predict every case perfectly. That said, it does explain a lot.

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