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.
Why do authoritarian regimes bother to fund and support religion? 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: Authoritarian regimes fund religion because it’s cheaper to pay off religion than to squash it.
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.