Economic Growth and the Separation of Church and State: The French Case

By Franck, Raphael | Economic Inquiry, October 2010 | Go to article overview
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Economic Growth and the Separation of Church and State: The French Case

Franck, Raphael, Economic Inquiry


Historically, the decision to establish or forsake a state religion was seldom democratic. It resulted from the political leaders' willingness to consolidate their hold on power and did not reflect the people's attitudes toward a state religion. Even in a democracy like the United States, the separation of Church and State did not result from a popular vote but was derived from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and subsequently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court.

France is actually one of the few countries where citizens had a say in the separation between Church and State. In 1905, the democratically elected French representatives adopted a bill that separated religion from the State. The bill abolished the Concordat, which had been instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801 so as to govern the relationship between the French State and the Roman Catholic Church. Under this arrangement, the members of the Catholic clergy were paid by the French State, which in return had a say in their appointment. The 1905 bill ended state subsidies for the Church but also governmental interventions in the appointment of the Church's personnel.

The passing of the 1905 bill illustrates the progressive rejection of the Church in French politics. It occurred at a time when France remained an agricultural country, even though a growing share of the population worked in industrial activities. In addition, because primary education had been made compulsory in 1881 for both boys and girls, illiteracy was decreasing. Nevertheless, there remained many disparities between the different French departements. (1) For instance, the share of the French army's conscripts who were illiterate substantially varied between the different departements, from 0.32% in Haute Savoie to 16.89% in Morbihan.

In the academic literature, economists have shown that religious laws have consequences on economic growth and human capital, for example, Kuran (2003), Botticini and Eckstein (2005), Hillman (2007), but they still debate the causal relationship between a nation's actual degree of religious observance and economic development. There are indeed two major theories of religiosity: the religion-market model and the secularization hypothesis. The religion-market model, developed by Iannaccone (1991), Iannaccone and Stark (1994), Iannaccone, Finke, and Stark (1994), and Gill (1999) among others, argues that religious participation is mainly "supply driven". In other words, the government's intervention, such as the establishment of state religion, is a major determinant of religiosity.

However, following Weber (1905), proponents of the secularization hypothesis, such as Chaves (1994) and Bruce (2001), argue that religious participation is "demand driven." They consider that economic development, which includes industrialization, an increase in literacy and wealth, and a decrease in fertility rates, entails a decline in religiosity. This secularization process supposedly leads individuals to define themselves as less religious and decreases the influence of religion on social and political institutions. As a matter of fact, McCleary and Barro (2006) find in a study of religiosity in 68 countries that economic development has an overall negative effect on religiosity. Urbanization also makes individuals less observant, but education and the presence of children are positively correlated with religiosity.

Still, studies by Finke and Stark (1992), Iannaccone and Stark (1994), and Stark (1999), among others, argue that there is no empirical evidence to support secularization theories. In particular, the secularization hypothesis predicts that the separation between religion and state should become widespread as countries become richer, but Barro and McCleary (2005) cannot find any link between wealth, measured by a country's gross domestic product (GDP), and the current existence of a state religion.

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