Religion and Political Economy in History (Part I)

When I was young, I was told that there were two topics you should never bring up in polite society: religion and politics. The advice clearly did not rub off. I have spent a good portion of my career studying the two.

It seems obvious to even a casual observer that religion has played an outsized role in shaping politics in history. This is especially true in the lands of the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). If there is one thing you know about the medieval Church, it is probably that it was a corrupt political player. If there is one thing you know about historical Middle Eastern politics, it is probably that Islam played some role in shaping it.

But why? It is not obvious that religion should play a role in politics. There are many aspects of both religion and politics which are devoid of the other. But there are also many parts of the historical political economy of western Eurasia that are imbued with religion.

The answer does not lie in some simplistic assertion about how doctrinal attributes affect political and economic outcomes. Explanations of this ilk are often leveled, but they are lazy and too simplistic, blaming (or lauding) one aspect of religion or the other.

A large literature has recently emerged that adds significant nuance to the why and how religion has historically played an outsized role in political economy. I think this literature is really important. Over my next few posts, I will try to summarize what I view as some of the more interesting aspects of this literature.

Why Does Religion Matter in Politics? The Role of Big Gods

When you think of the interplay of religion and politics, your mind may go to state religion or theocracy. And with good reason. This is the most visible end of the religious political economy spectrum. When religious leaders are the state or the state sponsors one (and only one) religion, religion plays a role in any number of political economy outcomes (and vice versa).

Religion can influence political economy in all types of political systems, not just theocracies. In democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, and everywhere in between, religion has historically played a key role in determining political economy outcomes. Why?

To understand why religion can be such a powerful source within a society’s political economy, it helps to go to the roots of religion. A fascinating literature, spearheaded by Ara Norenzayan among others, has recently emerged that tries to understand the impact of “big gods”. Big gods are those that are knowledgeable and punitive. They see what you do and punish you for being bad.

This literature has linked the spread of big gods to the growth of larger scale societies. Probably the most important thing that big gods are associated with is the spread of pro-social norms. In small-scale and prehistoric societies, it was/is costly to monitor what other people are doing. This means that people in such societies are incentivized to steal, cheat, and worse when they can get away with it.

This is a problem faced by all societies. How is it solved? There are many answers, including institutions. But even when institutions that can detect and punish transgressions are present, it helps to have other incentives for people to act pro-socially.

This is where big gods come in. Unlike small gods, such as spirits common in animist traditions, big gods can see what people do and can punish them. The “watchful eye” of god encourages people to act nicely to each other. You are more likely to act kindly towards your neighbors if there is some god watching over you. It doesn’t always work of course, but on average societies with big gods tend to exhibit more pro-social qualities. Big gods help societies solve fundamental cooperation problems.

What does this have to do with political economy? Big gods help societies scale. As societies get bigger, it helps to have pro-social norms. Indeed, it may very well be that such norms are what allows societies to grow in the first place. And, in fact, very few small scale societies have big gods. Once a society gets big gods, they tend to grow. (And, likewise, as societies grow they tend to get big gods).

As societies grow, they form institutions that help structure all aspects of economic, political, and social life. Imbued in these institutions are the big gods of that society.

While these gods can help cultivate pro-social norms, they can also be used by the state to serve its own ends. This is where religion ends up playing its most important role in political economy. It can serve as a potent agent of state legitimation.

The Power of Religious Legitimacy

Every society has some means of legitimating rule. It is something I have already discussed on Broadstreet ad nauseum.

Religion is often used as a source of legitimacy. The reason, in my opinion, why this is so often the case is the ways in which “big god” religions co-evolve with a society’s institutions. In big god societies, gods are moralistic. On one extreme, this means that gods may favor “divine rulers,” whose divinity is derived from some precedent or accident of birth. Further down the spectrum, it may simply mean that gods judge the actions of rulers. In this case, rulers gain legitimacy be acting in accordance with religious precepts (however they are interpreted).

Which equilibrium a society reaches is largely a function of its institutional history. When past rulers used a certain principle (called a “legitimacy principle” in a paper I have with Avner Greif) this may become imbued in the way society views who has the legitimate right to rule. Over time, as this principle is employed over and over again, it becomes institutionalized. This means that any wannabe-ruler will find it hard (though not impossible) to legitimate their rule unless they ascribe to that principle.

In big god societies—most notably, Christian and Muslim societies—historical legitimacy principles often included religious appeals. The degree to which such appeals matter has changed dramatically over time. A fascinating study by Lisa Blaydes, Justin Grimmer, and Alison McQueen reveals just how much these appeals have changed over time. They study the texts of advice manuals from medieval Muslim and Christian polities. Specifically, they are interested in the topics on which the manuals focus. They find a rise in religious discourse in Muslim texts from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. This is precisely when institutional changes favoring Muslim religious elites occurred. Meanwhile, beginning in the late medieval period and extending through the Renaissance, they find a decline in religious advice in the Christian world.

What does this all mean? Why do we care? Does it really matter if religious legitimacy is important in a society or not? We are starting to get much insight into the answers to these question, particularly in the Islamic and Christian worlds. This will be the focus of my next post. Hope to see you there…


  • Jared Rubin is a professor of economics at Chapman University. He is an economic historian interested in the role that Islam and Christianity played in the long-run “reversal of fortunes” between the economies of the Middle East and Western Europe. His book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which addresses these issues, has won multiple book awards.

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