Religion and Political Economy in History (Part II)

It has been nearly four months since my last new column, which I titled “Religion and Political Economy in History (Part I).” That title suggested there would at minimum be a part II. But we here at Broadstreet thought we should take a well-deserved break over the summer, so part II has been slow in coming. Well, we are back at it, and I am picking up where we left off. I hope you enjoy part II.

Religious Persecution

Religion was central to the political economy of medieval Europe. We learn in grade school that the Church was a powerful political player itself. It was Europe’s largest land-holder … by far. Its wealth and influence could prop up rulers or undermine them. What did this mean for medieval Europe’s political economy?

Similarly, one may ask “The Catholic Church has not had such influence for centuries. Why and when did this change?”

One of the most interesting recent studies outlining some of the downstream consequences of religious legitimacy is Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama’s recent book Persecution and Toleration, which they wrote about on Broadstreet. They ask why religious minorities (especially Jews, but also Spanish Muslims, Roma, and “witches”) were persecuted at certain times but not others, and why persecutions peaked in the late medieval period and petered out centuries thereafter.

Why do such persecutions arise in the first place? What is the role, if any, of political economy?

Johnson and Koyama’s answer is twofold. On the one hand, persecution is related to state capacity. When the state is weak, there is little it can do to prevent persecution, and people are generally treated differently based on their status. Second, when rulers rely on religious legitimacy, scapegoating religious minorities can be attractive for rulers facing threats to their rule.

Combined, these two factors mean that weak states offer “conditional toleration” to religious minorities: they are tolerated (especially Jews, who provided a steady stream of tax revenue), but toleration could be revoked at any moment. Hence, religious minorities were subject to having toleration revoked in times of crisis: it was “good politics” for a ruler who relied on religious legitimacy.

This changed across many parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as rulers became more powerful. As state capacity increased, persecution was a less attractive means of keeping social control. Importantly, the Reformation played a key role in undermining this “equilibrium.” From the perspective of Protestant rulers, the Reformation reduced the value of religious legitimation. In such a world, the “returns” to religious persecution were lower. So rulers turned to other means of staying in power.

Persecution Persists

Religious persecution is important to understand for a variety of reasons. Religious freedom is fundamental to a healthy society. Most importantly, it is still with us today – Chinese Uighurs and the Rohingya of Myanmar are just two of many recent groups that have faced the worst of religious persecution. Understanding why and how persecution emerged in history sheds some light on why such atrocities are still with us today.

Moreover, religious persecutions can have very long-lasting political and economic effects. A well-known study by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth found that Medieval Jewish persecutions have been linked to 20th-century anti-semitism and the rise of the Nazi party. This was especially true in those places with less contact with the outside world via trade and immigration. The upshot is that such anti-Semitic values persist.

Voth and co-authors Mauricio Drelichman and Jordi Vidal-Robert likewise found that the economic legacy of the Spanish Inquisition is still with us today. They put together a data set of over 67,000 Spanish Inquisition trials (see the figure below) and found that places with high trial activity have, in the present day, lower economic performance, educational attainment, and trust. Persecution persists.

Inquisitorial intensity in Spain; Source: Drelichman, Vidal-Robert, and Voth (2021)

Religious Legitimacy in South Asia

Although most HPE studies of religious legitimacy focus on “the West” or the Middle East, a few recent studies have shown the important role it played in South Asia, as well. Like the studies on Europe cited above, the studies on South Asia suggest that religion has played an important historical role in legitimating rule and that these effects persist to the present day.

In a relatively rare social-scientific, data-driven study of pre-colonial India, Rohit Ticku, Anand Shrivastava, and Sriya Iyer ask a similar question as Johnson and Koyama: what options does a ruler have to maintain his or her power when faced with a bad shock? In Johnson and Koyama’s case, suppressing a religious minority was an option. But what happens if the rulers are themselves religious minorities?

In medieval India, Muslims (such as the Mughals) ruled large swaths of the subcontinent, even where Hindus were the dominant population. In such a setting, co-opting the religious elite was not feasible (as it was in medieval Egypt, as shown in a study by Eric Chaney). Hence, Muslim religious authorities took the opposite approach by suppressing Hindu religious authorities. Using a dataset spanning 1190-1730 CE (see the figure below), they find that periods of unusual weather (which can lead to instability in an agricultural society) are strongly associated with the destruction of Hindu temples by Muslim rulers. The explanation that is most consistent with their analysis is a political economy one. Religious leaders are likely candidates to lead a successful rebellion, and suppressing them may only be worth it (to the political authority) when the likelihood of rebellion is sufficiently high.

Religious Sites and Temple Desecrations; Source: Ticku, Shrivastava, and Iyer (2021)

Shrines still play an important role in South Asian political economy in the 20th-21st centuries. In Pakistan, religious elites associated with shrines hold significant power in parts of the country. Adeel Malik and Rinchan Ali Mirza show that this can have important socio-economic consequences. “Shrine elites” have significant distributional power over local public goods. This was all the more the case after a 1977 military coup gave greater decision-making power to local elites (see the figure below). Since secular education threatened the power of the shrine elites, they suppressed the expansion of education in the wake of the coup. Malik and Mirza argue that this explains their finding that the expansion of literacy slowed immensely in places run by shrine elites but not elsewhere.

Historic Shrines and Literacy; Source: Malik and Mirza (2018)

These studies all give a flavor of the exciting and important research currently being done at the intersection of religion and historical political economy. Of course, this only skims the surface. Which means that there is more than enough for a third installment of my “Religion and Political Economy in History” posts … coming your way soon!


  • 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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