Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CHURCHES AND RELIGIONS, Politico-economical Aspects of. Why place such an article in this work? What can churches have in common with political economy? This question will doubtless present itself to the minds of some readers, who, before examining the question, will censure us for having considered from the point of view of material utility a side of human life in which, to their thinking, calculation should play no part.


—Their censure would perhaps be well founded if, being imbued in regard to churches in general with that philosophic, or pretended philosophic indifference on which radical thinkers pride themselves, we should pretend to weigh the different beliefs in the worldly balance of material interests and assign to economic considerations any influence in the choice of religion by individuals or nations. But such is not our idea. We know very well that a church is adopted from conviction, on account of religious beliefs of which it is the external manifestation, and not in consideration of what it costs, or what it brings in; and we should consider the statesman senseless whose views on the question of public worship should be determined by motives of economy alone.


—Let religious men, therefore, divest themselves of prejudice in reading what we write, and they will not be slow in recognizing with us that churches come naturally within the domain of political economy, first as exercising an influence more or less direct upon certain economic phenomena, then as applying a part of the wealth produced to the satisfaction of a social want.


—Political economy does not embrace the totality of human interests; it does not undertake to indicate to man, individual or collective, the means of happiness, even here below. Its only object is to explain the phenomena of production, circulation and distribution of wealth, to discover the laws according to which these phenomena take place. Finally, its object is to formulate the general theories which should direct nations in their economic development, that is to say, in seeking the advantages which have wealth for their cause or principal element.


—Thus when exact data permit us to compare the economic condition of a country with the productive powers at its disposal, it belongs to political economy to decide in what degree the results of this comparison are in accordance with the general laws which preside over the development of wealth, and indicate the causes which might have accelerated or retarded the progress of this development in the country in question. If, among these causes, it finds certain precepts or certain usages forming part of religious worship; it takes note of them, with no other object than to explain the complex phenomena of which it must render account, without expressing any judgment at all as to the religious, moral or even simply political propriety of the practices of the observances in question.


—Now who can deny the influence which certain churches have exercised on economic phenomena at different times, notably on the quantity of productive forces set at work and on the direction which was given them? Must we not seek in the religious beliefs of the people of the east, and in the practices derived from these beliefs, one of the principal causes of the profound difference existing between the material civilization of these peoples and that of the western nations? Should we not attribute a considerable part, in many economic results in the political and social régime in France, to the precepts and usages of religion then dominant, especially to monastic institutions, to the celibacy of priests, to the great number of holidays, to abstinence in Lent, etc., etc.?


—We do not wish, however, to occupy ourselves here with these effects peculiar to certain churches and resulting from variable practices. Among the civilized nations of our time the economic influence of which we have just spoken has become, or tends to become, almost nothing or purely accidental. But between churches and our science there exist relations of another kind, to which we must call the attention of the reader.


—Religious beliefs common to a great number of individuals demand an external manifestation, collective and public; in other words, a worship more or less solemn. This is a universal fact in support of which any demonstration would be superfluous.


—It is another no less undoubted fact that this social want is one of those which the state is almost always obliged to provide for by means of an organization whose expenses are defrayed by society. From this two questions arise which evidently belong to political economy: 1. Are religious wants better and more completely satisfied by the intervention of the state than they could be by the spontaneous action of society itself? 2. Which of these two possible modes of satisfaction, all other things being equal, imposes the least material sacrifice on society?


—Before approaching the examination of these questions let us begin by stating that if we consider the two modes as equally possible, it is because they have both been tried. There exists in our time a great nation, highly civilized and at the same time very religious, in which churches are altogether private institutions. In the United States the state is absolutely a stranger, in law and in fact, to the external manifestation of religious belief. Religious wants are satisfied there, completely and liberally, without any intervention either of the public treasury or of the law. It was almost the same in France before the revolution of 1789, as the Catholic church had its own property at that time which relieved it of the necessity of asking anything from the state, and an organization which did not emanate from the civil power; while the other churches were not recognized.


—In political economy those who labor for the satisfaction of a social want are called producers, and those who make use of the product intended for this satisfaction consumers. When the state assumes the rôle of producer, it arrogates to itself a monopoly it excludes all competition in the kind of production to which it devotes itself. In the contrary case, that is to say, when the satisfaction of a social want is left to the free and spontaneous action of society itself, or to the parts of society which feel this want, it necessarily happens that the corresponding production is undertaken competitively by several individuals or several private associations. Sometimes it is manufacturers who thus apply their labor in view of an eventual pecuniary profit; sometimes consumers, who associate together to obtain, by their united efforts or their individual sacrifices, the satisfaction of the want which they feel in common. On both hypotheses each producer, individual or collective, is evidently interested in increasing his product, since he finds, on the first hypothesis, an increase of profit, and on the second, the combination of a greater number of individual efforts and consequently a more and more complete satisfaction of the wants which he intended to satisfy.


—Now the producer has two methods of increasing the number of consumers whose wants he provides for and of outstripping his competitors by increasing his production at the expense of theirs. The first is to improve the quality of his products; the second, to lower their price to consumers. The certain effect, therefore, of competition is to induce producers to improve their products and to furnish them at the lowest possible price.


—In the case of an absolute monopoly the stimulant of which we have just spoken does not exist, or, if it does exist, it is in a much lower degree and under certain exceptional circumstances, namely, when it is a question of material products, destined to satisfy the wants of luxury, the consumption of which may be extended or restricted indefinitely. We can affirm, then, that any social want will be satisfied more completely and economically in proportion as the competition of producers fitted to provide for it is freer and more extensive.


—Such is the general law laid down by political economy for the solution of the questions which occupy us. Does this law, evident in theory, and confirmed moreover by the daily experience of practical life, admit of exceptions? Are there special social wants which can be satisfied only through the intervention of the state? We do not hesitate to answer affirmatively, and we shall cite at once as special exceptional cases, the wants of security, justice, coinage, ways of communication for persons and things, etc., etc.


—Should religious wants be ranged among the exceptional cases or remain submitted to the general rule? This remains to be examined. But we must first establish a distinction which governs or whole subject.


—The Christian world from a religious point of view, has for three centuries been divided between two opposing principles, which we shall call the principle of unity and the principle of diversity. Those who admit the first, form but one single church, submitted to one single authority, practicing one and the same rite prescribed by this authority. Those who admit the second principle, form an indefinite number of distinct churches, capable of differing from each other in forms of worship, and, up to a certain point, in their beliefs.


—It will be seen that we describe Catholicism and Protestantism by their purely external and in some sense material aspect, because it is the only one, as we have already said, of which our science can take account.


—Examined under this aspect the principle of unity becomes identical with that of monopoly. Catholicism excludes all internal competition. Whether the state interferes or not, there is but one entrepreneur, one single producer charged with providing for the religious wants of Catholics. if it is not the state it is the church, a body exclusively monarchic according to some, mixed with aristocracy according to others, but whose will is always one and homogeneous with reference to what we may call religious production.


—There would be no further question then with reference to Catholicism than to decide which is preferable, the monopoly of the church or that of the state: a great question, which it is our duty to examine here only in its economic aspect, putting aside all political or moral motives which might militate in one sense or another. Now from this restricted point of view, the monopoly of the state appears to us preferable to that of the church for the following reasons: Among Catholics the acting church, the church which administers the worship and which disposes of the material means collected for this purpose, is not confounded, as among Protestants, with the religious community itself; it does not embrace the totality of believers; it is composed exclusively of members of the clergy, that is to say, of an organized hierarchy, which recruits its own ranks and which is consequently animated in the highest degree with the spirit of unity and perpetuity, of unity in time and space. The result of this, in the first place, is that the immovable property which the church has acquired, and the amount of which it is always interested in increasing, to assure its own existence more and more firmly and its means of action in the future, becomes inalienable in its hands and is withdrawn from circulation. Not only does it cease to belong to lay society; but it is withdrawn from its action, withdrawn from that commercial movement which, under the impulse of interest, tends to render the working of productive capital more and more profitable to the general interest, by causing it to pass through hands the best fitted to make use of it. The first consequence produces a second still more disadvantageous.


—If to satisfy the personal wants of its members and those of the church with which it is charged, the hierarchy had only the periodical contributions and casual offerings which laymen might voluntarily make, it would, although exercising a monopoly, be interested in arousing the zeal of believers in keeping up among them religious sentiments and habits. Can it be the same when once the church is possessed of considerable property which renders it independent of the zeal of the faithful? Evidently not. The stimulation of interest then becomes weaker, if it does not altogether disappear; and as that of duty, unfortunately, is not always of such constant efficacy, we may hold it for certain that the satisfaction of religious wants will become, under such a régime, more and more imperfect and insufficient for Catholic populations.


—The truth of what we advance was confirmed in a remarkable manner by the experience of France. Before the revolution of 1789, the church possessed one-fifth of all the territory of France and the rest was burdened with tithes for its profit, the annual product of which reached 133 millions francs. In this way a very great part of the soil of the country was either withdrawn from circulation, consequently from the fructifying and improving action of private interests, or weighted with a real burden, which, of all those that land can bear, is the most irrational, the most contrary to the progressive development of agricultural industry.


—In saying that all these ecclesiastical estates belonged to the hierarchy, that is, to the clergy considered in their totality as a moral body, we give expression to what was everywhere considered wrongly as of right, rather than what was really the law. We must agree with the greater part of the jurists who have gone to the bottom of this question, notably with the celebrated Savigny, that the subject of these rights of property, the real proprietor of these ecclesiastical estates, was the religious communities, the churches, in the primitive sense of the word (ekklêsiœ). In the sixth century this had not yet become a question, as is shown by the constitutions of Justinian, in particular the 26th in the code De sacrosanctis ecclesiis. But the influence of the canon law was not slow in introducing on this point a confusion of ideas which continued to grow and develop from that time.


—The error had become so general and so complete at the time of the first revolution that it formed the only ground upon which the partisans and the adversaries of the confiscation of ecclesiastical property met. When Mirabeau contended that the corporate existence of the Catholic clergy being once suppressed, the property of which this moral being had been the owner was left without a proprietor, and belonged, for want of an heir, by right to the state or to the nation as was then said, the Abbé Maury and other champions of the church opposed to this reasoning nothing but quotations and distinctions without significance. They did not think of disputing the principle, so eminently open to dispute, upon which the legality of the proposed secularization rested.


—The confusion in question results, as we have said, from the very essence of the Catholic organization; it is inherent in the institution of a sacerdotal hierarchy, and we think it will be necessarily reproduced to a greater or lesser degree wherever the church organized in this way preserves under any conditions and limits the power of acquiring property.


—It is not part of our plan to explain the principles on which the Catholic church has been successively reconstituted in France since the commencement of this century—principles which, to tell the truth, were vague enough in the minds of the legislators and statesmen charged with applying them. All we have to establish is, that the state as a rule undertook to provide for the religious wants of the Catholic population of France, and in fact substituted its own monopoly for that of the church. The direct grants of the state are not sufficient, it is true, for the entire support of the Catholic church in France; but the remainder is furnished either by subsidies from the departments or the communes; or by the revenues of church property; or by means of real property or capital, composing what several French laws, in consequence of the above mentioned error, very improperly called dotation du clergé; or by lands belonging to the state, the departments or the communes; or by property belonging to the congregations and authorized religious corporations. Now this last category of property is the only one really removed from circulation and subjected to ecclesiastical mortmain; all the rest is comprised in the domain of the state or administered under its direct control or by purely civil authorities.


—The territory of France, therefore, with the exception of a small fraction, is freed from that mortmain which had formerly covered so large a portion of it, and from those burdensome tithes which hindered the development of agricultural industry at every point.


—However vicious the French system of direct contributions may be in principle, it is impossible to compare it in economic results with those two plagues, the tithes and the mortmain which it has replaced. It must be recognized then that the country has realized a great economy in the satisfaction of its religious wants by substituting the monopoly of the state for that of the church.


—Are these wants themselves better or worse satisfied than formerly? If there is a fact generally admitted by all at the present time, it is this, that the Catholic clergy are better fitted morally and intellectually for the exercise of their functions, are more worthy in their private life, more zealous in the exercise of their pastoral duties, than they were in the last century. But, without wishing to attribute this amelioration exclusively to motives of material interest, we believe that it might have, in every case, and in the absence even of nobler motives, resulted from the insufficiency of the grants given by the state, the priests finding themselves in this way obliged to count on local assistance, as well as upon the liberality and the offerings of the faithful; that is to say, on resources whose product, essentially variable, must naturally increase and decrease in proportion to the degree of faith and religious fervor with which each minister of the faith may inspire his flock.


—Let us now apply the questions proposed above to churches governed by the principle of diversity, and we shall recognized at first that competition may exist in them and exhibit its effects in two ways.


—In the first place, as the churches established on this principle do not recognize any common superior, there is no reason to prevent persons professing the same belief and practicing the same rite separating into a number of communities distinct and independent of each other. This has taken place in all Protestant communions in the United States; also in Europe, especially in England among the dissenters, who are neither recognized nor salaried by the state. Now administrators and pastors of these competing associations would have to cease to be men were this state of things not to arouse among them a spirit of rivalry and emulation eminently fitted to stimulate their zeal and activity.


—In the second place, the separation and reciprocal independence of the churches which do not profess the same belief, or which do not practice the same rite, establish among them an inevitable competition the more active and efficacious in this, that the spirit of sect and proselytism adds its stimulating energy to that of simple rivalry.


—Are there reasons for thinking that the régime of free competition will not produce its ordinary effect in regard to worship? We do not know of any, and therefore we think we can affirm, that under such a régime the religious wants of a Protestant population will be as well and as economically satisfied as possible.


—The interference of the state can only tend to diminish this satisfaction. First, by organizing and paying the churches, the state places the administrators and the pastors of each church in a position which renders them independent, in all their material interests, of the zeal and faith of their flock. The parishes of the different churches being limited by law, the salaries fixed in consequence and subtracted from the mass of public revenue, religious production will in its growth merely increase the burden of producers without adding anything to their profits, or to the importance of their position.


—The principal inconvenience of state monopoly here is that, in organizing, at the expense of the entire nation and for all parts of its territory, a very limited number of recognized religions, it hinders, if it does not absolutely prevent, the manifestation of religious beliefs which can not be satisfied by any of the favored religions. Supposing even that dissenters enjoy the most complete legal toleration, it is impossible that their opinions should not labor under a certain disfavor; besides, they find themselves obliged to support alone the expenses of their own church at the same time that they contribute their quota to the dominant religious.


—The monopoly of the state, in other terms the system of established churches, can assure but a very incomplete and costly satisfaction of the numerous wants which arise from the liberty of examination. Religious production here is, in the case of the greatest number of believers, either of poor quality or too high a price; in a word, insufficient.


—The way in which sects multiply under the régime of free competition shows well enough that religious wants are various and tend to become more and more diversified when the minds of men have once shaken off the yoke of authority and broken definitely with absolute unity of belief and worship, of organism and of action, the idea of which, as well as that of liberty, does not cease to have a powerful attraction for the human mind.


—We might examine the case in which the two principles, of unity and diversity, meet among the same people; but we do not see how this circumstance could modify the theory which we have explained. In the countries at least where Catholics form a considerable portion of the population, above all, in those where they are in a great majority, as in France.


—In closing this article we think it our duty to insist once more that our readers should not forget the narrow and closely circumscribed province to which we have confined ourselves in the examination of the question which we had to solve. To conclude from our reasoning that economists, and particularly the writer, are absolute partisans of one system or another in the question of religious worship, would be to make us say something different from what we have said or wished to say. The problems of legislation and politics are always complex. Economic motives should be taken into consideration, without doubt, but together with motives of a nature altogether different; and if the error has often been committed of giving too small a place to the first, it would not be by giving it too great a place that the progress of our science would be favored, and injurious prejudices, which are still entertained by so many statesmen and administrators, dispelled.


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