Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy

Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy

by Anna Grzymala-Busse

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Why churches in some democratic nations wield enormous political power while churches in other democracies don't

In some religious countries, churches have drafted constitutions, restricted abortion, and controlled education. In others, church influence on public policy is far weaker. Why? Nations under God argues that where religious and national identities have historically fused, churches gain enormous moral authority—and covert institutional access. These powerful churches then shape policy in backrooms and secret meetings instead of through open democratic channels such as political parties or the ballot box.

Through an in-depth historical analysis of six Christian democracies that share similar religious profiles yet differ in their policy outcomes—Ireland and Italy, Poland and Croatia, and the United States and Canada—Anna Grzymała-Busse examines how churches influenced education, abortion, divorce, stem cell research, and same-sex marriage. She argues that churches gain the greatest political advantage when they appear to be above politics. Because institutional access is covert, they retain their moral authority and their reputation as defenders of the national interest and the common good.

Nations under God shows how powerful church officials in Ireland, Canada, and Poland have directly written legislation, vetoed policies, and vetted high-ranking officials. It demonstrates that religiosity itself is not enough for churches to influence politics—churches in Italy and Croatia, for example, are not as influential as we might think—and that churches allied to political parties, such as in the United States, have less influence than their notoriety suggests.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691164762
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/27/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Anna Grzymała-Busse is the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Exploitation in Post-Communist Democracies.

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Nations under God

How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy

By Anna Grzymala-Busse


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16476-2




In late 1988, a group of Catholic bishops met privately with communist officials in a Polish parliamentary commission. Their purpose: to discuss a legislative proposal that would outlaw abortion.

Abortion was legal in communist-era Poland, but the regime was beginning to crumble, and the communist government hoped the proposal would divide its resurgent opposition. For the church, eliminating abortion was not a new priority, but an especially timely one—the hierarchy was keenly aware that public attention was elsewhere, focused on possible regime change and the Round Table negotiations between the opposition and the communist regime. And so, over the next few months, bishops and church lawyers drafted a bill that would unconditionally ban abortion in all circumstances and impose jail sentences on both patients and doctors for violation of the law. Parliamentary discussion of the proposed legislation began in May 1989, only a month before the communists were swept from power. Despite widespread public opposition (59% of Poles opposed the restrictions), the church bill remained the unquestioned basis for all subsequent debate in the democratic parliament, and for the final abortion law of January 1993.

The procedure was now limited to cases in which the mother's life was threatened, testing indicated severe and irreversible damage to the fetus, or the pregnancy was due to rape or incest. The law also required a consensus of doctors that one of the conditions had been met, and doctors commonly disagreed upon what constituted a threat to the mother's life or severe and irreversible damage to the fetus. What's more, in 1991 the National Association of Physicians forbade its members from performing the procedure, making the required consensus virtually unattainable. As a result of this law, the number of legal abortions performed annually in Poland fell a thousandfold, from over 100,000 in 1988, to only 312 a decade later. The official abortion rate plunged from 18% to 0.07% of all pregnancies. And today, despite legal challenges and unfavorable rulings by the European Court of Human Rights—in Polish cases involving the denial of abortion to a woman facing blindness as a result of pregnancy, and a fourteen-year-old victim of rape—the law remains unchanged. The Roman Catholic Church had effectively banned abortion in democratic Poland.

Churches embody the sacred and the divine, but their interests and influence extend well beyond the spiritual realm. Many countries are "nations under God," where churches are powerful political actors, shaping policy and transforming lives in the process. This book explores how and why some churches gained such enormous political power—and why others did not. It argues that churches ironically gain their greatest political advantage when they can appear to be above petty politics—exerting their influence in secret meetings and the back rooms of parliament rather than through public pressure or partisanship. A church's ability to enter these quiet corridors of power depends on its historical record of defending the nation—and thus gaining moral authority within society and among politicians.

Church influence on policy varies widely from country to country. In some democracies, churches have succeeded in couching political debates in religious terms, vetting government appointments, and influencing legislation in domains ranging from education to abortion to the drafting of constitutions. In Poland, the Roman Catholic Church has achieved most of its policy goals, including the effective ban on abortion. The church is a major political figure. Priests have blessed soccer games—and they helped ensure Poland's entry into the European Union in 2004.

But in other countries, religious representatives have been roundly ignored—or even castigated, by politicians and commentators alike, for even voicing their concerns. When in 2010 the Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet expressed his opposition to abortion (a stance the Roman Catholic Church has consistently advocated for decades) the public reaction in Canada was furious, with physicians declaring themselves "blue with rage" and one columnist wishing the Cardinal a "long and painful death." Ouellet's public comments—condemning the legality of abortion and indicating disapproval of government funding to clinics performing the procedure—were rejected as a wildly inappropriate attempt to influence state affairs.

Surprisingly, stark differences in the extent of religious influence persist across countries that are otherwise similar in patterns of religious belonging, belief, and attendance. For example, Ireland and Italy are both "Catholic societies," with close to 90% of the population identifying as Catholic. Yet the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland influenced the public debate and the eventual laws concerning abortion, divorce, and education far more (and for far longer) than it did in Italy, where the church has been markedly less influential, at times struggling against a tide of political opposition and popular indifference. Similarly, while the Roman Catholic Church in newly democratic Poland heavily influenced policy, the church in—equally Catholic—newly democratic Croatia failed to limit abortion (much less abolish it), forestall civil unions for gays, restrict stem cell research, or constrain divorce. If anything, religiosity in Croatia increased over the 1990s, with rates of "firm believers" doubling from around 40% in 1989 to nearly 80% in 2004; yet religious influence on policy actually decreased, with many politicians openly opposing the enacting of church preferences.

We also see disparities in church influence in more diverse religious settings. Both the United States and Canada have relatively high rates of belief and attendance, especially when compared to other developed democracies (96% of Americans and 90% of Canadians believe in God, and 49% and 36%, respectively, attend church more than once a month). Both are over two-thirds Christian, with a large Roman Catholic minority. Yet the degree to which religion has influenced policy differs dramatically. In the United States, religion has become a central political cleavage, and conservative Catholic and Protestant religious groups made considerable inroads toward their policy goals, especially in curtailing access to abortion, contraception and sex education, and stem cell research. In Canada, in contrast, public policy debates are rarely framed in religious terms, even when the policies in question have moral overtones and stand in clear opposition to religious doctrines. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Church and conservative Christian groups, abortion, for example, was not restricted and did not become a dominant political issue, at either the elite or popular levels. Table 1.1 summarizes some of these differences in influence.

Just as curiously, churches' influence upon democratic politics often occurs despite broad opposition from the public. As Table 1.2 shows, in all the countries mentioned above, over two-thirds of survey respondents reject church influence on voting, and over half reject influence on politics more broadly. Figure 1.1 shows that this opposition is widely shared: majorities in all the polled countries, observant and not, oppose religious influence on politics. Across a larger set of democracies surveyed, an average of 72% of survey respondents oppose church influence on politics, 78% oppose church influence on voting, and 72% oppose church influence on government. They do so even where the church is highly influential among individuals: in Ireland, where 93% of the population declares itself to be Catholic and over half attends Mass once a month or more, over 79% of poll respondents do not want the church to influence government, and 82% do not want the church to influence votes.

Even very pious Christian electorates are unlikely to demand religious influence on politics. First, Christianity itself views the sacred and the profane as two distinct domains. Jesus commanded Christians to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Second, individual experiences and priorities often conflict with religious tenets: Catholics and Evangelicals still get divorced (and at rates as high or higher than other Americans). As a result, the democratic societies examined here reject church influence on governments, voting, and policy, even when they are religious. Yet churches continue to shape politics even where vast popular majorities oppose such influence.

The odd outcome is that on the one hand, popular religious observance, faith, and belonging do in fact correlate with the influence of religion on politics, as we will see; on the other, this religiosity does not create a popular demand for religious influence on governments, voting, or policy. In other words, religion and religious influence on politics go hand in hand—but not because voters insist upon (or even desire) such influence.

The missing links between religion and religious influence on politics are the churches themselves—churches that serve not just as communities of faith, but as political advocates and actors. Many churches hold strong doctrinal commitments, and their leaders perceive an obligation to ensure that public policy reflects respect for God's order. Divine agendas aside, churches want to ensure their own survival; apart from the obvious benefits of preferential tax and legal status, influencing policy is a way of disseminating and enshrining their religious values, fending off both secularization and potential competitors. Without the active politicking and involvement of the churches, we would be unlikely to see either the legislation of theological preferences into policy, or the broader prominence of religion in politics.

There is nothing new about churches attempting to manipulate public policy. Popes crowned the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, and Cardinals Richelieu and Wolsey served as advisors to kings in seventeenth-century France and in sixteenth-century England, respectively. With its enormous landholdings and an effective monopoly on education, the Roman Catholic Church in medieval Europe was a singularly powerful political and economic player (and has been accordingly analyzed as such ). Whether legitimating monarchs, shaping public morality, exerting control over the welfare state, or simply securing favorable standing under the law, religious groups have a long history of intervention in politics.

Yet in the modern era, churches face considerable constraints on their political activity. Even in predominantly Christian countries, church and state are conceptually two distinct realms, separated by constitutions, legal precedent, and informal norms. Legal and institutional firewalls stymie even powerful churches with pews full of loyal adherents. In most modern democracies, clerics no longer hold secular office, and churches have no formal representation in most legislatures, governments, or administrative bodies. As a result, religious bodies seldom have direct access to policy making. Yet some organized religions continue to exercise considerable influence despite these impediments, while others are left to press their faces against the glass.

Since they cannot directly legislate, churches rely on secular proxies and intermediaries, and specifically, political parties. Churches often trade electoral mobilization on behalf of these secular political actors for subsequent policy concessions. Accordingly, a prominent set of explanations emphasizes the alliances between religious groups and political parties as the critical channel of church influence. These accounts examine electoral coalitions with political parties, asking when churches ally with parties and the policy consequences of these partnerships.

Yet coalitions with particular political parties can be as fraught and unreliable as reliance on public support, as we will see. Political parties and partisan representatives have interests of their own—and these are often much more diverse than (and contradictory to) the interests of churches. Contemporary public opinion, as already noted, is against overt church interference in politics, making attempts to mobilize voters a risky business. Finally, reaching out to the electorate necessitates persuasion and reframing of religious perspectives—and the compromises necessary to gain a broader electorate undermine the churches' own theological commitments, the very ones that led them to press for policy change in the first place. Rather than asking why churches ally with particular parties, perhaps we should ask why churches ally with parties at all.

Explaining Church Influence

We thus face a set of interlocking puzzles: (a) the differences in the influence of organized religion on politics, (b) the peculiar ability of religious efforts to overcome widespread popular opposition, and (c) the mechanisms of this influence in the face of formal strictures and firewalls.

To answer these questions, this book argues that the most influential churches do not rely on pressure at the ballot box or on partisan coalitions. Instead, these churches gain direct institutional access, essentially sharing sovereignty with secular governments. Such access comprises helping to write constitutions and everyday legislation, having direct input into policy making and policy enforcement, vetting secular state officials, and even running entire swaths of government—typically welfare institutions such as hospitals, schools, reformatory institutions, and so on. The channels of institutional access may vary considerably. Besides actively participating in policy discussions and formulating legislative bills (special episcopal commissions, for example, formulated both the abortion law in Poland and school policy in Ireland), church officials have influenced personnel and organizational decisions within ministries (as was the case in Poland and Ireland) and taken part in national negotiations during regime transitions (as was the case in Poland and Lithuania). Institutional access gives churches tremendous political power, while obviating the need to appease an intermediary, whether a partisan ally or their own congregation.

If institutional access is valuable, it is also hard to come by. Not only do substantial legal and institutional impediments block church involvement in state affairs, but secular governments are also loath to share sovereignty, and few politicians willingly give away authority. Still, some churches do gain such access. How are they able to do so, and what separates them from the churches that do not?

The roots of present power are buried in the past, and to explain a church's contemporary policy influence, we must look to the historical role of that church in society. Conflicts between the "nation" and its secular opponents gave some churches the opportunity to act as defenders of national identity and cohesion. Where the church shielded the nation, patriotism became inseparable from religious loyalty. In the course of these fierce struggles (and even bloody battles) national and religious identities thus melded, forging a powerful form of religious nationalism.

In turn, the more nation and religion fused as a popular identity, the more churches gained moral authority in politics: the identification of the church with national interest, rather than with interests that are purely theological. Fusion is a societal identity; moral authority is a political resource. All churches wield authority over religious matters and morality—where religious and national identity are fused, such churches also gain a particular, political, moral authority: a voice in policy debates and a reputation as defenders of broad societal interests, above secular partisanship and petty politicking. Churches with such high moral authority are seen as impartial, trusted, and credible representatives of the nation, allowing them to mobilize society beyond purely religious observance and pronouncements. This trust placed in a church does not equate demand for church influence on politics, but it indicates widespread identification of the church with the common good. For example, several Polish bishops acted as both mediators and national representatives during the Round Table negotiations in 1989, and their participation was widely accepted (and sought) by the communist party and by its democratic opposition.


Excerpted from Nations under God by Anna Grzymala-Busse. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter 1 Introduction 1

Chapter 2 Weapons of the Meek: How Churches Influence Policy 22

Chapter 3 Catholic Monopolies: Ireland and Italy 62

Chapter 4 Post-Communist Divergence: Poland and Croatia 145

Chapter 5 Religious Pluralism and Church Influence: United States and Canada 227

Conclusion Where Churches Matter 329

Appendix Further Tests of the Argument 345

References 373

Index 407

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"In this excellent book, Anna Grzymala-Busse demonstrates that the policy influence of organized religion in democracies depends not on the population's religiosity but on the church's moral authority within the political community, constructed over the course of national history. The originality of the argument, the methodological sophistication of the research, and the extensive historical and comparative evidentiary basis for the book's conclusions all make Nations under God an example of comparative politics at its best. The book is likely to serve as an essential point of reference for future work on the multifaceted and often uneasy relationship between religion and politics in modern democracies."—Giovanni Capoccia, University of Oxford

"In a penetrating analysis of why, when, and where religions have influence on politics, Grzymala-Busse demonstrates the importance of hard-won institutional access by church and other religious actors in those democracies where organized religion holds inordinate sway. Combining wide-ranging history, statistical evidence, and a compelling narrative account, Nations under God transforms forever our understanding of the links between religion and politics."—Margaret Levi, director and professor of political science, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University

"In this magisterial book, Anna Grzymala-Busse explains why churches in some nations wield political influence while churches in others do not. Wise, ambitious, and beautifully crafted, Nations under God is a model of comparative political analysis and is required reading for anyone interested in religion and politics."—James A. Morone, author of The Devils We Know and Hellfire Nation

"Why do Christian churches in some Western societies seem to exert more influence over policy than others? Why, for instance, was the Catholic Church able to get strong antiabortion laws passed in Poland but not in Italy? In this groundbreaking book, Grzymała-Busse proposes a solution to this puzzle."—Philip Gorski, Yale University

"Nations under God is a brilliant book. Grzymała-Busse offers a novel argument about how the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations successfully influenced policies in democratic regimes. With nuance and elegance, she systematically brings together many case-based, causal-process observations about the relationship of religious and national identities, and places the US experience in a coherent comparative framework."—Andrew C. Gould, University of Notre Dame

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