God or Government Spending: Choose One?

Sunday, April 5, AD 2009

Correlation isn’t causation. That said, I thought this from the Wall Street Journal was interesting:

A recent study of 33 countries by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde found an inverse relationship between religious observance and welfare spending. Countries with larger welfare states, such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, affiliation and trust in God than countries with a history of limited government, such as the U.S., the Philippines and Brazil. Public spending amounts to more than one half of the GDP in Sweden, where only 4% of the population regularly attends church. By contrast, public spending amounts to 18% of the Philippines’ GDP, and 68% of Filipinos regularly attend church.

“For many centuries, average citizens and local communities have often relied upon the support of religious organizations to meet their various social needs, including assistance for the poor, counseling in times of crisis and education for the young,” explains Mr. Gill, a political scientist at the University of Washington. “But as the welfare state has expanded, many people have found that they can get these same services from the government without having to give a time commitment to the local church.”

Other research indicates that religious giving also falls when the welfare state increases its spending. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber and Notre Dame economist Daniel Hungerman found that charitable spending by churches declined 30% in the wake of the New Deal and that nearly all of the decrease can be accounted for by increases in public spending in the 1930s. They conclude that “government spending does crowd out private charity, at least through churches.”

The rest is here. I don’t think the country sample size is large enough to conclude higher government spending and religious observance are inversely related in general, but it’s worth considering. Any thoughts on why this may or may not be the case?

One Response to God or Government Spending: Choose One?

  • Hmmm…

    I would be sad to discover that the only reason people ever went to church in the past was to get social services now provided by the government. That would be too simplistic, anyway.

    What I question is the direction of causality here. Did government programs simply push out private charity, or was private charity not up to the new demands of an industrialized society?

    I think it is true that material success tends to weaken religious conviction – in the US the more prosperous areas are the more liberal and less devout (if we measure this by church attendance) areas.

    This is because man gets in his head the notion that he “doesn’t need God” anymore – that he is entirely self-sufficient. Do people here remember Durkheim’s study of suicide, where he found that there was more of it in Protestant countries than Catholic due to higher levels of social integration in the latter? People have criticized the study but I think the essential finding is valid – where there is more social integration and community, there will be more religious devotion. People realize that they are not entirely self-sufficient or entirely alone, at the mercy of the state or the market. The presence of others, the feeling of being supported by something beyond one’s self, has a psychological effect.