Legal Centralization and the Birth of the Secular State

witch burningLegal Centralization and the Birth of the Secular State

Noel D Johnson and Mark Koyama

George Mason University: 22. August (2012)


This paper investigates the relationship between the historical process of legal centralization and increased religious toleration by the state. We develop a model in which legal centralization leads to the criminalization of the religious beliefs of a large proportion of the population. This process initially leads to increased persecution, but, because these persecutions are costly, it eventually causes the state to broaden the standards of orthodox belief and move toward religious toleration. We compare the results of the model with historical evidence drawn from two important cases in which religious diversity and state centralization collided in France: the Albigensian crusades of the thirteenth century and the rise of Protestant belief in the sixteenth century. Both instances sup- port our central claim that the secularization of western European state institutions during the early-modern period was driven by the costs of imposing a common set of legal standards on religiously diverse populations.

How did the modern secular state emerge? All premodern states used religion to legitimize their authority. Religious freedom was limited and control over religion by elites ubiquitous. By contrast, governments in the developed world today — even in countries where there is an official state church or where levels of religiosity are high — are resolutely secular when compared with governments of the past. This paper provides a causal mechanism that helps to explain this transition from repression to tolerance and from the religiously sanctioned polities of the past to the modern secular state.


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