As America demonstrates, faith thrives in a free market. In Europe, the established church, whether formal (the Church of England) or informal (as in Catholic Italy and Spain), killed religion as surely as state ownership killed the British car industry. When the Episcopal Church degenerates into wimpsville relativist milquetoast mush, Americans go elsewhere. When the Church of England undergoes similar institutional decline, Britons give up on religion entirely. ~Mark Steyn
There’s something rather odd about this line of argument. It’s a pretty obvious flaw that an acquaintance with the first 1,900 years of Christianity would reveal: established, state-backed religion flourished in Europe for most of European history. Across Europe, institutional churches have lost the mass membership they once had, whether they are preaching “milquetoast mush” or very traditional orthodoxy (the latter undoubtedly fare somewhat better, but only relatively so). Leave aside for now that the options in England aren’t just “Anglicanism or Bust!” and that Britons can (and sometimes do) choose to attend one of the other churches.
This explanation of Europe’s greater secularisation is amazingly unsatisfying, designed as it is to vindicate “market forces” in every area of life. I suppose that I expect it from a venture capitalist, but I also expect conservatives to question it. I don’t deny that alliances between states and institutional churches (or, in many countries, the subordination of the church as effectively a department of government) over the last two centuries politicised the position of the church and radicalised opponents of the regime in an increasingly anticlerical and sometimes anti-Christian direction. But that was not the “cause” of secularisation as such. Here is a list, by no means exhaustive, of some of what were significant causes of the process of secularisation in Europe: scientific advances, materialist philosophies, the uprooting and deracinating effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, the introduction of ideological politics and mass political mobilisation, the material and moral ravages of the two wars, followed by the effects of two essentially materialist worldviews that claimed to “deliver the goods” more effectively or justly than the other. Where the experience of Europe clearly differs from our own, and one of the reasons why Europe has gone further in its secularisation, is in their experience of the wars. I have to wonder whether Americans would have been church-going and believing in the numbers that we are today if we had experienced the full horror of these conflicts and had endured the same losses. There is a basic problem with the thesis that “faith thrives in a free market,” which is that there are now “free markets” all across Europe where there are no established churches or, where there are technically established churches they have no real authority over all citizens of that country who are not members, and yet faith isn’t exactly thriving and has been largely going into decline in the free, western European part since the war. There has been some religious revival since the Cold War, but it is sporadic. If “faith thrives in a free market,” Spain should not have undergone the rapid secularisation that it has experienced since the end of the Franco regime. Italy disestablished the Catholic Church in 1984, which must be why religions of all kinds have been flourishing in Italy. The Republic of Ireland hasn’t ever had an established church, yet it is experiencing the same secularisation that overtook Spain before it. It has been the last twenty years of economic and social changes that have sapped the strength of religion in Ireland. Clearly there is something much more complicated going on that cannot be explained with easy reference to establishment/disestablishment of religion.