Adan Smith's Authentic Views On Church and State
Tim Harford (of ”Undercover Economist” fame) writes in the Financial Times (16 November): “How Adam Smith could help the Church” “Laurence Iannaccone, an economist who has specialised in the economics of religion, developed an idea he drew from the writings of Adam Smith: that more competitive religious marketplaces lead to more dynamic churches.”
Adam Smith wrote extensively on the established Church of England and, to some extent on the quasi-established Church of Scotland, in Book V of his Wealth Of Nations. The Church of England held a privileged place in England’s political and social life, and had done in the centuries since the Protestant Reformation of the much older Catholic Church.
Its organisational structure followed, if lamely, the Roman Catholic Church that preceded it. Instead of a Pope, elected by Cardinals, sitting atop the Bishops, priests and laity, the English protestant Calvinist church had an Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed by the Prime Minister from a short list drawn by advisors, directing Bishops supported by their appointed priests. Meanwhile the Presbyterian Calvinist Church of Scotland (the successful survivor of a long struggle against the Catholic Church in Scotland and rival protestant claimants such as the Covenanters and Episcopalians) elected its leader (the Moderator) annually on the votes of parish Ministers, nominally themselves appointed by their parish members, but in practice by socially prominent local residents, in local Presbyteries (all of them subject of recall if they fell out with their Presbyteries, as many did from time to time, depending on the relative strength in the Church of Scotland of Calvinist zealots compared with Moderate Calvinists, of which persuasion Adam Smith had been brought up by his mother, Margaret Douglas Smith).
In Wealth Of Nations Smith detailed the many failings of the Established Church of England throughout its history, especially in its overly close relationship with the government of the day manifested in its repressive behaviour of incitement against rival minority churches. He also detailed the manifest failings of the Roman Catholics in agitating for the suppression of Calvinism in the very recent past and the moral corruption of its priesthood, particularly in such practices as the sale of “saintly” relics, fraudulent items like “indulgencies” and the release of the souls of the dead from purgatory in exchange for major donations and legacies via the opportunities created by the Roman doctrine of the “Confession” and the administration “Last Rights”.
Smith’s criticism of the Church of England was no less severe in its close association with local and national political establishments to the neglect of its lowly parishioners, and its no less active participation in persecuting adherents of small rival minority Christian religious movements (Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and others).
Laurence Iannaccone’s selective inference, upon which Tim Harford draws, that amount to saying that Smith’s asserted that “more competitive religious marketplaces lead to more dynamic churches”, deserves closer examination.
The key emphasis of Smith’s suggestion that a multiplicity of local religious sects which “allowed everyman to chuse his own priest and his own religion as he thought proper” was aimed at breaking to relationship between authorised established state religious churches and the state. Smith himself had to sign the “Calvinist Confession of Faith” in front of the congregation of the faculty of professors at Glasgow Cathedral before he was appointed to his chair at Glasgow University. Nobody outside the Church of Scotland could be appointed to a chair.
It was the close relationship of the established Church with the establishment that Smith aimed his suggestions in Wealth Of Nations. Scotland, it should be remembered at experiences almost constant religious strife from the mid-17th century: Smith wrote:
“Times of violent religious controversy have generally been times of equally violent political faction. Upon such occasions, each political party has either found it, or imagined it, for its interest, to league itself with some one or other of the contending religious sects. But this could be done only by adopting, or at least by favouring, the tenets of that particular sect. The sect which had the good fortune to be leagued with the conquering party, necessarily shared in the victory of its ally, by whose favour and protection it was soon enabled in some degree to silence and subdue all its adversaries. Those adversaries had generally leagued themselves with the enemies of the conquering party, and were therefore the enemies of that party. The clergy of this particular sect having thus become complete masters of the field, and their influence and authority with the great body of the people being in its highest vigour, they were powerful enough to over–awe the chiefs and leaders of their own party, and to oblige the civil magistrate to respect their opinions and inclinations. Their first demand was generally, that he should silence and subdue all their adversaries; and their second, that he should bestow an independent provision on themselves. As they had generally contributed a good deal to the victory, it seemed not unreasonable that they should have some share in the spoil. They were weary,
besides, of humouring the people, and of depending upon their caprice for a subsistence. In making this demand therefore they consulted their own ease and comfort, without troubling themselves about the effect which it might have in future times upon the influence and authority of their order. The civil magistrate, who could comply with this demand only by giving them something which he would have chosen much rather to take, or to keep to himself, was seldom very forward to grant it. Necessity, however, always forced him to submit at last, though frequently not till after many delays, evasions, and affected excuses.” (WN V.i.g.7: 792)
To avert these experiences that were caused by the joining of the State to one religious sect, Smith offered his case for the separation of religion from the state:
“But if politicks had never called in the aid of religion, had the conquering party never adopted the tenets of one sect more than those of another, when it had gained the victory, it would probably have dealt equally and impartially with all the different sects, and have allowed every man to chuse his own priest and his own religion as he thought proper. There would in this case, no doubt, have been a great multitude of religious sects. Almost every different congregation might probably have made a littlesect by itself, or have entertained some peculiar tenets of its own. Each teacher would
no doubt have felt himself under the necessity of making the utmost exertion, and of using every art both to preserve and to increase the number of his disciples. But as every other teacher would have felt himself under the same necessity, the success of no one teacher, or sect of teachers, could have been very great. The interested and
active zeal of religious teachers can be dangerous and troublesome only where there is, either but one sect tolerated in the society, or where the whole of a large society is divided into two or three great sects; the teachers of each acting by concert, and under a regular discipline and subordination. But that zeal must be altogether innocent where the society is divided into two or three hundred, or perhaps into as many thousand small sects, of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb the publick tranquillity. The teachers of each sect, seeing themselves surrounded on all sides with more adversaries than friends, would be obliged to learn that candour and moderation which is so seldom to be found among the teachers of those great sects, whose tenets being supported by the civil magistrate, are held in veneration by almost all the inhabitants of extensive kingdoms and empires, and who therefore see nothing round them but followers, disciples, and humble admirers. The teachers of each little sect, finding themselves almost alone, would be obliged to respect those of almost every other sect, and the concessions which they would mutually find it both convenient and agreeable to make to one another, might in time probably reduce the doctrine of the greater part of them to that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of
the world wished to see established; but such as positive law has perhaps never yet established, and probably never will establish in any country: because, with regard to religion, positive law always has been, and probably always will be, more or less influenced by popular superstition and enthusiasm. This plan of ecclesiastical government, or more properly of no ecclesiastical government, was what the sect called Independents, a sect no doubt of very wild enthusiasts, proposed to establish in England towards the end of the civil war. If it had been established, though of a very unphilosophical origin, it would probably by this time have been productive of the most philosophical good temper and moderation with regard to every sort of religious principle. It has been established in Pensylvania, where, though the Quakers happen to be the most numerous, the law in reality favours no one sect more than another, and it is there said to have been productive of this philosophical good temper and moderation” (WN V.i.g.8: 792-3).
I think these long quotations encapsulate what Smith was about in arguing for a multiplicity of sects, namely that the very competition of each would act as a balm on the otherwise violent, or at least the disturbing clamour of their zealots at the expense of public tranquility. It was not aimed at causing larger congregations so much, perhaps, as allowing room for the tolerance of a third-sect of potentially non-religious citizenry, living amidst a large number of religious sects at peace with each other.
Now I accept that Harford in his popular press commentary(why disturb a popular formula?) does not have the space, time, or even the inclination to make long excursions into Adam Smith’s full views, nor do his editors have space for discursive essays, but readers of Lost Legacy may appreciate statements of the authentic views of Adam Smith in the context in which he expressed himself.
[My essay, “The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology” was published in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, September 2011.]