She’s ba-ack

God has returned to Europe. So reports The Wall Street Journal. The question is, why? The WSJ offers up the supply-side theory, and the facts appear to fit.

The supply-side theory says that church membership will be strong where the competition is strong and churches are competing for numbers. Old Europe (to coin a phrase) had monopoly churches, churches established and funded by the state without regard to their performance. In contrast, everyone knows that Americans are much more religious the Europeans. The common explanation is that Americans are different. That’s the demand-side explanation; that Americans are exceptional. The supply-side explanation is institutional: separation of church and state. Ironically, in choosing not to have established churches the authors of the Constitution created an environment in which religiousity was strong.

The Wall Street Journal article paints a familiar but still striking picture of religion in the Old Europe:

“The state undermined the church from within,” says Stefan Swärd, a leader of Sweden’s small but growing evangelical movement.

Consider the scene on a recent Sunday at Stockholm’s Hedvig Eleonara Church, a parish of the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran institution that until 2000 was an official organ of the Swedish state. Fewer than 40 people, nearly all elderly, gathered in pews beneath a magnificent 18th-century dome. Seven were church employees. The church seats over 1,000.

Hedvig Eleonara has three full-time salaried priests and gets over $2 million each year though a state levy. Annika Sandström, head of its governing board, says she doesn’t believe in God and took the post “on the one condition that no one expects me to go each Sunday.” The church scrapped Sunday school last fall because only five children attended.

Just a few blocks away, Passion Church, an eight-month-old evangelical outfit, fizzed with fervor. Nearly 100 young Swedes rocked to a high-decibel band: “It’s like adrenaline running through my blood,” they sang in English. “We’re talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

In the New Europe religiousity is making a comeback. And there is some evidence for a supply-side explanation:

One factor now spurring religious competition in Europe is the availability of state money that traditionally flowed almost entirely to established churches. It still does, but the process is more open.

In Italy, the state used to pay the salaries of Catholic priests, but in 1984 it began letting taxpayers choose which religious groups get financial support. The proceeds of a new “religious tax” of 0.8% are now divided, according to taxpayer preference, among the Catholic Church, four non-Catholic churches, the Jewish community and a state religious and humanitarian fund.

The result is an annual beauty contest ahead of a June income-tax deadline, as churches try to lure taxpayer money with advertising campaigns. Catholics get the lion’s share — 87% of nearly $1.2 billion in 2004, the last year for which figures are available. But according to a 2005 study by Italian lawyer Massimo Introvigne and Mr. Stark, the system “reminds Italians every year that there is a religious economy.”

Sweden has also overhauled church financing. In 2000, the government gave up formal control of the Church of Sweden. With great fanfare it replaced what had been a church “tax” with an annual “fee,” still collected by tax authorities, levied on Church of Sweden members.

For the first time, taxpayers were told what they owed in cash — instead of being given just a percentage figure, which is typically under 1% of household income. Church of Sweden membership dropped abruptly, and the church launched a publicity drive pitching religion.

Read and decide for yourself why more Europeans are going to church.

The Daily Episcopalian discussed Episcopalian membership trends from the supply-side perspective here, and from the demand-side here.

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