Is Religious Liberty in the West an Historical Accident?

Author: Bugra Kalkan*Bugra Kalkan

Religious liberty emerges and survives only in the countries where the rule of law is institutionalized. And to build rule of law in a country requires a neutral government that protects rights of members of political society. Well, this is the central claim and also the central problem of classical liberalism. Why would any government prefer to stay neutral among her citizens rather than discriminating the ones who do not support the government?  

What makes the difference concerning the institutionalization of rule of law? Is it culture, religion or written constitutions? Acemoglu and Robinson have clearly showed in their book, Why Nations Fail?, that there are tremendous examples that contradicts with cultural explanations. For instance, you cannot explain the productivity differences between the South and North Koreans, or of Turks in Turkey and Germany by employing cultural differences. History of the most of the religions is also full of violent persecutions against “heretics”. And a written constitution does not mean much for politicians or groups who cannot trust others to follow the rules of that constitution.

Douglass North and his friends have developed a utilitarian (Hayek would call it as rule utilitarianism) explanation for the emergence of rule of law, in their book Violence and Social Orders. The authors claim that the rule of law -the recognition and the protection of equal rights of individuals- is the precondition of wealth creation. Groups in power in non-liberal countries would prefer to restrict liberty and prone to deny the rights of the groups outside of their political coalition. Thus, the political elite groups can protect their wealth by excluding other groups to participate in wealth creation. Denying rights is an instrument to exclude other groups from value creating activities, such as commerce, manufacture or politics.

But, there are two basic problems for the groups in power. First, restricting liberty creates political instability. In such countries, wealth is relatively limited and does not depend on cooperation but rather violence capacity of the groups. So, violence can occur any time among the powerful groups to redistribute the wealth. And second problem is that limited liberty causes poverty. The reason for that is simple: because people are not allowed to produce in these countries. The wealth is secured by the political elites by excluding others from productive activities.

Well, it is claimed that the dilemma between political stability and the wealth creation has been solved first-time in United Kingdom. First, political elites developed political institutions, such as the Parliament, to create trust among themselves. Second they granted rights to larger people through time in order to utilize the productive force of the others and to create more wealth. That is why, wealth creation and recognition of rights of the commoners went hand in hand. And the political stability has depended on the recognition and the protection of the rights of the people in United Kingdom.

It is not surprising that John Locke published his book, A Letter Concerning Toleration, in United Kingdom right after the Glorious Revolution. The development of the concept of limited government and supremacy of the parliament over the monarch coincided with the beginning of the institutionalization of the religious freedom. So, according to the North and others, it is not the culture or religion but the accidental emergence of the wealth creating institutions that secures the rule of law.

According to this explanation, religious freedom can only be a byproduct of rule of law. Believing in religious liberty as a normative principle is important but acceptance of this principle by the political elites depends on the evolution of the wealth creating institutions, such as private property and commerce. So, next week, I will write on the statistics that supports this point.


(*) Dr. Bugra Kalkan is a professor of political science in Katip Celebi University, Izmir. He is also a senior academic fellow in the Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey.


  1. This is an interesting theory but what examples are there of secular totalitarian regimes moving to a position of liberty without some religious pressure? What was the motivation top move to liberal institutions in the UK. did the elites simply work it out for themselves or would they not have developed in this way without a religious perspective?

  2. After Russia abandoned its scientific atheism in 1990, freedom of conscience has been guaranteed by law. But this legal guarantee did not last long, and any religious group that has the potential to grow against Russian Orthodox Church has faced severe legal restrictions and threats. Once the Russian political authorities have understood that religious freedom can harm the power of the dominant Russian Church, they have started to limit the religious freedom in Russia. The situation of China is worse. Although the capitalist China is better than communist China regarding religious freedom, Chinese authorities see religion as a political threat and are conducting violent persecutions against “unofficial religious groups”. If you are not a member of a religious group which is not officially permitted, than you are treated as a potential threat by the government.
    England is totally another example compare to the communist states. For sure, at the times of John Locke, theological problems were so popular and Locke’s ideas on toleration stemmed from these debates. But, I believe that if the institutional development was not ready for such ideas, mere ideas wouldn’t have got popular in those years.

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