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The Religious Roots of Civil Society: Western Europe in the Age of Mass Politics, 1870s-1970s

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Abstract

This paper addresses the problem of the sources of civil society. What makes people form, affiliate and engage in activities in voluntary associations? I develop a new theory of the origins of civil society by focusing on a comparison of popular sector/lower class associations of urban and rural populations in a set of Western European countries during the period of the 1870s-1970s. The countries under study are Sweden, Norway, Austria (very strong civil societies); Germany, Netherlands, Belgium (strong civil societies); Britain (medium strength civil society); Italy, France (weak civil societies); Spain and Portugal (very weak civil societies). I argue that patterns of civil society in Western Europe from the late 19th to the late 20th century were shaped by variations in state-church relations during the process of modernization. The more the church has put a territorial barrier to state expansion, the less likely it was that the state developed a strong capacity. If state and church elites were allies in the process of nation building, the easier was to achieve national territorial unification, because the state used the church resources, personnel, and apparatus for the implementation of state policies, especially in welfare provision (pensions, relief funds) and educational policies. State-capacity was enhanced when states could rely on a tradition of partnerships with religious bodies since the seventeenth-century. This legacy made states more wiling to empower voluntary associations. Political elites recognized corporate-religious bodies and groups as legitimate and integrated them, in the context of heightened international military and economic competition of the 1870s-1930s, in policy-making networks for the dispensation of military, welfare and economic policies. This promoted the recognition of the autonomy and self-administration of voluntary associations. Second, since high capacity states were more able to impose a uniform jurisdiction and control over a territory, this made easier for associations to expand through the whole national territory, to connect different geographical areas and more easily develop encompassing peak associations. In Western Europe, contexts of high conflict between the state and the church were the cases of France, Spain, Portugal and to some extent also Italy. England is an intermediate case since early on was reached an accommodation with the state, the Anglican church of England, although there was also conflict over religion in Catholic Ireland. Other countries, however, reached some agreement between the state and the church, like in the Hapsburg Empire or in Belgium. In Belgium, the Catholic Church opposed liberal-secular policies, especially in education since the 1850s, but it accepted the legitimacy of the Belgium monarchy. In Prussia, the Lutheran church was part of the state apparatus, although in unified Germany there was the persecution of Catholics during Bismarck’s rule. Finally, Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and in the Netherlands were more inclusive. In Scandinavia was where the intensity of this conflict was lowest. Since the state and the church were almost the same, the movements for church reform that emerged in the nineteenth century were at the same time directed at reforming the state, not opposing it. Tiago Fernandes Visiting Fellow – Kellogg Institute for International Studies University of Notre Dame