♟️Authoritarianism and religion come around again

Conceptions of authoritarianism have broadened to include all nondemocratic rule. Unnoticeably in that process, the role of religion and religious institutions has declined. Political and religious authority interact and overlap. Nathan Brown argues that rediscovering how they do so will help us refine our understanding of autocracy

Religion has moved to the edge of the attention of those studying regimes, but perhaps we need to bring it back to the centre. Juan Linz, who placed 'authoritarianism' as a regime type on our agenda, was actually very interested in religious institutions. However, as authoritarianism evolved into a residual category for non-democracies, religion receded. That is a loss.

Religious authority is about the ability to discern eternal truths. Political authority entails the ability to impose sanctions and rewards in this world. While distinct, both authorities interact in ways that make them a good place to analyse variation among regime types. The effort to unpack the extremely capacious term 'authoritarianism' into subtypes can be guided in part by examining how regimes and religion interact.

The old/new regime

Depending on our definition, authoritarianism may or may not the be the oldest regime type. If, by 'authoritarianism', we mean political systems in which senior officials do not derive their authority from competitive elections with uncertain outcomes, then it is as old as politics itself. That makes 'authoritarianism' a residual category, and has led to a series of efforts to understand its varieties.

But as old as 'authoritarianism' may be in practice, its use as distinct regime is little more than half a century old. Before then, 'authoritarian' referred to personality or behaviour, rather than a distinct regime type.

Juan Linz, who coined the term, struggled against using it as the residual term it has become. He knew what it was not, and his list was much longer than the one we use today. Authoritarianism was neither democratic nor totalitarian and, later on, not sultanistic, patrimonial, or any one of a number of categories. But Linz also offered a forgotten positive definition:

Political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive nor intensive political mobilisation, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones

juan j. linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, 1975

Linz’s insistence that authoritarianism was distinctive was based on the cases he knew best. Postwar Spain was Francoist, tyrannical, undemocratic, and repressive. But it was different from interwar totalitarian systems in significant part because of how it treated religion. And the Catholic Church loomed large in pushing Linz to make the distinction. It was represented in official structures; helped structure society; and delivered its own social teachings that obviated the need for an elaborate official ideology. The Catholic Church as an institution was not necessary. Egypt, for instance, was an oft-cited example of another case of authoritarianism. But when Linz poked around how authoritarianism operated in the cases he knew best, he kept bumping into it.

Finding religion

As our conception of authoritarianism broadened and became capacious, religion slipped into the background, but never quite disappeared. Earlier, Catholicism was considered hostile to democracy. Later, Islam drew attention. But much more subtly, scholarly attention shifted partially from Catholicism as a belief system to the Catholic Church as a structure, especially the role it had played in the 'third wave' in undermining authoritarianism (as now defined) in both hemispheres.

Most efforts to explain institutions under authoritarianism focus on how autocrats use them. But sometimes the operation of state institutions cannot be reduced to ruler interests

This was true to Linz’s original spirit: he made some reference to Catholic social thought, but it was not transubstantiation or the immaculate conception that interested him. It was the Church’s role in education, its representation in parliament, and its autonomy in internal affairs.

These same features are beginning to capture the attention of those trying to understand not simply how authoritarian regimes (as a category) operate, but also how they operate differently — that is, how our treatment of authoritarianism as a residual category should not blind us to its variations. Most efforts to explain institutions under authoritarianism focus on how autocrats use them. But such extreme functionalism is not always the most helpful approach. Sometimes the existence and operation of state institutions cannot be reduced to ruler interests.

Authoritarian politics is not always about the ruler

Autocrats Can't Always Get What They Want
State Institutions and Autonomy under Authoritarianism
By Nathan J Brown, Steven D Schaaf, Samer Anabtawi, and Julian G Waller

I explore this in a forthcoming book, alongside co-authors Steven D. Schaaf, Samer Anabtawi, and Julian G. Waller. Part of our effort focuses on religious institutions. We ask how and when authoritarian senior leaders (the 'regime') are able to control most of the state structure to maintain themselves, and when and how we need to look elsewhere to understand how governance operates.

Religion exists in various places inside the state apparatus: education, property regulation, public broadcasting, symbolism, social service provision, regulation of charity, state identity, rules for public assembly, even fiscal policy. Most existing subcategories of regime type focus on who or what rules (the military, a party, a person). We also need to understand how they rule, and how much they can manage (and micromanage) the state apparatus.

Religious institutions with control over their internal workings are much better able to formulate a mission, and to pursue their own policy preferences

Our book surveys the experiences of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Germany. We find that religious institutions which have control over their internal workings, and those with links to pious publics, are much better able to formulate a sense of mission. That lets them pursue their own policy preferences, even under authoritarian conditions.

Our conclusion is a more general rendition of Linz’s original insights about Spain, where the Church, a pillar of the regime, still demonstrated a will of its own. Witnessing this turn toward understanding the place of religion in the state and regime in authoritarian contexts, Linz might have felt his heirs were reinventing the wheel. If so, we have now done so enough times to equip scholars with the means to roll forward. To understand how an authoritarian regime operates, it pays to focus not only on who rules but how society and the state are organised. Religion turns out to be a great place to start.

♟️ No.26 in our Autocracies with Adjectives series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Nathan Brown
Nathan Brown
Associate Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, University of Bologna / Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University and Fellow, Hamburg Institute for Advanced Study

Nathan received his BA in political science from the University of Chicago and his MA and PhD in politics and Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.

He teaches courses on Middle Eastern politics as well as more general courses on comparative politics and international relations.

His current work is on religion and state.

He received the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Award for Scholarship from George Washington University in 2015 and the Harry Harding teaching award from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2014.

His dissertation received the Malcolm Kerr award from the Middle East Studies Association in 1987.

From 2013–2015, Nathan was president of the Middle East Studies Association, the academic association for scholars studying the region.

In 2013, he was named a Guggenheim Fellow; four years earlier, he was named a Carnegie Scholar by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

His most recent book is Authoritarianism from the Inside Out (with Steven D. Schaaf, Samer Anabtawi, and Julian Waller), University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2024.

He is the author of eight other books on Egyptian politics, Islamist movements, the rule of law, and constitutionalism.

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