A new paper from the University of Münster finds that religious communities had a much greater influence on the formation of European welfare states than has previously been known.

This not a secret, churches cared for poor people when European monarchies simply claimed a divine right. But the extent of the welfare state's legacy in religion was not well known. Europeans love the welfare state and are less religious than ever, even though religion is what got the welfare state for them. 

“Particularly in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, in which the state and the churches as well as the denominations were competing against one another, religions became highly committed to the welfare sector,” says theologian Prof. Hans-Richard Reuter from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence. In this respect, religions played a key role in determining how and how strongly a country’s welfare sector developed, according to their analysis of 13 European countries. 

“Meagre welfare state in countries with Orthodoxy and Islam”

The authors examined religious-denominational influences on the welfare state development in 13 European countries from industrialization to the present. On this basis, according to the strength of welfare statism and of the religious influence on it, the scholars identified different types of countries.

"'At the same time, every single country reveals a unique form of development of its welfare system," according to the researchers.

The weakest welfare state forms can be found in those countries of the study with a Christian-Orthodox and Ottoman influence.

“While the welfare states of Western Europe handled both class division and conflicts between church and state institutionally, Orthodoxy in countries such as Greece, Russia and Bulgaria never developed a conflictual counterpart that could have led to activities in the social sector.”

The researchers found a similar situation as regards Islam and Turkey.

According to the study, “religiously awakened and charismatic personalities” often initiated the social commitment of the religious communities in countries with a stronger welfare state. In Germany, baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877) and the social ethicist and politician Franz Hitze (1851-1921) were among them on the Catholic side. The authors name Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1831-1910), theologian Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), social politician Theodor Lohmann (1831-1905) and Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) as pioneering Protestants.

The researchers found a particularly strong religious influence on the welfare state in mixed denominational countries like Germany and the Netherlands. The crucial factor was that the competition among the churches and the state coincided with the competition among the denominations. This also applied to countries in which religion and state carried out conflicts of interest and remained institutionally independent, according to the editors.

“Here, religions did not only react to modernization and the formation of the welfare state but also had an active impact themselves.” Prof. Gabriel said, “In Germany, like nowhere else, the well-organized Catholics discovered social politics as the preferred area for their struggle for social recognition and political emancipation.” It mattered in this respect that religion and enlightenment were not mutually exclusive.

In other Central and North West European countries such as Sweden with its Lutheran influences and Denmark, as well as Great Britain with its Anglican influences, impulses of enlightenment and of Christianity were also combined successfully, according to the authors. “In this way, the orientation of the civil-national revolutions did not become anti-Christian but was positively linked to the Christian heritage.”

The welfare states in Southern and Eastern Europe were less pronounced and also had less religious influence. “In Spain or Poland, for example, Catholicism was closely integrated with the state and held a religious monopoly. Consequently, competition did not develop – neither between religion and state nor between the individual denominations”, according to the editors. The welfare state in Italy was a little more pronounced and featured at least some “Catholic elements effective in the long term.”

Citation: Gabriel, Karl/Reuter, Hans-Richard/Kurschat, Andreas/Leibold, Stefan (eds.): Religion und Wohlfahrtsstaatlichkeit in Europa. Konstellationen – Kulturen – Konflikte, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2013, 513 pages, ISBN: 978-3-16-151717-4, € 89.