Anthony Gill is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, adjunct professor of Sociology at the UW, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

On this episode of EconTalk, Russ Roberts hosts Anthony Gill for a conversation on the economics of religion. A fascinating question explored in the episode is, how do religious institutions interact with political institutions and religious liberty? A friendly reminder that incentives matter, brought to you by this EconTalk episode from our archives. Any thoughts on religious liberty in the current political economy? Let us know below, we would love to hear from you!

1- Gill seems to think that economists and political scientists are not as involved in studying religion because it seems difficult to quantify. Of particular interest to him and others, though, is the longevity of the Catholic Church, which is 1700-2000 years old- the longest standing institution in history.

Why do you think religion is a less popular object of study in the political economy? What other ways can you think of to apply political economy principles to the study of religion?

2- Gill contends that even though faith and religious practice are alien in terms of measurability, religious institutions act logically and are subject to economic criticism. For example, Gill argues religious liberty requires that clergy members compete as entrepreneurs to gain an audience to evangelize and to preach doctrine to. In the absence of appropriate tithing, Gill and Roberts discuss churches (all kinds) appealing to the government to catalyze growth with more resources.

How can churches make themselves attractive to both the government and potential parishioners? (And should they???) To what extent can religious competition harm the viability of religious liberty for individuals? Explain.

3- Property rights are another variable which presents an intersection between political and religious institutions under the structure of religious freedom. Gill provides the hypocritical example of government zoning restrictions prohibiting the development of churches in rural areas because of “congestion,” while suburban housing and shopping malls are allowed to build in the same areas. Politicians are looking for tax revenue, he explains, and points out that most churches have a form of tax-exempt status.

Should churches be taxed? Why or why not? Like Roberts and Gill, are you in favor of a more formal tax structure instead of a flexible, Pandora’s box type structure that taxes all groups and institutions differently? If not, for what reasons should different types of institutions’ revenue be taxed at different rates- or not at all? How can the interaction between church and state lead to  rent-seeking?

4- To what extent do you find truth in the William Penn/Hayek belief that toleration promotes economic flourishing? In the current economy, do you see big corporations proving to be susceptible to tribalism or are they promoting toleration to maximize profits?

[Editor’s Note: This Extra was originally published August 23, 2023.]

Brennan Beausir is a student at Wabash College studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and is a 2023 Summer Scholar at Liberty Fund.