The Middle East

Assessing the Effects of Church and State on Organized Civil Society

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 4, September 2005

By Robert C. Lowry1

What explains the variation in the size of organized civil society across political jurisdictions and time? More specifically, how important are differences in laws and public policies compared to differences in the traits of individuals or other private institutions? Recently, I sought to answer this question with a statistical analysis of tax-exempt organizations in the United States.2 The analysis sought to identify the factors that explain the variation in the numbers of civic organizations and citizen groups across American states, circa 1990 and 1998; to determine whether the same factors explain variations in all kinds of organizations, or only particular kinds; and to measure the relative importance of different factors. These are my principal findings.

1. Different types of organizations rise and fall together. My evidence shows that civic organizations providing “club goods” – cultural, historical, or other educational activities, or sports, athletic, recreational, or other social activities – and citizen groups that seek to influence public policy on civil rights or the environment are affected in similar ways by the variables in my models. Thus, states that have more cultural organizations and sports clubs relative to population also tend to have more civil rights and environmental organizations. Critics who embrace some kinds of civic organizations but worry that other kinds (often labeled “single-issue groups”) may enable small numbers of extremists to mobilize and dominate public debates have little choice but to take the bad with the good.

2 . Religion makes a substantial difference. I find that the religious make-up of the population has a particularly large impact on the number of nonreligious civic organizations that form. Civic organizations tend to be more numerous in states with a high percentage of mainline Protestants, and less numerous in states with a high percentage of evangelical Protestants. A high percentage of Catholics has an insignificant effect on most types of civic organizations. These findings are consistent with survey research showing that individuals who attend evangelical Protestant churches in the United States are less likely to join nonreligious membership organizations than are individuals who attend Catholic or mainline Protestant churches.3 This does not mean that certain denominations are anti-civic. Rather, some churches tend to keep civic engagement within their own organizations rather than encouraging engagement in the wider community.

3. Education makes a smaller difference. Civic organizations of all types are more prevalent in states where more of the population is college educated. The effect is greatest for groups that seek to influence public policy, and more modest for groups that provide club goods. In general, however, the effects of education are less dramatic than the effects of religion. Other socioeconomic factors including age composition, urbanization, political preferences, and per capita income have little independent effect.

4. Public policy makes little difference. Regarding the public sector, my findings echo those of other scholars that the ability of governments to promote or discourage organized civil society is slight.4 States vary in public sector spending on related activities, regulation of fundraising, and provisions for direct democracy, but the effects of these variables on the kinds of organizations I studied are often statistically insignificant and swamped by other factors even when they are significant. In the long run, the most effective policies for promoting civil society are likely to be those that promote education. Even then, states have little ability to affect the kinds of organizations that form. Higher levels of education attainment should lead to more civic organizations of all kinds, including the single-issue citizen groups that some scholars bemoan.

Caveats and Conclusions. Three caveats must be kept in mind before applying my results to other countries or earlier time periods in the United States. First, analyzing the effects of laws and public spending on civil society is not a simple statistical exercise. One issue concerns measurement: How do we quantify differences in laws so that we may use statistical models to estimate their effects? Another issue concerns the question of causation: Do high levels of state spending on natural resources programs, for example, stimulate the formation of more environmental groups, or do environmental groups influence policymakers to spend more on natural resources programs? Although I address these issues by using appropriate statistical techniques, other studies that use different techniques might come to somewhat different conclusions.

Second, the study did not include all kinds of civic organizations. In particular, I did not study social services organizations that work in partnership with government agencies to provide services to targeted populations. Many of these organizations rely heavily on government grants and contracts for funding, and they obviously have a strong interest in the programs they help to implement. I expect that differences in public policy would be more important for explaining variation in the numbers of these kinds of organizations.

Third, the range of permissible legal restrictions on civil society in the United States today is quite narrow. A series of Supreme Court decisions during the 1980s culminating in Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina, Inc., 487 U.S. 781 (1988), held that a state’s ability to regulate fundraising is limited by the First Amendment. Regulations must be narrowly drawn to prevent fraud, and must not discriminate between different kinds of organizations based on their purpose or popularity. The Court applied this principle in cases striking down restrictions on the hours during which organizations may solicit door-to-door, limitations on fundraising fees as a percentage of contributions, requirements that fundraising appeals disclose certain information, and licensing procedures that permit an unlimited delay before an application is granted or denied. Regulations that meet the constitutional standard and were included in my analysis essentially require that nonprofit organizations or people involved in raising money for them must register with a state agency, post a bond, and provide copies of contracts with professional solicitors or agreements for co-ventures. Not all states have all of these requirements, and some rely only on ex post actions for fraud. If the necessary data were available, we might find that the effects of fundraising regulations in effect prior to the Supreme Court’s rulings were much greater than those I found. Similarly, laws in other countries that impose greater burdens or discriminate among different kinds of organizations or allow government officials to exercise substantial discretion in their application5 may have major impacts.

In sum, my findings imply that in a society where freedom of expression and association enjoy strong legal protections, differences in the religious composition of the population tend to be more important than differences in public spending and regulations for explaining variation in the numbers of civic organizations that operate independent of the state. Religious composition is also more important than socioeconomic factors such as education attainment. Thus, shifts in the popularity of different religious denominations should have important secondary effects on other aspects of civil society. In addition, any attempt to explain cross-national variation in civil society must take account of differences in religious freedom and practices between countries, as well as differences in laws that apply directly to nonreligious civic organizations.


1 Robert C. Lowry is a professor of political science and director of the public policy and administration program at the University of Iowa.

2 Robert C. Lowry, “Explaining the Variation in Organized Civil Society Across States and Time,” The Journal of Politics, 67(May 2005), 574-594.

3 Robert Wuthnow, “Mobilizing Civic Engagement: The Changing Impact of Religious Involvement.” In Theda Skocpol and Morris Fiorina (eds.), Civic Engagement and American Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 331-363.

4 See Stephen Knack, “Social Capital and the Quality of Government: Evidence from the States,” American Journal of Political Science 46 (October 2002), 772-785; Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

5 See, e.g., Stephen Larrabee, “Draconian Proposals in Kazakhstan,” The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, (June, 2005), 7.