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Religious Regulation: The Regulation of All Religion in a Country

Summary and Keywords

Countries can regulate both the majority religion and minority religions. Although most countries do both, the motivations and dynamics of these two types of regulation are distinct. The regulation, restriction, or control by a government of all religion in a country, including the majority religion, can take multiple forms. These include regulating (1) religion’s role in politics, (2) religious institutions and clergy, (3) religious practices, and (4) other aspects of religion. At least one form of religious regulation is engaged in by 95.5% of governments, and religious regulation is becoming more common over time. Regulating, restricting, and controlling religion is the norm worldwide regardless of world region, government type, and majority religion.

Multiple motivations exist for regulating, restricting, and controlling majority religions. (1) Some countries have secular or anti-religious national ideologies. (2) Some countries support religion, but countries that support a religion often also want to influence and control that religion. In fact, control is a nearly inevitable consequence of support. (3) Politicians often fear religion’s potential political power and seek to keep it in check. (4) Autocratic governments often seek to restrict any aspect of civil culture they cannot control, and this includes religion. On the other hand, regulation is costly. It requires resources that can be used elsewhere, so regulating religion represents a decision to use resources despite these costs.

Keywords: religious regulation, religious repression, religious institutions, religious practices, religious support, politics and religion


The regulation of religion is a complicated topic. One reason for this is that when discussing how governments regulate religion, it is easy to overlook that there is a critical distinction between two types of regulation. Governments can enact regulations that affect all religions in the country, including the majority religion, and they can enact regulations that target minority religions specifically. Although most countries do both, the motivations and dynamics of these two types of regulation are distinct.

Consider, for example, a government policy restricting the ability to build a place of worship in two countries. In Kazakhstan, a Muslim majority country, all mosques not affiliated with the country’s official, government-supported Islamic organization are banned. Unaffiliated mosques are routinely shut down.1 The government tightly controls activity in these mosques and appoints all imams. This is clearly an effort by the government to regulate and control the majority religion. Saudi Arabia, while heavily regulating mosques, bans any non-Muslim place of worship altogether. In Kazakhstan, the government is generally secular and intolerant of religion, which results in high levels of regulation of all religion in the country, including Islam, the religion of the majority of the country’s inhabitants. Saudi Arabia strongly supports a specific version of Islam to the exclusion of all other religions, including other interpretations of Islam. The state prohibits any expression of religion by any religion other than the state-supported Islam. In both states Islam, the majority religion, is heavily regulated by the government, and minority religions are restricted. However, the motivations for these policies are different. In Kazakhstan they are part of a general effort to regulate all religion, and in Saudi Arabia they are motivated by a desire to support a single interpretation of a single religion.

In both of these countries, the motivations and dynamics of their polices toward the majority and minority religions are related, but they are also distinct. Also, the manner in which these countries regulate the majority religion and restrict minority religions is also divergent. For this reason, this article addresses government regulations that influence all religions in a country, including the majority religion, and another article in this volume addresses restrictions on minority religions.

The regulation, of religion in this context means that the government places some form of restriction or control on all religion in the country, including the majority religion. These policies can have a number of sources. Although much of policy is set by constitutions and formal laws enacted by national legislations, there are at least five additional sources of policy. First, government bureaucracies and administrators often have the power to pass regulations, often in order to implement laws. Second, governments often enter into formal agreements with religious entities that have the force of law. For example, many countries have agreements with the Catholic Church, known as concordants, which both give privileges to and restrict the Church. For example, Venezuela’s 1964 Concordant with the Catholic Church, while providing numerous privileges, also gives the government the right to approve all bishops and archbishops appointed by the Church in the country. Third, courts often decide issues of policy relevance. Fourth, not all government policy is in writing. Often officials simply take action. This can include police arresting people engaging in activities the government considers undesirable. Finally, local governments often make policy that is not fully congruent with that of the national government.

Why Regulate Religion?

There are four potential types of motivation for engaging in the restriction, regulation, or control of all religion in a country. First, some countries have explicitly anti-religious national ideologies. Perhaps the most clear-cut example of an anti-religious ideology is communism. Marx considered religion a “false consciousness” used by rulers to distract workers from their true interests. Since 1990, there remain few communist countries. However, a number of countries maintain secular national ideologies that can be seen as anti-religious. France and Turkey (before the rise of Erdogan) are considered classic examples among democracies of this type of government (Kuru, 2009; Hurd, 2004a, 2004b).

Most who write on the topic call this type of ideology “laicism,” after France’s laïcité policy, others, like Kuru (2009), call it “assertive secularism.” This type of ideology is found in democratic states and has two characteristics. First, it advocates the most comprehensive form of separation of religion and state found in modern democratic states (Fox, 2015). Second, it advocates that the public sphere be completely secular. Thus, not only are restrictions on religion in public settings allowed by this ideology, they are required. As this ideology represents a distaste toward religion in general, most restrictions apply equally to all religions, including the majority religion. These restrictions usually include restrictions on public religious expression and activities. For example, in 2004 France passed a law prohibiting public school students and employees from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including head coverings, skullcaps, and large crosses. Although the impetus for this law was the wearing of head coverings by Muslim women, which, as seen through France’s laïcité philosophy, is an aggressive expression of religion in secular public institutions, the law was consciously applied to all religions as part of France’s laïcité policy. In extreme cases the government may also restrict religion in the private sphere, but generally private expressions of religion are protected because this ideology specifically defines religion as a private issue. Among democracies, even those that do not have an explicitly laïcité outlook, the belief that government should stay out of religion is common (Kuru, 2009; Hurd, 2004a, 2004b; Haynes, 1997; Keane, 2000; Stepan, 2000; Durham, 1996, pp. 21–22; Esbeck, 1988).

A number of nondemocratic governments have been influenced by laicism but have developed more aggressive anti-religious policies. These governments, including the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, tend to have the following characteristics. They declare the state secular or at least declare some form of separation of religion and state in their constitutions. They ban any religious influence on government. They create state-supported and controlled religious institutions that maintain a moderate interpretation of the majority religion and control all religious expression and education in the country. They ban all religious expression and organizations outside of these state-controlled institutions. Thus, these countries in effect support the majority religion and its institutions in order to control it (Fox, 2008, 2015, 2018).

The second motivation for regulating religion is a desire to support religion. Support and regulation of religion are intimately intertwined. When a government supports religion, that religion becomes to an extent dependent upon that government support, which makes it more susceptible to government control. Although this is not always the intention for supporting religion, it is an inevitable result. Also, one of the most effective tactics to control religion is to support it and make that support contingent upon at least some government influence on the supported religious institutions (Cosgel & Miceli, 2009, p. 403; Demerath, 2001, p. 204; Fox, 2015, pp. 65–66; Grim & Finke, 2011, p. 207; Toft, Philpott, & Shah, 2011, pp. 34–35).

Kuhle (2011) argues that this is what occurred in the five Nordic states of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, though the latter two have since separated from their official religions. All of them declare, or in the past have declared, the Lutheran Church to be the official religion of the state and have supported the religion financially. The Church often also performed tasks for the government, including maintaining graveyards and some official records. Yet, “a close relationship between state and church entails a risk of the state interfering with what some would regard as ‘internal’ religious questions” (Kuhle, 2011, p. 211). These governments have successfully pressured their national churches to change their doctrines on issues such as gay marriage and the ordination of women.

A third motivation for regulating religion is the interests of politicians. A primary interest can be the fear of religion’s political power. Gill (2008) points out that religion can be a useful tool for politicians. Accordingly, politicians often choose to support religion. However, at the same time these politicians do not want religious actors to compete with them for political power, and may be motivated to regulate religion for this reason. “While religion is often an ally in the pursuit of power, once power has been secured, religion can become an unwelcome constraint in the quite different processes of state administration.” Because of this, many states regulate religion in order “to coopt and nullify it as an independent power base” (Demerath & Straight, 1997, p. 44).

Religious institutions can be significant political actors. Although religious institutions are not intended or designed to organize people for political activity, in practice they do exactly that across the world. This can include supporting an opposition movement or opposing specific government policies. This is because religious organizations tend to have many of the features one would want in order to mobilize for political action, including, leaders, legitimacy, labor resources, material resources, a physical place to meet, and communication networks (Fox, 2002, 2018; Wald, Silverman, & Friday, 2005; Johnston & Figa, 1988). Not all governments are happy with this fact.

Sarkissian (2015) discusses the regulation of religion in autocratic regimes, which, she argues, are by their nature intolerant of all opposition. This makes religion automatically suspect because it is a potential basis for opposition. From this perspective, religion is repressed, as would be any other independent element of civil society that is seen as a potential threat to the regime. When religion is allowed, it is directly controlled, or at least closely monitored by the government, in order to make sure it cannot be a basis for opposition. Sarkissian (2015) identifies five mores specific types of policies in these states: (1) Some repress all religion. (2) Some support one religion, control it, and ban all religion outside of the auspices of this religion. (3) The government co-opts religion by supporting it in return for the religious institution supporting the state, but the religious institutions otherwise have a high degree of independence. (4) The government engages in variable repression, with those religious organizations seen as a greater threat to the state being more strongly repressed and regulated. (5) Some countries, usually those whose populations are religiously homogeneous but not particularly religious, do not significantly regulate religion.

A final, and related, motivation is that religion is one of the sources of civic culture. Thriving democracies require a strong civil society with citizens who are interested in and participate in politics. Autocratic governments, for precisely this reason, usually restrict any elements of civil society that they do not control. Thus religious organizations tend to be heavily regulated by the state or banned (Sarkissian, 2015).

It is also worth noting that there are motivations not to regulate religion. Regulation is costly and requires resources that could be devoted to other projects (Gill, 2008; Mantilla, 2016). “Even sustained efforts to repress religion, like those carried out by Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, often fail to root out religious political identities. As a result, most authoritarians opt for a strategy of accommodation and cooptation that gives religious actors more leeway than their secular counterparts, particularly those on the left” (Mantilla, 2016, p. 2). In addition, violations of religious freedom can have international repercussions.

How Do Governments Regulate Religion?

In this section, I use the Religion and State round 3 (RAS3) data set to categorize regulation, restriction, and control of religion.2 The RAS3 data set covers 1990 to 2014, which allows a discussion of change over time in these policies. I divide these policies into four categories based on what is restricted:

  1. 1. Restrictions on the ability of religious institutions and clergy to participate in politics.

  2. 2. Restrictions on the ability of religious institutions to be autonomous from the government, to function, or even to exist in matters other than politics.

  3. 3. Restrictions on the ability of individuals or groups to engage in basic religious practices, rites, and ceremonies.

  4. 4. Other types of restrictions that do not fit into the above three categories.

In the following discussion I examine each of the 29 specific policies that fit into these categories. The tables in this section show the values for 1990 and 2014. In cases when a country had no functioning government or did not exist in 1990 or 2014, the earliest and most recent years available are used; thus when I refer to the year 1990, for example, in this discussion, this means, more specifically, 1990 or the earliest year available. This allows a more efficient discussion of changes over time without complicated phraseology throughout the discussion.

The most prominent other project to measure similar phenomena is Grim and Finke’s (2011) government regulation of religion index (GRI). The religion and state (RAS) regulation index differs from this index in three respects. First, the GRI index includes restrictions on both the majority and minority religions. Thus it does not make the distinction between the two that is made in this article and the article on discrimination against religious minorities. Second, the RAS regulation index includes far more items than the five included on the GRI index. Third, the RAS index is available over a longer time span.

Restrictions on Religion’s Political Role

Policies that erect a barrier between religion and politics are common, becoming more common, and are most likely motivated by a fear of religion’s potential political influence. As shown in Table 1, in 1990, 84 (45.9%) countries had at least one of these five policies, and this increased to 107 (58.5%) by 2014. In 2014, only two, Vietnam and Myanmar, both autocratic Asian states, had all five of these policies. Myanmar is among those countries that both support and control its majority religion. Although the country supports Buddhism, it also severely restricts political activity by clergy. Members of religious orders may not be elected to the House of Representatives, vote, or join political parties. Myanmar’s constitution states that freedom of religion does not include any economic or other secular activity.3 This effectively bans any political activity in religious institutions.

Table 1. Percentage of Countries That Restrict, Regulate, and Control the Majority Religion, 1990 and 2014

Type of Restriction

% Countries With Restriction



Restrictions on Religion’s Political Role

Restrictions: religious political parties



Restrictions: religious trade associations or other civil associations



Restrictions: clergy holding political office



Restrictions or monitoring of sermons by clergy for political content



Restrictions: clergy/religious organizations engaging in political speech or propaganda or on political activity in or by religious institutions



At least one in this category



Restrictions on Religious Institutions and Clergy

Restrictions/harassment of majority religion members/organizations who are outside the state-sponsored/recognized ecclesiastical framework



Restrictions: formal religious organizations other than political parties



Restrictions: access to places of worship



Foreign religious organizations must have a local sponsor or affiliation



Heads of religious organizations (e.g., bishops) must be citizens of the state



All practicing clergy must be citizens of the state



The government appoints clergy or approves/influences clerical appointments



Other than appointments, the government legislates/influences internal aspects of religious institutions/organizations



Laws governing the state religion are passed by the government or require the government’s approval



At least one in this category



The most common form of restriction in this category is on religious political parties, which has become increasingly common, with an increase of 43 to 67 countries engaging in this restriction from 1990 to 2014, respectively. This type of restriction can be found in both autocracies and democracies. For example, Mexico bans religious political parties as part of a more general secularist anticlerical policy. Article 130 of Mexico’s constitution represents this policy well when it states that “ministers of religion may not hold public offices.” Nor may they

join together for political purposes nor proselytize in favor of certain candidate, party or political association or against them. Neither may they oppose the laws of the Nation or its institutions, nor insult patriotic symbols in any form, in public meetings, in worship or in religious literature. The formation of any kind of political group with a name containing any word or other symbol related to any religion is strictly prohibited. No meeting of a political character may be held in churches or temples.4

Portugal is the only Western democracy to engage in this type of restriction. Portugal is generally supportive of religion, particularly financially. For example, taxpayers may allocate a portion of their tax payment to any registered religious group. However, its Constitution prohibits the formation of religious political parties and the use of religious symbols or terminology in their names.

The second most common form of political restriction is restrictions on political speech and activities by religious organizations and clergy. This restriction increased from 43 to 63 countries between 1990 and 2014. It is particularly common in the Middle East. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya (pre-2011), Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria (pre-2011), Tunisia, and Yemen as well as 13 non–Middle Eastern Muslim-majority countries all have some form of this restriction. It is also found in some relatively democratic Christian-majority states, such as Bulgaria, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Macedonia, and Mexico. Even the United States limits the ability of a religious organization to endorse a specific candidate in an election if it wants to keep its tax-exempt status.

The third most common policy in this category are countries that restrict or monitor religious sermons for political content, which was present in 39 countries in 1990, increasing to 50 in 2014. This is also particularly common in Muslim-majority countries, which constitute 32 of the 50 countries that engage in this type of policy. These countries are likely motivated by fear of the potential political power of Islam. Many of the other countries that engage in this practice are autocracies like China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, which likely also restrict political religion for similar reasons.

This type of regulation is important because it represents a recognition of religion’s political power, though the other motivations for regulating religion discussed above likely also apply in many cases. These laws have the specific effect of limiting religion’s political influence while not, in the absence of other types of restrictions, limiting religion itself. This type of motivation can be present in the most pro-religion and anti-religion governments.

Restrictions on Religious Institutions and Clergy

Policies regulating, restricting, and controlling religious institutions limit religious institutions and clergy in a manner beyond just restricting their ability to engage in politics. All of the nine types of policy listed in this category in Table 1 in some manner limit religious institutions or clergy themselves or their ability to act autonomously, even in matters having nothing to do with politics. These restrictions are important because religious institutions are central to organized religion. Few religions lack formal institutions, and even fewer lack clergy. The central purposes of religious institutions and clergy include organizing religious activities, providing religious services to members, maintaining religious doctrine and transmitting it from generation to generation, training clergy, and defending the religion and its believers. All of these tasks are essential to the success and continuity of a religion, so restricting religious institutions and clergy can have serious consequences.

In 1990, 86 (47%) countries engaged in at least one of these nine restrictions. By 2014, this increased to a slight majority of 97 (53%) countries. The most common type of restriction in this category is the government policy of appointing clergy or somehow taking part in the appointment process. This is a policy found both in secular states that are hostile to religion as well as these that support religion. For example, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs recognizes five religions and controls the appointment of clergy for all of them, even Catholic bishops. This policy is intended to keep religion in check by controlling who will be its leaders. It is also an effective tactic to prevent a religious institution from becoming an independent political actor.

Yet democratic countries that strongly support religion can also be involved in appointing clergy. For example the Greek Orthodox Church is Greece’s official religion, and the country’s president officially appoints all bishops of the Church, though he usually appoints the candidates recommended by the Church hierarchy. Similarly, in the United Kingdom archbishops and bishops of the Church of England are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, who considers the names selected by a church commission. In these cases, the power of appointment is a result of the religious institution being the official state religion. Although these states support their national religions, an element of control over that religion is a consequence of that support.

Policies that restrict or harass religious institutions belonging to the majority religion that is not recognized by the state are increasing dramatically, from being present in 28 (15.3%) countries in 1990 to 52 (28.4%) in 2014. This is a form of control mixed with support. These governments support a single version of the majority religion but limit or ban all competing religious institutions. This type of policy is particularly common in Muslim-majority countries, which account for 35 of the countries with this type of policy in 2014. This includes countries that strongly support religion for ideological reasons, such as Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, and Gaza. It also includes secularist regimes that seek to keep Islam in check, such as Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Eight of these counties have Orthodox Christian majorities. Macedonia supports the Macedonian Orthodox Church and represses the competing Serbian Orthodox Church (which, in turn, does not recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church). The Serbian Orthodox Church has been denied registration; police sometimes “observe” Serbian Orthodox services and have demolished several “illegal” Serbian Orthodox churches. The governments of Bulgaria, Moldova, Montenegro, and Russia similarly ban or harass alternative Orthodox churches in their countries.

Restrictions on Religious Practices

Restriction on the religious practices of all religions, including the majority religion, is the least common form of restriction, regulation, and control of religion. Perhaps this is because restricting the practice of a religion is not an efficient measure for controlling religion. Nevertheless, it is becoming more common. As shown in Table 2, the seven policies in this category were present in 52 (28.4%) countries in 1990, increasing to 64 (35%) in 2014. Although these polices can be found in countries that support religion, they are most common in countries that are hostile to religion.

Table 2. Percentage of Countries That Restrict, Regulate, and Control the Majority Religion, 1990 and 2014

Type of Restriction

% Countries With Restriction



Restrictions on Religious Practices

Restrictions: public observance of religious practices/holidays/Sabbath



Restrictions: religious activities outside of recognized religious facilities



Restrictions: the publication or dissemination of written religious material



People are arrested for religious activities



Restrictions: religious public gatherings that are not placed on other types of public gathering



Restrictions: the public display of religious symbols



Conscientious objectors to military service are not allowed alternative service and are prosecuted



At least one in this category



Other Regulation, Restriction, or Control of Religion

Arrest/detention/harassment of religious figures/officials/party members



Restrictions: public religious speech



Restrictions: religious-based hate speech



Control/influence over religious education in public schools



Control/influence over religious education outside of public schools



Control/influence over religious education in universities



State ownership of some religious property or buildings



Other forms of regulation, restrictions, or control



At least one in this category



At least one type of regulation, restriction or control



Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority former Soviet republic, engages in all of these types of policy except the persecution of conscientious objectors. Any religious activity outside the state-approved Islamic framework can result in arrest on the grounds of religious extremism. This includes any “private” expression of Islam. Muslims are arrested and jailed for praying in non-government-sponsored mosques, studying Islam with private teachers, and following imams who fall out of favor with the government. The government restricts religious practices surrounding Ramadan, including banning traditional meals that break the fast. Uzbek police often force men who wear beards—which are seen as expressions of Islamic extremism—to shave against their will. Until 2012, many female schoolchildren were punished and sent home from school for wearing hijabs. Although there is no official ban on children attending mosques, officials frequently pressure parents and religious communities not to allow children to attend, and school-age boys who attend mosques are often expelled from school. The government uses similar tactics to discourage traditional Muslim weddings. The government often arrests and jails family members of “extremist” group members without evidence or due process. Only seven government-controlled or -registered religious organizations may publish or import religious literature (an interdenominational Bible society, the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, two Islamic centers, and organizations representing the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Roman Catholic faiths).

Uzbekistan is an extreme example, but it is illustrative of the type of state that significantly bans religious practices. These countries, which include Azerbaijan, Cuba, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, North Korea, and Vietnam, are all countries with secularist ideologies that are hostile to religion in general. In these cases, the motivation for this type of policy goes beyond fear of religion’s political power and is more likely based on an ideological distaste for religion.

Secularist tendencies in the West can also result in some restrictions on religious practices. As noted, France passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of religious symbols in public schools. This banning of religious symbols is found in other Western countries. Many municipalities and larger cities in Belgium, including Antwerp, Ghent, Lokeren, Ninove, and Lier, have begun prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols, such as the Muslim headscarf, the Sikh turban, large crosses, Jewish skullcaps (kippot), and Stars of David for public employees and students in state schools. Similarly, in July 2009, the Danish parliament banned religious or political symbols, such as headscarves, turbans, skullcaps, and crucifixes, from judicial attire.

Other Types of Regulation, Restriction, and Control

This category includes all types of restrictions, regulations, and control that do not fit into the other categories. As shown in Table 2, these types of restrictions are common with 137 (74.9%) countries engaging in them in 1990, which increased to 157 (85.8%) in 2014. Table 2 includes three measures of government control over religious education.

In 2014, 67 (36.6%) countries controlled the content of religious education in public schools or other forums. This is an excellent example of support mixed with control. All of the governments that control the content of religious education in public schools allow religion to be taught in public schools. This is an important form of support. Although in most countries, private schools are an option, most children are educated in public schools. When these schools teach religion, they teach it in the same place children learn science, math, and history as part of their normal curriculum, at the government’s expense. This is an important venue for exposing the next generation to religion outside the family and religious institutions. At the same time, by teaching religion in government-funded and -controlled schools, the government has the option of determining the content of this education. This allows it to promote the version of a religion that the government finds most suitable. Not all governments use this opportunity. For example, in most Western Catholic-majority states, including Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain, Catholic priests or teachers appointed by the Catholic Church teach the classes on Catholicism.

Restrictions on religious hate speech are becoming increasingly common, with 68 (37.2%) countries having such laws in 1990 and 96 (52.5%) in 2014. This is an example of how liberal political ideologies clash with religious ones. It is in the nature of religion to be intolerant of other religions. As Stark (2003, p. 32) puts it, “Those who believe there is only One True God are offended by worship directed toward other Gods.” Yet liberal democracies, at least in theory, promote religious freedom and tolerance. Thus, the religious right to openly insult other religions is restricted in many democracies. This type of restriction is also present in some autocracies like Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, likely because religious hate speech can result in civil disorder. It also is at least partially due to the tendency of some anti-religious autocratic states to restrict religious speech in general.

State ownership of religious property is also common. In 1990, 47 (25.7%) countries owned significant religious property. This increased to 51 (27.8%) countries by 2014. To be clear, this category focuses on ownership of religious places of worship that are intended for general use by citizens, and not national monuments or chapels in government buildings or military bases. This policy is common in conservative Muslim-majority states, including Brunei, Egypt, the Maldives, and Saudi Arabia. Although these countries support religion, their support is combined with ownership and control. This policy is also present in other types of countries, even secular countries. For example, the governments of Mexico and France own all religious property built before a certain date based when they passed anticlerical laws that established the secular nature of their regimes. During the communist era, many communist governments seized religious property, likely motivated by a combination of their anti-religious ideology and their desire to control religion. After the fall of these regimes around 1990, they began to return this property, but much of it has not been returned and remains government property.

Regulation, Restriction, and Control in Comparative Perspective

In 1990, 156 (85.2%) countries engaged in at least 1 of the 29 types of restriction, regulation, and control of religion listed in Tables 1 and 2. By 2014, all but ten countries—Andorra, Argentina, Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Namibia, the Solomon Islands, South Africa, and South Sudan—restricted, regulated, or controlled religion in some manner. This is likely not the list many would expect. For example, most Western democracies are not on this list. Given this, it seems that regulating, restricting, and controlling religion is the norm worldwide, regardless of world region, government type, and majority religion.

This trend of ubiquitous and increasing restriction, regulation, and control of religion is robust. Table 3 examines the robustness of this trend, looking at majority religion, world region, regime, and official religion.5 It looks at both change in mean levels of religious regulation over time and in how many countries religious regulation overall increased, decreased, or stayed the same. The RAS3 measure of religious regulation sums the 29 types of regulation discussed in this article and places each on a scale of 0 to 3,6 creating a measure that can potentially range from 0 to 87.

Table 3. Restriction, Regulation, and Control of Religion, 1990 and 2014

Type of Restriction


Mean Restrictions

Proportion of Countries Whose Policies Changed






All Cases







By Majority Religion








Orthodox Christian







Other Christian





















By World Region

Western Democracies







Former Soviet














Middle East & North Africa







Sub-Saharan Africa







Latin America







By Regime

Polity = 10 (most democratic)







Polity 7 to 9







Polity 1 to 6







Polity < 1 (most autocratic)







By Official Religion

Official religion







One religion preferred







Multiple religions referred





















Notes: (a) = Significance (t-test) between marked value and value for 1990 < 0.05.

(b) = Significance (t-test) between marked value and value for 1990 < 0.01.

(c) = Significance (t-test) between marked value and value for 1990 < 0.001.

When examining mean levels of restrictions, the trend of increasing regulation, restriction, and control of religion is consistent across all of the categories examined in Table 3, with the exception of the most democratic countries (Polity = 10), where it dropped slightly. This is due to significant policy changes in Sweden, Switzerland, and Taiwan. In Sweden this occurred in the context of the country’s decision to drop the Lutheran Church of Sweden as the country’s official religion, which resulted in losing the ability to appoint bishops and otherwise legislate aspects of church policy. In 2001, Switzerland removed a number of constitutional restrictions on the Catholic Church, including a requirement that the federal government expressly consent to the establishment of any new Catholic diocese in the country. Taiwan in 2000 allowed for alternative services for conscientious objectors to military service and in 2004 began allowing religious universities to be licensed.

When looking at what proportion of states increased the levels of regulation, restriction, and control of religion, as compared to those who decreased it, the trend is even clearer. In all categories of states examined, states that increased their regulation, restriction, and control of religion outnumbered those that decreased it. Overall, only 19 (10.4%) countries decreased levels of regulation, restriction, and control between 1990 and 2014, whereas 104 (56.8%) increased this type of policy.

That being said, there is considerable variation across categories of states. Based on majority religion, Muslim-majority states have the highest levels of restrictions and are experiencing the largest overall increases in restrictions. While the three Christian categories have the lowest levels of restrictions and are experiencing similar levels of increases, the Orthodox-majority countries have higher absolute levels of restrictions than other types of Christian-majority states.

Based on world region, the growth in regulation, restriction, and control in Western democracies was present but slight. For all other world regions, it was more substantial. The Middle East North Africa region had the highest levels of regulation, restriction, and control, followed by Asia and the former Soviet regions. The results for regime are not surprising. As states become less democratic, they regulate, restrict, and control religion more.

The results for official religion are particularly interesting. States that are officially hostile to religion—mostly nondemocratic states with anti-religious ideologies, and a few democracies such as France with strongly secular ideologies—restrict, regulate, and control religion the most. Among all other states, the more strongly a government supports religion, the more it regulates, restricts, and controls religion. This reinforces my argument that support and control of religion are inextricably intertwined.


The regulation, restriction, and support of religion is ubiquitous and increasing worldwide. Nearly all of the world’s countries engage in at least 1 of the 29 types of practices identified in the RAS3 data set as a form of regulation of religion. Again, this article focuses on how states regulate, restrict, and control all religions, including the majority religion. It is arguable that this is not because the world is becoming more anti-religious. This trend of regulation, restriction, and control is increasing also in countries that are highly supportive of religion. Rather, this is likely a consequence of religion’s increasing political importance and prominence. As religion becomes a more significant political issue and religious political actors become more active and politically influential, many governments are reacting to restrict and control this political phenomenon.


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                                                  (1.) M. Bayram and J. Kinahan (March 20, 2014) Kazakhstan: Religious freedom survey Forum 18 News Service; F. Corley (March 1, 2013) Kazakhstan: “If they continue to pray, they’ll be brought to legal responsibility,” Forum 18 News Service; U.S. Department of State Religious Freedom Report Kazakhstan 2013.

                                                  (2.) For more on the RAS3 data set, see Fox (2015).

                                                  (4.) Constitution of Mexico, Article 130.

                                                  (5.) I measure regime using the polity data set measure for 2014. The measure ranges from –10 (the most autocratic) to 10 (the most democratic). All other variables are taken from the Religion and State Project.

                                                  (6.) The scale is as follows: 0 = no; 1 = Slight restrictions, including practical restrictions, or the government engages in this activity rarely and on a small scale; 2 = Significant restrictions, including practical restrictions, or the government engages in this activity occasionally and on a moderate scale; 3 = The activity is illegal, or the government engages in this activity often and on a large scale.