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Corruption and Religion (A), (B), (1)

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Relevant empirical studies demonstrate robust associations between corruption and religion, mainly concluding that Protestantism curbs corruption, in contrast with Roman Catholicism, which tends to increase the perceived corruption. Hierarchical religions such as Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy have adverse effects on education and civic engagement, thus promoting corruption. In turn, Protestantism has led to better education and human capital, and profoundly influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy worldwide.


  • Corruption
  • Religious affiliation
  • Education
  • Hierarchical religions

This chapter reviews some prominent empirical studies and possible explanations of the corruption-religion nexus. It concentrates on the analysis of Roman Catholic and Protestant adherents.

6.1 Religious Affiliation and Corruption

Numerous empirical (quantitative) studies exist on the relationships between corruption indicators and the proportion of religious adherents. These studies, undertaken at different levels (cross-country, national, subnational), are rigorous and have mostly reached comparable conclusions regardless of their publication dates, methods, and variables:

Protestantism curbs corruption, in contrast to Roman Catholicism, which tends to increase the perceived corruption: (Arruñada, 2010; Chase, 2010; Gerring & Thacker, 2004; La Porta et al., 1997, 1999; Lipset & Lenz, 2000; Paldam, 2001; Sandholtz & Koetzle, 2000; Woodberry, 2012). Some of the key findings will be examined.

La Porta et al. (1997) found a significant correlation between corruption and the percentage of adherents to a hierarchical religion (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Islam) in a sample of 33 countries. Hierarchical religions have adverse effects on civic engagement, and therefore on corruption (La Porta et al., 1999); (Lambsdorff, 2006). La Porta et al. (1999) found a robust predictor of transparency (lower corruption) in the percentage of Protestants.

Chase’s (2010) study of 180 countries with 11 independent variables corroborated these findings. Thus, a country’s dominant religion explains its level of corruption better than GDP and other economic indicators (Chase, 2010). Protestantism tends to reduce the level of perceived corruption within a nation. In contrast, Orthodoxy or Catholicism, when dominant, tend to increase the level of perceived corruption. Treisman (2000) also observed a significant correlation between transparency and the percentage of Protestants in a sample of 64 countries. Lipset and Lenz (2000) and Gerring and Thacker (2005) corroborated that result. Paldam (2001) analysed 11 groups of religions, finding lower corruption in countries with a significant proportion of Protestants and tribal religions. Higher corruption appears in countries where Roman Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism exert considerable influence.

6.1.1 Possible Explanations of the Robust Associations between Corruption and Religion

This phenomenon has attracted broad scholarly attention. Some of the many valid explanations, supported empirically and theoretically, include:

On the Negative Influence of Roman Catholicism:

  1. 1.

    Hierarchical religions promote corruption (Lambsdorff, 2006); (La Porta et al., 1997, 1999). This insight further develops arguments first presented by Olson (1993) and Husted (1999). Societies with low accessibility to the higher echelons must accept authoritarian rules and thus also high levels of corruption and inequality (Husted, 1999).

  2. 2.

    Catholic and Muslim countries perform lower in education and learning than Protestant ones (Becker & Woessmann, 2009); (Landes, 1999). Lower education means that public officials are questioned less about their actions (Landes, 1999). The majority of people are thus more prone to manipulation and to accepting hierarchical relations. Therefore, “The maintenance of ignorance” has been one of the most potent institutional strategies of the Catholic Church to influence people’s behaviour (Head-König, 2017, pp. 46–47), (see Sect. 18.4). Other denominations and sects also influence people’s behaviour by maintaining their ignorance, but these groups do not reach secular levels of legal and political influence on the scale of the Roman Church-State (Fumagalli, 2011; Helmsdorff, 1996; Martin, 1999; Schäfer, 2006).

On the Positive Influence of Protestantism:

  1. 3.

    Robust historical and statistical evidence demonstrates that Protestant missionaries profoundly influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy worldwide (Woodberry, 2012).

  2. 4.

    Historically and statistically, Protestantism led to better education and human capital, and thus also to higher economic prosperity and a wide range of innovations (Becker & Woessmann, 2009); (Becker et al., 2016). Such mechanisms empirically support a more comprehensive explanation than traditional Weberian theory and its postulate of a “Protestant work ethics” (Becker et al., 2016); (Woodberry, 2012). For instance, Protestant institutions competing with state-sponsored religions are more likely to scrutinise abuses by public officials (Svensson, 2005).

Empirical Expectation

  1. 1.

    I expect the overwhelming empirical evidence available to confirm higher corruption rates in historically Roman Catholic countries than in historically Protestant countries (consistent with the title of this book, articulated in Matthew 7: 15–23, King James Bible, 1769).


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García Portilla, J. (2022). Corruption and Religion (A), (B), (1). In: “Ye Shall Know Them by Their Fruits”. Contributions to Economics. Springer, Cham.

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