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The Dividends of Religious Freedom:

An Empirical Analysis of the Effects of Religious Liberty on Forty Years of
Membership Growth for Three, Strict, Evangelizing Christian Religions 1

 May 23, 2012

Donald B. Holsinger 2

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Although recent research has established that there are positive correlations among indicators of religious freedom and social capital and economic development, the question addressed in this paper has to do with the evangelistic success of three outreach-oriented churches with worldwide membership bases. By “success” is meant the growth of their worldwide memberships rather than religiosity. This investigation uses the Average Quinquennial Growth Rate (AQGR--annualized 5-year compound growth rate) as the dependent variable of interest. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons (or, interchangeably, LDS) and Seventh-day Adventists all share a great deal in common. They are strict in the sense of requiring adherence to behavior peculiar to their religious tradition and uncommon to the cultures in which they are embedded. They also rely heavily on worldwide evangelism to spread their message and acquire new adherents. All three religions have approximately fifty-year histories in a wide range of countries, and employ active proselyting methods for spreading their message to attract new adherents. These religions are all active in the promotion of freedom of religion in the legal and social contexts in which they perform their evangelizing activities.

The central question addressed in this paper is whether religious liberty has affected membership growth in a sample of 170 countries over a period of the past forty to fifty years. Not much work has been done on this question although two scholars recently hypothesized a negative relationship but their work did not focus on the freedom of religion dimension to growth. I were unable to find a significant association between religious liberty and my indicator of membership growth for any of the three religious groups. I did find significant associations between membership growth and human development (strongly negative), and also with economic development (also negative), providing some support for the modernization theory of religious growth.

Religious liberty has little to do with predicting how well the religion performs in terms of adding new proselytes. This finding isn’t intuitively obvious. Many casual observers have been tempted to find that strictures against religion, such as proselyting bans, restrictive registration laws, strong bias against minority religious doctrines and outward practices, are at least as important as any inherent attraction that a new religion might itself provide. I find no evidence for these conclusions.

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1 Appreciation is extended to the many people who have read this manuscript and commented on it including Dr. Brian Grim, Dr. Ryan Cragun and my wife, Ellen S. Holsinger.

2 Dr. Holsinger is Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at Brigham Young University’s David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. He and his wife represent the Kennedy Center, an accredited NGO in special consultative relationship with ECOSOC at the Geneva, Switzerland office. Correspondence regarding this paper should be directed to Dr. Holsinger at KCIS.Geneva.UN@gmail.com.



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