The Trouble in Getting to Denmark

The Trouble in Getting to Denmark
Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register via AP

How did modern liberal states emerge? Francis Fukuyama calls this the problem of "getting to Denmark." Economists have traditionally focused on the question of how sustained economic growth got started. Political scientists, on the other hand, have focused on questions of democratization and political stability. Both of these are critical components of liberal states. But there is one factor that social scientists have neglected: religion.

This neglect is easy to understand. In the developed world religious liberty is so ingrained in formal and informal institutions that it rarely emerges as a newsworthy issue. This was not always the case. Religion was so central to premodern societies that it is difficult to fully understand the transformations associated with modernity without attending to it. Religion was used to justify the categories in which government and society more broadly used to structure everyday life. Women versus men, nobles versus commoners, guild members versus non-guild members, Muslims versus Christians, Christians versus Jews. All of these categories—as well as the different statuses associated with them in law and in culture—relied to a varying degree on religion to legitimize their use.

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