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  • Aloysious Nnyombi, CJL

Does Religiosity Provide a Shield Against Corruption? Not Necessarily...

Aloysious Nnyombi, Methods Development Assistant, Gender & Social Norms Project, CJL, and Lecturer, School of Social Sciences at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

It is generally assumed that corruption is roundly condemned by institutionalized religion. Yet research shows that there are cases where religiosity (defined here as the ‘intensity of adherence to religious promulgations’) can give corruption an acceptable face.

An interesting paradox emerges

I observed this apparent paradox while conducting a review of literature on gender norms and faith norms and how they interact with social norms to influence corrupt behaviors, particularly in relation to service delivery. (A blog exploring the gender theme was published earlier in June).

The literature review is part of ‘An Intersectional Approach to Social Norms that Drive Corruption’, a research project implemented by CJL in partnership with the Abuja-baseed Policy Innovation Centre (PIC). The review involved a search for literature from Scopus, a multidisciplinary abstract and citation database, as well as a call for grey literature through LinkedIn and emails to CJL subscribers and specific anti-corruption organizations. Out of the 139 publications generated, 13 publications published between 2013 – 2023 were selected. This blog sheds light on some of the findings.

Four phenomena that may shed some light on this apparent contradiction stand out from our findings:

1. Faith-based acceptance or rejection of corruption is significantly affected by contextual factors


The two key factors here are the level of individual religiosity and the level of corruption in the environment. Religiosity may influence individuals’ acceptance of corruption as well as their behavior. But at times this depends on the level of religiosity and corruption in the context.

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One study on religious loyalty and acceptance of corruption established that people with lower levels of religiosity are more likely to accept corruption. This is because they are generally less bound by the religious norms opposed to corruption. Another study analyzing religiosity and corruption in the US banking sector found that the level of religiosity was positively associated with organizational transparency. However, this relationship weakens in contexts characterized by high levels of corruption.


2. Religiosity may lessen the incentive for people to monitor

others in their religious group


At the heart of the gospel, in its most fundamental teaching, is the message that ‘God is with you and for you’. The literal interpretation suggests that because humans who follow the gospel are expressions of God, they will automatically behave ethically, righteously and virtuously.  Yet it has been observed that such constructions create environments in which corrupt tendencies actually thrive.


This is demonstrated in a study that aimed at identifying the combined role of religiosity and accounting quality (defined as full and transparent financial reporting) in corruption. The study found that corruption thrived in environments where there was greater adherence to religious promulgation, resulting in lower accounting quality. This resulted from much less monitoring, which is common in highly religious environments – and eventually encouraging the manipulation of accounting information. Highly religious environments are also highly collectivist, where the group assumes more importance than the individual. This favors collusive behavior, which in turn, facilitates the occurrence of corruption. 


3. Religious manipulation actually encourages corruption


The practice of corrupt evangelism has been documented in much of the research on religion and corruption.  It helps to explain how religious norms can provide both a basis for the critique of moral depravity and corruption in politics and society and an explanation of the appropriateness of the pursuit and accumulation of wealth. 

"Even though religious teachings, values and norms explicitly prohibit and condemn corrupt behavior – and can be a motivation for resisting corruption – they are not automatically or unambiguously a force for integrous or ethical behavior."

For example, a study conducted in the construction sector in Nigeria found that corrupt evangelism intensifies religiosities of prosperity, unmerited favors and the paying of offerings. It builds confidence among the faithful in the practice of ‘unusual favors’ and the exchange of offerings for blessings. This makes it possible for corrupt practices to be seen as a blessing from the deity. This is particularly true in contexts in which prosperity is actively seen to be evidence of holiness and spiritual reward, such as in Pentecostal movements preaching the ‘prosperity gospel’.

4. Corrupt behavior can be justified if it is to support one’s

religious community


Despite publicly trumpeting the moral prohibition of corruption, religiosity can positively influence corrupt behavior if this is intended to support the collective well-being of a community.


Findings from a study analyzing household survey data in Nigeria to understand whether religious purposes or benefits play a role in social evaluations of corrupt behavior suggest that diverting public funds for use in an individual’s religious community was appropriate for one-fifth of the respondents. This is almost double the number of respondents who said that the diversion of government funds for personal use was acceptable.

The possible explanation for this trend is that within norms of religious giving there are expectations, pressures and practices, in-group favoritism, communal financial obligations, and an emphasis on material prosperity, which limit or mitigate the negative consequences for individuals participating in corruption that benefits a religious community. In extreme situations, this type of corruption is actively authorized. The motivation for engaging in this kind of corruption is more socially acceptable than abusing office for private gain.

So, what does this mean for anti-corruption programming?


Even though religious teachings, values and norms explicitly prohibit and condemn corrupt behavior, and can be a motivation for resisting corruption, they are not automatically or unambiguously a force for integrous or ethical behavior. Not only does religiosity matter less when there is more corruption in the context, but religiosity often establishes a religious justification for the pursuit of prosperity and reinforces pressures to give to one’s religious communities regardless of the source and the means for acquiring it.


What this means for the role of faith-based actors and religious norms in anti-corruption work is not yet clear. With a few exceptions, the literature generally does not cover the implications of findings for faith-based anti-corruption actors. On the one hand, the literature suggests that common faith-based messaging based on morality and integrity will not be very effective in contexts of endemic corruption, at least not on its own. Yet  faith-based actors can also be important, especially given their broad reach, people’s trust in them, and their capacity to mobilize collective action.


To be able to venture some answers, we need to learn a lot more. For example, most of the literature focuses on the commitment to religious teachings and their influence on corruption. But little is said about how social norms interact with the level of religiosity to then augment acceptance of corruption, nor how religious norms interact with gender norms to influence the gendered nature of corruption-related social norms. Neither does the literature drill down to look at whether these influences differ across the vast spectrum of religious denominations.


While we don’t have clear answers about how this could affect programming, what is clear is that we need to ask more pertinent questions. And there is certainly scope for much more focused research to start answering them.

This blog series is made possible with support from the MacArthur Foundation.


Aloysious Nnyombi lectures in the Department of Social Work, at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Aloysious is also the Methods Development Assistant, Gender & Social Norms Project at CJL. He takes an intersectional approach to teaching human behavior and service delivery. This supports an understanding of how different identity intersections determine behaviour and access to services. He is a technical advisor on social norms at the Impact and Innovation Development Centre (IIDC) and the coordinator of the Eastern Africa Social and Gender Norms Learning Collaborative. He has developed evidence-based interventions on impactful social norms transformation in the Eastern Africa region and disseminated learnings on social norms. Away from work, he loves being around his young family and playing football. 


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