In early large-scale polities religion played a critical role in giving conceptual form to new rules that trump social and economic principles of kinship and egalitarian reciprocity in order to justify the existence of privileged elites. How does one both do theoretical justice to the insidiousness of a religion used in service to the state and do justice to conviction in local knowledge and the efficaciousness of belief therein? These are important matters for middle-range theory in the archaeology of religion. This contribution focuses on the latter half of the conundrum understood from contemporary ethnographic work by the author in the central highlands of Madagascar. It then examines the crafting of state religion during the unification and expansion of the Merina state under the reign of Andrianampoinimerina (1787–1810).