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Some of the most important global issues of today’s world, such as Islamic terrorism, the threat of a potentially nuclear Iran, and the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India, involve an interplay between politics and religion that one cannot afford to ignore. Politics have been a central aspect of most religions in the past and, despite predictions to the contrary, continue to be so today. The precise form of this interplay varies across states as well as across religious traditions.

Secularization Theory

Until the 1980s, a widespread assumption in the social sciences was that the influence of religion would gradually decline as societies became modernized (i.e., became industrialized, acquired a capitalist economy, and democratic institutions). According to this assumption, which is often referred to as “secularization theory,” the decline of religious influence would first be observed at the societal level (various spheres of social life, such as the state, the economy, etc., would become autonomous from religious institutions) and then gradually spread to people’s consciousness as well; that is, people would stop believing in the dogmas of their religions.

History did not confirm these predictions. A significant decline in people’s religiosity has so far been confirmed only in some countries of Western Europe. The United States, one of the most industrialized and democratic countries in the world, is still fervently religious, and the rest of the world continues to be as religious as it always was. Religious political influence does not seem to decline either. In the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, both George W. Bush and Al Gore appealed to their religious faith as a strong component of their political philosophy. In some parts of the world, it even seems that religion is more political today than it was in the 1960s or 1970s. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought Islam into the heart of Iran’s political life. The Palestinian authorities, which used to rely almost exclusively on secular political principles, have been increasingly using Islamic symbolism and rhetoric in the past 15 years.

Most social scientists have thus either abandoned or seriously amended the traditional “secularization theory.” But they have different explanations for its failure. Some argue that religions have always been political and will continue to be so. Others interpret the politicization of religion in modernity as a reaction against modernity—that is, an attempt to revert to the past. Finally, some see in modern political religion the expression of other, nonreligious, forces such as nationalism, ethnicity, or class. Each of these approaches certainly captures part of the phenomenon. Only by taking them together can we hope to adequately understand it.

Religion and Politics: Definitions and History

Religion

One of the difficulties that we have in understanding the interplay between religion and politics comes from the ambiguity of the very terms that we use. For instance, the notion of “religion” is Western and may not be applicable in non- Western contexts. We typically associate it with some belief in transcendence (whether one God or many), an organized church, and a set of rituals. Some of these elements would not apply to Hinduism. Buddhism doesn’t even have gods, and neither does Confucianism. A famous theorist of religion, Émile Durkheim, suggested that we view religion primarily as a sacralization of the values and beliefs of a given community—a sort of social cement—with the existence of gods being only secondary. While this definition certainly captures an important aspect of religion, it has the disadvantage of being too broad, since it would include every set of social values that may be held as sacred, including human rights, Marxism, or nationalism. In practice, we have no choice but to work with a loose definition and to use the word religion to refer to what commonly passes for religion, while at the same time acknowledging that this conceptual vagueness adds to our difficulties.

Politics

The notion of politics is, in a sense, easier to define. From the Ancient Greek word polis, it originally refers to what is common to the whole city—therefore, what is public, as opposed to what is private. For Plato, the political was the sphere of the common good, which, Plato thought, could be objectively defined. Today, we still use the term political to refer to what concerns the collectivity as a whole, but we express serious doubts as to the very possibility of a common good and tend to conceive of the political arena as a space of conflict and negotiation of particular interests.

In modern times, the primary space of politics is the state. Even though globalization has somehow challenged its absolute supremacy during the past decades, it is in the state that political power is mostly concentrated. When we speak of “political” questions, we often mean questions that have to do with the state, and the interplay between religion and politics is typically reflected in the relationship between religion(s) and the state.

The Interplay of Religion and Politics

Traditionally, religion and politics could hardly be distinguished. The French historian Fustel de Coulanges has shown that even in ancient Greece, which we tend to think of as the model of our modern, secular democracies, there was a religious dimension that permeated political life. In Judaism, the Ten Commandments regulate both people’s relation with God and their political life. And Muhammad, the religious prophet of Islam, was both a religious and a political leader.

Christianity is no exception to that rule. Despite Jesus’ instruction to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” which implies a sharp distinction between the political and the religious realms, the Christian church had a constant involvement in political affairs throughout the Middle Ages. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish conflicts over dogma from political conflicts. Such was the case of the Holy Crusades of the 11th century. The religious reason given by the Holy See was the necessity to capture the Holy Lands that had fallen to the Muslims, but its political purpose was to send the most violent and troublesome groups out of Europe and thus to establish peace and security inside Western Christendom.

Religion has historically served the function of legitimation of political authorities. This could either mean that the heads of state were seen as divine, as in the case of the Hellenistic emperors, or that they derived their authority by the will of God, as in the case of the French kings of the 17th century. Sometimes, this legitimation came late in history. Such was the case in Japan; the emperor and his family were not considered to be divine until the Meiji period (1868).

Types of Religion and Politics Differentiation and the Modern State

If modernity has not seen a disappearance of religion, it has seen a differentiation between the functions of the state and religious institutions. The paradigmatic case in this regard is France. The French Revolution was established on the ideas of popular sovereignty, as opposed to the Divine Right of kings. The law of 1905 separated the French state from the churches. In practice, this meant that religious symbols would be banned from schools, universities, and political assemblies; it also meant that religious discourse would be absent from political debates. The radicalism of this separation in France can be explained by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had for a long time refused to accept the legitimacy of the French Republic and systematically supported the Old Regime. This conflict was also, in a sense, a continuation of century-old tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the French state.

The French model, which is often referred to as “secularism,” had many imitators. In Turkey, even though the state was not officially separated from the religious establishment, political parties appealing to religion were banned in the 1920s. Some communist states, such as the Soviet Union or Albania, have even established state atheism.

Both secularism and state atheism are highly contested today. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a remarkable resurgence of religious practice in the 1990s. An Islamist party has governed Turkey since 2002. Even in France, the banning of public expressions of religion is contested by a number of second-generation Muslim immigrants who do not understand why their daughters would not be allowed to go to their schools or universities wearing their Muslim scarves.

More often than not, some accommodation is found between the state and religion(s), on the basis of state neutrality rather than “secularity.” The United States is an example of such accommodations. The state is supposed to be religiously neutral, but religions are allowed in the public sphere. Sometimes religions participate in the public debates through political parties. This is the case in Germany, where the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been a central component in the country’s political life since World War II. In such systems, religious practice is often recognized as a right. In the United States, religions also benefit from tax exemptions.

The principle of state neutrality has its own difficulties. First, because of the conceptual vagueness of the term, it is difficult to decide which associations should have the status of a religion and which ones should not. Scientology is officially recognized as a religion, but many critics claim that it should rather be treated as a sect. Second, some argue that by supporting all religions and exempting them from taxation, the state is implicitly discriminating against atheists—unless, of course, it decides to treat atheism as a religion too. Third, sometimes the laws of the state may contradict the demands of some people’s religions. In this case, religious groups often claim some kind of special treatment, in the name of their religious rights. In India, following a 1985 trial for alimony, divorce cases were removed from Indian civil law; they are judged according to the principles of religious law, which is different for each religion. Many object that such differential treatments undermine the very principle of equality before the law.

Finally, there are states that have official religions. Such is, for instance, the case of Greece. The Greek constitution, written in 1974, states that the Greek Orthodoxy is the “prevailing” religion in the country; priests are paid by the state and depend on the “ministry of education and cults,” and the government officially intervenes in the election of archbishops. Until the 1980s, civil marriage did not exist, and marriage between a Greek Orthodox individual and a member of another religion was not recognized by the state. This absence of separation between church and state often happens when a religion is clearly majoritarian (in Greece, more than 95% of the population are Greek Orthodox) and expresses the identity between the nation and its religion.

This identity between nation and religion needs careful study as it can mean two very different things and is thus linked to two very different types of phenomena. In the first type, which Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as “religious nationalism,” religion forms the basis of the life of the nation. This is the case in Iran, where the Islamic Revolution established a regime of theocracy, where the political powers are ultimately dependent on the religious ones and where the Islamic Shari’a is the official jurisdiction of the state. Such regimes are anti-Western, when, in the national imaginary, the West is perceived as synonymous with secularism. In the second type, which one may call ethnic religion, the community perceives its religion as an ethnic characteristic and thus uses it for self-differentiation but does not allow religion to influence its political agenda. As many observed at the time, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were fought mostly by atheists and agnostics; the religions they claimed to be fighting for were understood by them as nothing more than ethnic attributes. Needless to say, most of them were quite unaware of their precise dogmas as well as of the condemnation of their war by their respective religious authorities. Ethnic religion is thus a camouflaged expression of ultranationalism; it is a major source of ethnic conflict in the modern world.

In practice, however, most instances of identification between a religion and an ethnic group will involve some mix of both these types. This is the case in India, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; Indian People’s Party), which since 1998 has been a part of governmental coalitions, sees Hinduism as the basis of Indian national identity— at the expense of other religious cultures and especially Muslims, who represent 20% of the country’s population. The conflicts between Hindus and Muslims led to the death of 2,000 people in 1992, when the Hindus decided to destroy an old mosque (the Babri Masjid) because it had allegedly been built on the birthplace of a Hindu god. In such cases, it is difficult to distinguish the religious from the ethnic dimension of the conflict.

Religions and Pluralism

Most religions are old and have grown in a traditional environment. They have had ambivalent views toward modernity in general and especially toward the notion of pluralism, which is often associated with modernity. It has often been suggested that some religions may be, by their very nature, more fit to modernity than others. It has also been claimed that some political settings may be more conducive to violence and others to democratic dialogue.

Samuel Huntington has suggested that Western Christianity may be more suitable to modernity than other religious traditions. According to this view, elements such as democracy, free market, or pluralism are fundamentally Western values—that is, values that have grown out of the history of the Western world. Western religions have been part of this process. But these values may, according to the author, be profoundly incompatible with the values of other regions—and religions—of the world. To try to impose them there is, according to this view, both unpractical and arrogant. While this argument certainly captures some truth, one should never forget how difficult the implementation of democratic values has been in the West as well. For instance, it took the Catholic Church more than two centuries to adapt to modern democracy. Even as late as the 1970s, it supported many dictatorial regimes in Chile and Spain. And yet the Catholic Church has also been one of the main actors that guided the democratization of communist Poland in the 1980s. Other important factors are the profound malleability of religions as well as the discrepancies that often exist between religious dogmas and their political instrumentalization. The Catholic Church has been associated with both liberation theology, which speaks for social justice using many elements from Marxism, and the Opus Dei, an organization that has been associated with right-wing authoritarianism and social conservatism. Buddhism, a religion that advocates spirituality and indifference toward politics, has been used as the basis of national identity in countries such as Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

The political behavior of religions differs according to their own structure. The Catholic Church, for instance, is highly centralized. The official doctrine is determined by the Holy See and spreads down to the smallest parish. This contrasts with other Christian churches, Protestant but also Orthodox, that lack this hierarchical structure, as well as with Islam. In the latter case, administrative decentralization as well as the multiplicity of interpretations of faith have allowed for the emergence of multiple forms of Islamic movements, including the type of fundamentalism of al Qaeda. The centralization of the Catholic Church has so far prevented extremist or fundamentalist groups from emerging and has often been used to explain the success of its adaptation to modernity. On the other hand, it may also be argued that the sort of polymorphism that exists in decentralized religions makes them more compatible with modern democratic pluralism.

Finally, as noted earlier, religions are often old and have long histories. These matter too. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has very much to do with the fact that Jerusalem is central to the history of both Islam and Judaism.

The world as it is shows no sign that religion is going to play a less important role in politics in the years to come. One way or other, most states have to take into account the fact that religion influences people’s political choices. The secularism of the 19th century, which tried to ban religion from public life altogether, does not seem very successful—or democratic. On the other hand, bringing religions (by nature, absolute) to participate in the democratic discussion, which involves negotiation and compromise, may prove very difficult too, especially in multireligious societies. Facing this challenge may be one of the central tasks of modern democracies.

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  4. Calhoun, C., Juergensmeyer, M., & Van Antwerpen, J. (Eds.). (2011). Rethinking secularism. New York: Oxford University Press.
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  10. Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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  12. Juergensmeyer, M. (2008). Global rebellion: Religious challenges to the secular state. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  13. Mastnak, T. (2002). Crusading peace: Christendom, the Muslim world, and Western political order. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  14. Vries, H. D., & Sullivan, L. E. (2006). Political theologies: Public religions in a post-secular world. New York: Fordham University Press.

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