Religion and politics are concepts that designate two different and interdependent subsystems of society. Although the concepts are separated analytically, the relationship between religion and politics is characterized by interdependence. A definition of religion widely accepted among social scientists is provided by Peter Berger (1967, 1999), who defines religion as a “set of beliefs that connects the individual to a community, and in turn to a sense of being or purpose that transcends the individual and the mundane.” The concept of politics denominates the regulative power to make collectively binding decisions, allocate resources, and solve social problems.
- Secularization and Secularism
- Relations Between Politics and Religion in the Contemporary State
- State Regulation of Religion
- Religious Law
- Religious Political Parties
- Religion and Democracy
- Recent Trends in Political Science Research on Religion and Politics
Secularization and Secularism
The relationship between religion and politics experienced a systematic restructuring in the context of the early modern secularization processes, which led to the emergence of the modern secular state. While the past century has seen a myriad of often contradictory usages of the concept of secularization, most social scientists today agree, at a minimum, on the historical-descriptive conception of secularization as denominating the process of differentiation of the secular spheres (e.g., state, law, economy, science, administration) from religious institutions and norms (e.g., the transfer of persons, things, meanings) from ecclesiastical or religious to civil or lay use, possession, or control. This conception is also closest to the etymological origin of the term. Other conceptions of secularization are of teleological nature, as used, for instance, in Berger who prognosticated a worldwide decline in the relevance of religious beliefs in social and political life with increasing societal modernization and rationalization. This conception of secularization has been refuted most prominently in the discipline of the sociology of religion, which has shown that declining levels of religiosity in the twentieth century were a phenomenon confined to Europe and thus a global exception rather than the rule. Contrary to prognoses about the “end of religion” in the twentieth century, a worldwide resurgence of private and public religion has taken place.
A third conception of secularization denominates the privatization of religion—the relegation of religious norms, practices, and beliefs to the private realm. John Rawls postulated that religion be taken “off the agenda” in liberal democratic politics and, in his 1993 work Political Liberalism, asserted that secularization as privatization is a requirement to the liberal democratic state. The Rawlsian postulate has been rejected by recent democratic theory, and Rawls himself moderated his position in a later journal article. A decisive revision of the Rawlsian postulate was undertaken by Alfred Stepan’s (2001) concept of the twin tolerations between religion and the state. Stepan posits that democratic politics requires the separation of religious and political authority, but beyond this allows for a variety of arrangements of cooperation and accommodation between the two spheres. Democracy needs the twin tolerations, defined as mutually respected spheres of autonomy between religion and the state, “freedom for democratically elected governments, and freedom for religious organizations in civil and political society,” but does not require secularity in the sense of a strict institutional separation of state and religion.
Secularism commonly refers to the division of the religious and political spheres in modern society, and therefore, contrary to secularization, to a condition rather than a process. At times, secularism denotes “an ideology or set of beliefs that advocates the marginalization of religion from other spheres of life.”
Relations Between Politics and Religion in the Contemporary State
State Regulation of Religion
Contemporary states exhibit great variation in the formal relationships between religion and politics. Some level of interweavement of religion and politics in the modern state is the rule, while a strict institutional separation between the two is the exception. Most states entertain complex relationships between religion and politics, in that they, for instance, allow for religious instruction in public schools, provide public subsidies for private religious schools, recognize religious holidays as state holidays, provide welfare through (or in partnership with) religious institutions, grant tax breaks to religious organizations, allocate to religious institutions and authorities time in public broadcasting, and maintain or subsidize buildings and venues used or owned by religious institutions. These arrangements are prevalent in most societies, irrespective of the majority religion—they can be found around the world, whether the majority religion is Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or otherwise. Some states even recognize an official state religion; this is the case among long-standing democracies such as Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, and the United Kingdom, as well as nondemocratic regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Within the great variance of religion-state relationships, it is useful to identify some archetypes. At one extreme of the continuum of institutional religion-state relations stands strict separation of religion and state, such as is de jure in the United States. Since 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Establishment Clause as constituting a “wall of separation” between religion and state. At the other extreme of the continuum stand regimes that highly regulate religion, such as theocratic and atheist regimes. The Islamic Republic of Iran presents an example wherein religious and political authority is merged, the legal system purports to be Islamic, conversion away from Islam is punishable by death, and religious institutions (e.g., mosques, seminaries, religious schools) are highly regulated by the state. Albania between 1967 and 1989 is an example of an atheist regime, where all religions, religious organizations, and religious practice were prohibited; religious schools were closed, religious authorities persecuted. Between these extremes of strict separation on the one hand and high regulation of religion by the state on the other are several archetypes that present mixed systems.
The state is the principal authority structuring relations between religion and politics. Because state policies aim at the allocation of goods and resources as well as the solution of social conflicts, they also tend to involve some regulation of religious affairs. This is done through constitutional provisions and legislation. Because nondemocratic regimes tend to regulate society and societal affairs more intensively than democratic regimes do, this also applies to religion: nondemocratic regimes often exhibit higher levels of regulation of religion than democracies. Due to requirements of certain rights standards in democratic politics in the realm of civil rights, human rights, and religious freedom, there are limits with regard to how much democratic regimes can regulate religion before violating or undermining their democratic foundations. Too much regulation of religion necessarily involves the violation of human or civil rights (for instance, tying citizenship to a particular religious affiliation; recognizing only certain religions and not others; limiting the rights of certain religions to organize, practice, and assemble).
Jonathan Fox (2007) has classified countries around the world with regard to the level of separation between religion and state. In its first round, Fox’s Religion and State Dataset comprised five main indicators that measure the relations between state and religion (RAS) in 175 countries for the years 1990 until 2002: (1) formal establishment or nonestablishment of religion in the state, (2) regulation of the majority religion, (3) regulation of minority religions, (4) religious elements in general legislation, and (5) enforcement levels. The five indicators in turn consist of numerous subindicators. A composite score that comprises all five dimensions ranges from 0 (the lowest score, given to the United States) to 77 (the highest score, given to Saudi Arabia). RAS ranges in most democracies between 0 and 35. Long-standing democracies show great variation in the extent to which the state regulates religion: from the near absence of regulation (i.e., strict formal separation) in Australia, South Korea, and the United States to high levels in Finland or Greece. Generally, it can be observed that Christian-Orthodox states tend to exhibit higher levels of state regulation of religion than is the case in Catholic or Protestant countries. Muslim-majority countries showcase great variance in the level of regulation, between Senegal (3), Albania (8), Mali (17), Lebanon (22), and Iran (66).
Apart from the relationship between politics and religion elucidated above, religion plays a political role in contemporary states through two formal institutions: religious law and religious political parties.
Most states outside the Christian-majority world, but even several Catholic and Christian-Orthodox countries, uphold sizable bodies of religious laws and statutes. This is the case most prominently in the realm of personal status law, where issues of marriage, divorce, and custody are regulated according to politicized religious norms (for instance, in India; Israel; most Muslim-majority states except for Turkey, Albania, and the former CIS states; as well as Catholic-majority states like Ireland and Italy; and Christian-Orthodox countries like Armenia, Georgia, and Greece). Beyond personal status law, matters such as inheritance and common-law trusts are often regulated by religious law. Religious law is usually promulgated by the state or a state-instituted body of religious authorities who are granted a mandate over the delineation of religious law.
The existence of religious law brings to light the continuing tensions that exist between liberal notions of citizenship that do not differentiate between citizens based on religion, language, or ethnicity, and the demands that religious norms continue to exert on adherents. Some of the questions related to religious law provoke the most heated normative debates. Controversies usually revolve around the extent of religious jurisdiction; which body is authorized to positivize and reform religious law; the composition of this body; the methodology of deriving religious law and the sources of law; the training and appointment of those adjudicating on the basis of religion; and ways in which national law, including religious law, can be brought in line with international human rights conventions that states have signed and ratified.
Religious Political Parties
The second institution through which religion may exert a major impact on politics of the contemporary state are religious political parties, which range from Christian parties in Catholic countries, to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, Jewish Orthodox parties in Israel, and Islamic parties in countries of the Muslim world. The prohibition of religious parties in democracies as, for instance, in Mali, Portugal, Senegal, and elsewhere is problematic from the perspective of democratic theory. Political parties are a constitutive element of democratic systems because of their intermediary functions of representation and aggregation of interests in processes of political decision-making. Liberal notions of democracy posit that any societal group must have the right to found and run a political party and represent their interests in politics. Not the ethos of a political party is decisive for democratization but its conformity with constitutional provisions and democratic norms, behavior, and attitudes. Constraints on political parties ought only be imposed after a party, by its actions, is proven to have violated democracy.
Religion and Democracy
While most democratic theorists will agree that the values of democracy and human rights derive from extra religious sources, democracies rely on the existence of a certain ethos for citizens to obey laws and rulers to prioritize the public good over individual pursuits. It is here that religion can play an important role. In the words of Abdolkarim Soroush, “Democracy cannot prosper without commitment to moral precepts. It is here that the great debt of democracy to religion is revealed: Religions, as bulwarks of morality, can serve as the best guarantors of democracy” (2000). While democracies need to be neutral toward worldviews, including religious views, they do rely on certain sources of morality, for which religion may be a source as well as constitutional and republican values.
Whereas the first two waves of democracy were predominantly Protestant waves, the third wave (post-1974) is often referred to as the “Catholic wave and the fourth wave (post-1989) has involved numerous Orthodox-Christian and non-Christian majority countries with Buddhist, Confucian, and Muslim backgrounds. While the question of the compatibility of democracy with certain religions occupied a great deal of scholarship until recently, the fourth wave has given empirical credence to the argument that all religions are multivocal and can be reconciled with democratic values and human rights, if and where local religious intellectuals succeed in generating arguments within their own religious traditions supportive of such values. In turn, given the interdependent relationship between religion and politics, religious beliefs and practices evolve within the context of sociopolitical institutions. That is, the political regime type can significantly shape religious beliefs and practices in the medium to long term.
Recent Trends in Political Science Research on Religion and Politics
The interest for the role of religion in politics and society dramatically increased in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Methodologically, empirical-analytical and institutionalist approaches have since been dominant in the study of religion in comparative politics. In more sociological accounts, the religious economy approach has been popular, which treats religious organizations as firms competing in a religious market to increase or maintain their adherents. Research agendas focus on the function, collective actions, and political significance of religious actors, religious movements, religious authorities, and religious political parties in domestic and international politics.
Three research programs are particularly salient in the literature on religion and politics:
- The relationship between religion, religious actors, movements, and institutions on the one hand, and the state on the other, and the impact of this relationship on a number of issues: regime stability, development, and rights standards. Of particular interest is the extent to which state regulation limits religious freedom, how state regulation of religion impacts regime stability and erosion, and how the provision of welfare by religious authorities affects the quality of citizenship and, in turn, regime stability.
- The transnational character of religion. Religion increasingly crosses national boundaries and exerts an impact as a transnational phenomenon on domestic politics. For a long time, the Catholic Church functioned as the largest transnational religious organization, which until today with very few exceptions controls clerical appointments and finances across the world from its center in the Holy See and enjoys the status of a sovereign entity in international law. Besides the Catholic Church, numerous Protestant, Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu movements have begun to catch the attention of political scientists as transnational actors. Research in this area focuses on the effects of the charitable nature of transnational religious movements, as well as violent and terrorist religious activism.
- Religion as an independent variable in peace and conflict studies. Studies concentrate on the question of whether religion and religious actors contribute to the emergence, continuity, or management and solution of conflict. The results of these studies show that (a) religion lends itself to the political instrumentalization for the mobilization and polarization of conflicting parties (examples reach from post-Hussein Iraq to conflict on the Molukkas in late 1990s to Darfur), but also (b) religious authorities can function as powerful managers and mediators in violent conflicts (as happened in apartheid South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda, and post-independence East Timor).
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- Soroush, Abdolkarim. Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
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