The role of Religion in Politics

By: Prapanna Lahiri

The relation between religion and politics has always been an important theme in political philosophy. Religion is the driving force shaping the values and beliefs of individuals who make a society. Historically, this relationship between religion and society manifesting in the State has taken a variety of forms from the state dominating religion to religion dominating the state and the more recent attempts to separate them in the modern world.

In ancient Egypt the political ruler was considered the highest religious leader with divine powers. The ancient Jewish tradition avowed a strict state monotheism that ruthlessly suppressed non-Israelite beliefs. The Chinese sovereign was historically considered the Son of Heaven. In Tibet, monasteries and monks held considerable political power.

In the West since the days of Constantine the various arrangements for religion in a society’s political life has been central to shaping of political thought. Following the Protestant Reformation, European societies struggled with finding the exact roles for the church and the state in each other’s domain. In every European nation, barring those Communist days of a secular ideology trying to suppress traditional faiths in Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, the church and the state stayed intertwined in some way or another depending on a nation’s history and culture.

Progress towards liberal concept of toleration: This concept centres on existence of a state that ensures religious freedom of people and treats all religions equally. Historically, the ancient Indian Emperor Ashoka (304-232 B.C.E.) being an early practitioner of this principle honoured all sects. Cyrus, the Great the founder of the Persian Empire had the first distinction of declaring official grant of toleration to non-state religions. The politics of Europe in the middle Ages witnessed a continuous conflict between the church and the state owing to frequent encroachment in each other’s realm giving rise to disputes over areas of authority. In the evolving Christendom the relationship between Christianity and secular authority was crystallised by the phrase attributed to Jesus in the gospel “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” John Locke (1632–1704), the influential English liberal political philosopher championed the inherent freedom of men and strongly upheld that the ruler should not coerce people to believe in what the ruler believed to be true religion, nor should churches exercise coercion over their members. These thoughts played a seminal role in charting the history of the church and state during both the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and later in the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) is considered a pioneering model for modern religious freedom legislation. This statute as a statement about freedom of conscience and the principle of separation of church and the state was a landmark precursor of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that provides protections for religious freedom. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) which was one of the basic charters of human liberties guided by inspiration of the French Revolution also enshrined Freedom of Religion (Article 10).

Some variations on relationship between church and state in contemporary Europe are:

  1. Pope the head of the Catholic Church exercisesex officio supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power over the theocratic State of Vatican City.
  2. Germany,Austria, and some Eastern European nations support some large religions.
  3. In England, the Government supports the church through taxes and exercises directions over it. The constitutional monarch heads the Church of England and the Prime Minister selects Archbishop of Canterbury. Similarly in Norway, the King is also the leader of the state church and more than half of the members of the Norwegian Council of State are members of the state church.

The Islamic world: Since Islamic code (Shari’ah) guides an ideal Islamic state, theoretically it does not distinguish between the state and the religion.  However, in practice governments in Islamic countries evidence a wide spectrum of attitude defining the relationship between the faith and the state based on the governance model:

  1. Caliphate in Sunni Islam: The Caliph heads the state drawing lineage from Muhammad. No such state exists today but some extremist organisations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Al Qaeda profess to establish such dispensation.
  2. Velayat-e faqi: The Islamic Republic of Iran follows a version of this concept where an Islamic jurist or faqih as the supreme spiritual leader sits atop the power structure of the republic also comprising the executive, judiciary and legislature.    
  3. The Republic of Turkey has a tradition of secularism despite some weakening in recent years. Turkey abandoned Islamic law adopting Italian penal code in 1926.
  4. TheConstitution of Indonesia (a Muslim majority country) does not designate a state religion and guarantees the freedom of practice of other religions and beliefs.

In India: In a Multi cultural and Multi religious country like India the relationship of the state with religion is of profound importance especially since the British colonists divided the country into Pakistan and India on the basis of the religion of the population of the undivided nation. Pakistan declared itself a religious state and India adopted a secular constitution. Hindus form the majority (nearly 80%), the Muslims the next minority group forming 14% overall, with concentration at particular regions of up to more than 50% and others forming the rest. The democratic constitution adopted, follows a ‘first past the post’ electoral system resulting in some professedly secular political formations trying to extract Muslim support, as easy road to political power, by constructing insecurity in them forcing them to exercise block voting in their favour. This in itself resulted in mixing politics with religion. This sometimes evoked reactions in the majority community creating social strife.

It is evident from the above discussion that secularism is advancing rapidly in modern times in many of the world’s societies. This trend is obviously connected with the process of economic development. Nevertheless, religion continues to be an important political phenomenon throughout the world, for various reasons.


Note*: The view expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represents the views of CRF.



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