Here is one of the WP essays i wrote this year…
Religion And Politics: Should They Mix?
The question of the relationship between religion and politics is as complex as it is contested, since both concepts are notoriously hard to pin down to any one definition. The plethora of different forms and function of world religions makes it all the more difficult to assess whether it is good for the two forces to intermingle, and the definition of politics used is also vital in understanding whether it should have anything to do with religion. Across the world, from the United States to Afghanistan, France to Sudan, religion plays a role and has a voice in the political arena, but the point at hand is whether this influence is beneficial, benign or just dangerous.
Thus, before moving to address the key issue, it is vital to define what exactly is meant by the terms ‘religion’ and ‘politics’. Politics has been defined in a number of ways. Haynes (1998) defines politics as the pursuit of power and the exercise of it once power is attained, as well as regulating conflicts that emerge between various interest groups within a polity. However, this definition is too broad to be of any use, so in this case it is beneficial to define politics as activity related to the institution of the state and the machinery of government (Heywood, 2003). Religion can be seen as ‘a system of beliefs and practices related to an ultimate being, beings or the supernatural’ (Haynes, 1998), and on a more profound level, ‘relates man to the ultimate conditions of his existence’ (R. Bellah, quoted in Moyser (1991)). Also important is the contrast between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’, which arguably means that former is controlled by religion and the latter by the state. Nonetheless, the distinction between the two concepts is clear, as politics relates to the workings of the state, while religion relates to people on an individual level, with adherents (perhaps) forming a social grouping.
Thus having attempted to define the terms, it is important to put some perspective on the relationship between the two, and also to give examples of their interaction in real life.
It can be argued that the process of secularisation in Western societies over the past two centuries has resulted in an environment in which religion and politics are as divorced from each other as they have been. (Moyser, 1991) However, there is much literature devoted to examining the resurgence of religious involvement in politics, particularly in the form of ‘religious fundamentalism’, whether Christian, Islamic or other in nature. Throughout history, there are examples of the fusion of politics and religion, from the Egyptian Pharaohs, who were ‘God-kings’ to the deified Roman Emperors to the English monarchy with their ‘divine right of kings’. The issue of whether secularism itself is religion will be examined later. Thus it is important to use this legacy of religio-political involvement to examine whether it is a good thing or not.
An example of a positive contribution of religion to politics is that of William Wilberforce in the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th century, which culminated in the Emancipation Act of 1833. Wilberforce, acting on his religious conviction that slavery was an immoral trade, campaigned for many years, finally seeing the Bill pass just three days before his death.
Another, more recent, example is the involvement of many Christian charities and organizations in campaigning on behalf of the poor and exploited people in the world, most notably in the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005, which proposes to lobby the leaders of the G7 nations to cancel the debt of developing countries. Such charities as Christian Aid, Tearfund, Save the Children and Action Aid are at the forefront of this work, motivated by the strong emphasis on helping the poor given by Jesus in the Bible. It is important to note that value judgments regarding the benefits of religious actions in the political sphere are inherently biased by the moral code that each individual subscribes to. Thus, many Christians would see the Prohibition Era in the United States (1920–33) as a good thing, whereas many liberals see it as a period of restricted freedom for individuals.
There are, unfortunately a plethora of examples of negative consequences from the mixing of religion and politics.
One such example is the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was in government from 1997 until 2002, when it was chased out by the invasion of the US and its allies, the Northern Alliance. Under the Taliban regime, an ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic shari’a law was imposed, which excluded women from education, the economy and public life, banned all forms of music and concentrated power in the hands of a select few clerics. Furthermore, the Taliban gave shelter and support to militant Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda, who were responsible for the terrorist attacks on the USA on the 11th September 2001.
Another negative example is the ‘Troubles’ between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland, where each side derives its identity from their religion. While those perpetrating the violence on each side are not acting in accordance with the teachings of the Bible, which they claim as their holy book, the conflict is nonetheless rooted in the centuries-old conflict between the two chief branches of Christianity.
A third example is the ongoing tension and conflict in Israel/Palestine, where the Israeli claims to the ‘Holy Land’ are rooted in the religious conviction that it is theirs by divine right. Many Palestinian Muslims also equate the Israeli occupation of the land as an insult to Islam, although their cause is more rooted in the fact that they had their land taken away from them without their consent. Nonetheless, the intifada is classed as a ‘holy’ war against the enemies of Islam, rooted in the religious conception of jihad (Morris, 1989). The importance of Jerusalem in Islam, Judaism and Christianity further adds to the difficulty of resolving the issue, which points us to the main problem that arises when religion meets politics. Religious conviction is perhaps the most rousing rallying call for any social grouping, and can inspire levels of loyalty and devotion that political parties simply cannot achieve. This is due to the belief of the religion’s adherents that their’s is the true religion, and that their eternal destiny depends on their actions and beliefs in this life.
Nonetheless, there is a case to be argued that the conflicts in Ireland and Israel have more to do with socio-economic factors than being about the specifics of religion anymore.
An interesting development in recent years is the rise of the ‘New Christian Right’ in the US, where organisations such as ‘Moral Majority’ and ‘Christian Voice’ have lobbied and campaigned for a return to traditional Christian values in America, often focussed around single moral issues such as abortion, gay rights and the banning of school prayers (Guth, 1983). While this movement came to prominence during the Reagan era, it is now a highly significant part of the American political system, following the re-election of George W. Bush as President. His emphasis on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, regarding a whole range of issues gained much support in an electorate searching for certainty in an uncertain world. The strong support for the Republican Party within the ranks of evangelical Christianity in American has been a major topic of debate and discussion in political circles, since the ‘moral agenda’ appeared to take precedence over issues such as the economy and healthcare when it came to voting. This shocked the secular humanist political elite, who struggled to construct a reason for this voting behaviour. There is much debate over the alleged fusing of religion and politics that the Bush Administration is involved in, with many liberals strongly opposed to the possibility of a restriction on abortion rights and a halt to the continued extension of gay rights. Nonetheless, the US remains a secular state, with a constitutional separation of church and state, interpreted as a commitment to secularism in politics and education. Though the secular humanists appear on the back foot at the moment, it remains to be seen whether the New Christian Right will continue to gain influence or if the secularists regain the upper ground, yet with an evangelical Christian as President, there are interesting times ahead for religion and politics in America.
Religion can never truly be divorced from politics, since everyone has religious ideas, and not just adherents to ‘traditional’ religions. Fidel Castro remarked that ‘Christ was a great revolutionary’ and that he intended to ‘try to make a reality out of Christian thought’ (Norman, 1979), while attempts to make Albanian a religion-free society only succeeded in making Atheism the state religion (Haynes). The attempt by Western governments to restrict religion to the private sphere has merely led to a resurgence of religious participation in politics, dubbed the ‘deprivatisation’ of religion.
Another issue pertinent to the question of the relationship between religion and politics is whether secularism, or secular humanism, is itself a religion. The advance of secularism, in the guise of democratisation, has been called ‘secular nationalism’ (Juergensmeyer, 1994) and is strongly linked to the principles of the separation of church and state and moral pluralism that are championed in most liberal democracies. In the post-modern culture of the West, it has become intolerant for a religion to maintain that it alone has a monopoly on truth or salvation, and thus it is claimed that only a secular state that rejects the supernatural is capable of delivering a truly democratic state, free from the perceived ‘dangers’ of religious fundamentalism. However, secularism itself is intrinsically religious, in that it occupies the same place in human experience in the West as does Islam in Muslim society and Hinduism & Sikhism in Indian society (Juergensmeyer), namely that it is the chief belief system that is taught in the education system and propounded by the media. Rather than giving honour to any notion of a supernatural ‘God’, secular humanism gives honour to humanity as a species, seen as being the ultimate force for positive change in society and also the source of moral authority. The implication of this is moral relativism, where each individual determines their own morality, which is so anathema to ‘religious fundamentalists’. Thus, secularism is a religion in that it has a core set of beliefs, a deified concept, human reason, and its own set of answers to the core questions of human existence. The existence of a hegemony of liberal, secular ideas in British politics is indicative that religion has not been removed from politics; it is merely the case that one religion has become dominant, to the exclusion of all others. Every religion will have on influence on the cultural identity of the society it is in, since it inspires the utopian element that inspires ideologies and can often be linked to nationalism. (Goodwin, 1997)
Ultimately, the question of whether religion and politics should mix is a normative judgment, which precludes the existence of a moral basis on which to base that judgment. Yet such a judgment requires a moral framework, which in turn is dependent on the ‘religious’ or at least ethical viewpoint of the individual. Those who hold a Islamic moral viewpoint will applaud moves towards Islamic states in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, while those of a Christian moral perspective view the principles of opposing abortion, gay rights and also helping those who are in need are to be championed. Those of a secular moral standpoint (if such a thing can exist), will see the promotion of moral pluralism and relativism and the use of human reasoning as being of great importance.
Thus, in conclusion, the issue of whether religion and politics should mix is a moot point, in that religion and politics do mix, have mixed and will probably always mix as long as there is society, however that was not the question. It is clear that religious conviction is not something that can be excluded from any political system, but where this has been attempted, this has provoked reactionary movements in the from of religious fundamentalism, whose adherents feel threatened by the attempts of the state to restrict their religious freedom and react by becoming more active in their faith. My conclusion is that religion and politics are fundamentally contrasting, as politics focuses on ‘earthly’ authority and power, while religion looks to ‘heavenly’ authority and power. However, the two are not independent of each other, since separating religion from politics would make for weak politics, while separating politics from religion would make for weak religion.
Goodwin, Barbara (1997). ch. 11 “Beyond Ideology: Nationalism” p261 in Using Political Ideas (4th edition) (Wiley)
Guth, James L. (1983) “The New Christian Right” in Liebman, Robert C. and Wuthnow, Robert eds. The New Christian Right (Aldine)
Haynes, Jeff. (1998) Religion in Global Politics (Longman)
Heywood, Andrew. (2003) Political Ideologies: An Introduction 3rd Edition (Palgrave)
Juergensmeyer, Mark. (1994) The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (University of California Press)
Moyser, George. (1991) “Politics and Religion in the Modern World: an overview” in George Moyser ed. Politics and Religion in the Modern World (Routledge)
Morris, Paul (1989) “Israel” in Stuart Mews Religion in Politics: A World Guide (Longman)
Norman, Edward. (1979) Christianity and the World Order (Oxford University Press)