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Religion and politics

  • German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)
1450 Religion and Politics
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Religion, Freedom of
See Freedom of Religion.
Religion and Politics
Religion and politics are concepts that designate two differ-
ent 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 commu-
nity, 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 bind-
ing decisions, allocate resources, and solve social problems.
The relationship between religion and politics experienced
a systematic restructuring in the context of the early mod-
ern 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 secu-
larization, 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 promi-
nently 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 world-
wide 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 postu-
lated that religion be taken “off the agenda” in liberal demo-
cratic politics and, in his 19 93 work Political Liberalism, asserted
that secularization as privatization is a requirement to the lib-
eral 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 Rawl-
sian postulate was undertaken by Alfred Stepan’s (2001) concept
of the twin tolerations between religion and the state. Stepan pos-
its 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 institu-
tional separation of state and religion.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, left, visits with African National Congress
leader Nelson Mandela shortly after Mandela’s 1990 release from
prison in South Africa. Political and religious figures often interact
with one another to serve their causes.
source: Corbis
Religion and Politics 1451
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.
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 relation-
ships between religion and politics, in that they, for instance,
allow for religious instruction in public schools, provide
public subsidies for private religious schools, recognize reli-
gious 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 socie-
ties, 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 separa-
tion” 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 institu-
tions (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 regu-
late society and societal affairs more intensively than demo-
cratic 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 stand-
ards 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 reli-
gions 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 Data-
set comprised five main indicators that measure the relations
between state and religion (RAS) in 175 countries for the years
199 0 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 indica-
tors 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 democra-
cies 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 separa-
tion) 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 contempo-
rary 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 accord-
ing to positivized 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 prom-
ulgated by the state or a state-instituted body of religious
1452 Religion and Politics
authorities who are granted a mandate over the delineation of
religious law.
The existence of religious law brings to light the continu-
ing 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.
The second institution through which religion may exert a
major impact on politics of the contemporary state are reli-
gious 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 prohi-
bition 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 rep-
resent 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
While most democratic theorists will agree that the values
of democracy and human rights derive from extrareligious
sources, democracies rely on the existence of a certain ethos
for citizens to obey laws and rulers to prioritize the pub-
lic 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 reli-
gion is revealed: Religions, as bulwarks of morality, can serve
as the best guarantors of democracy” (2000). While democra-
cies 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 repub-
lican values.
Whereas the first two waves of democracy were pre-
dominantly 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 compat-
ibility 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 generat-
ing 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.
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 move-
ments, religious authorities, and religious political parties in
domestic and international politics.
Three research programs are particularly salient in the lit-
erature on religion and politics:
1.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 par-
ticular interest is the extent to which state regulation
limits religious freedom, how state regulation of reli-
gion impacts regime stability and erosion, and how the
provision of welfare by religious authorities affects the
quality of citizenship and, in turn, regime stability.
2.The transnational character of religion. Religion increas-
ingly 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 sov-
ereign entity in international law. Besides the Catho-
lic 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.
Religious Minorities 1453
3.Religion as an independent variable in peace and conflict stud-
ies. Studies concentrate on the question of whether reli-
gion 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 199 0s to Darfur), but also (b) religious authori-
ties can function as powerful managers and mediators
in violent conflicts (as happened in apartheid South
Africa, post-genocide Rwanda, and post-independence
East Timor).
See also Buddhist Political Thought; Church and State; Civil
Religion; Clericalism; Concordat; Confucian Political Thought; Cul-
ture Wars; Evangelicalism; Faith-based Initiative; Fundamentalism;
Hindu Political Thought; Islamic Political Thought; Jewish Political
Thought; Laicite; Orthodoxy in Political Thought; Papacy; Pente-
costalism; Protestant Political Thought; Puritanism; Religion and
Politics; Religious Minorities; Religious Parties; Religious Persecu-
tion; Roman Catholic Social Thought; State Church; Theocracy.
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Reconciliation. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.
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———. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics.
Washington, D.C.: Eerdmans/Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999.
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Secularisation.” State, Society, and Liberty: Studies in Political Theory and
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Religious Minorities
In 1843, Karl Marx announced, “Religion is the sigh of the
oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is
the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
And it seemed that a little more than one hundred years later,
many Westerners had kicked their religious habits. Shortly after
Marx, God’s obituary writer Friedrich Nietzsche famously
stated that God was dead and that we had killed Him, and by
the 19 60 s, religion was indeed supposed to be dead. In 1967,
Martin E. Marty (2004) suggested that spirituality as a topic of
public discourse had been abandoned in that decade; however,
religion turned out to be the great vanishing act of the twenti-
eth century, reappearing in a flood of intolerance. The past two
decades have seen a dramatic resurgence in religious interest,
and religious minorities have been at the center.
For most of the twentieth century, the principal interest in
religious minorities was as a sociological group deserving of
particular rights, but of little interest to politics other than that,
and an array of international, regional, and national declarations
and laws were introduced to protect their rights. Gradually
accepting its marginalization in relation to the state, Western
Christianity relinquished most of its political functions to the
state and loosened hold on the status of national religion, while
religious minorities increasingly demanded recognition.
This move to a religious level playing field had the dual
benefits of recognizing emerging minority rights while neu-
tralizing religious influence on the national political scene, or
so it seemed. Jonathan Fox (2008) argues that religious dis-
crimination has, in fact, increased since 199 0, and he offers six
major reasons: policies of domestic protection from external
influence, religion seen as challenging the state, perception of
religious movements as dangerous, religion already linked to
national identity, existence of a symbiotic relationship between
religion and state, and state religion itself creating discrimina-
tion against competitors.
Religious resurgence has fragmented majority religions
into minority groups from within and led to the emergence
of new religions. Some religious minorities are dismissed uni-
versally as a cult, and new religions are frequently ridiculed or
discriminated against. They can be perceived as dangerous cults
like the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo, as harmful like
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The essays in this volume explore the difficulties and possibilities of diverse religious groups occupying the same public space. It is shown that religion is not only identified with the culture and politics of the hostile anti-urban village, but is also compatible with the tolerance and respect needed in the global city. Some religious activists have blown things up, but others have tried to smooth things over. Prophetic religious voices call for moderation, justice, and environmental protection. Even the religious opposition to globalization is nuanced. Some violent activists, like Hindu extremists in India, want a new religious state. Others, like Christian militias or al Qaeda, envision a transnational religious entity - a kind of religious globalization to supplant the secular one. Still others call for an alternative to secular globalization that embraces religious values in a multicultural milieu. These essays demonstrate that religion plays diverse and sometimes contradictory roles in the new global culture. The contributors to this volume deftly navigate the complex terrain of religion and global society, offering a striking new vision of the future of religion in a changing world.
This book delves into the extent of government involvement in religion between 1990 and 2002 using both quantitative and qualitative methodology. The study is based on the Religion and State dataset, which includes 175 governments across the globe, all of which are addressed individually in this book. The forms of involvement examined in this study include whether the government has an official religion, whether some religions are given preferential treatment, religious discrimination against minority religion, government regulation of the majority religion, and religious legislation. The study shows that government involvement in religion is ubiquitous, that it increased significantly during this period, and that only a minority of states, including a minority of democracies, have separation of religion and state. These findings contradict the predictions of religion’s reduced public significance found in modernization and secularization theory. The findings also demonstrate that state religious monopolies are linked to reduced religious participation.
August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud predicted that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the emergence of industrial society. Their belief that religion was dying became conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century. However, this analysis reveals that the traditional secularization thesis needs updating now. Religion has not disappeared and is unlikely to do so, even though secularization has had a surprisingly powerful negative impact on human fertility rates.
Seminal nineteenth-century thinkers predicted that religion would gradually fade in importance with the emergence of industrial society. The belief that religion was dying became the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century. The traditional secularization thesis needs updating, however, religion has not disappeared and is unlikely to do so. Nevertheless, the concept of secularization captures an important part of what is going on. This book develops a theory of existential security. It demonstrates that the publics of virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving toward more secular orientations during the past half century, but also that the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before. This second edition expands the theory and provides new and updated evidence from a broad perspective and in a wide range of countries. This confirms that religiosity persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially in poorer nations and in failed states. Conversely, a systematic erosion of religious practices, values, and beliefs has occurred among the more prosperous strata in rich nations.