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Political Secularism, Religion and the State

Religion is intertwined with politics in every country in the world, though how this manifests is unique in each country. For example, in Germany – a state that still levies a religious tax for members of recognized religions – recent court cases addressed whether the government could regulate the ritual of circumcision for Jews and Muslims and whether it could ban the religious headwear of Muslim women. Much of the Muslim world is in a state of civil war over the role religion should play in government and which interpretation of Islam should be dominant.

In practice, most governments are involved in religion either through supporting it, restricting it, or both. In my new book, Political Secularism, Religion and the State: A Timeseries Analysis of Worldwide Data, I explore the relationship between states and religion across the globe. Of the 177 countries I examine 23% have official religions, 25% have no official religion but in practice support one religion over all others, and 19% support some religions but not others. Thus, two-thirds of countries clearly prefer and even endorse a single religion or set of religions. An additional 9% are overtly hostile to religion and restrict it. Only 43 countries (24%) are even approaching neutral on the issue of religion, and most of them still support and regulate religion in some manner.

To understand these complex relationships, I cover the 110 distinct government religion policies between 1990 and 2008 that are part of my larger Religion and State project. I divide them into the larger categories of state support for religion, regulation of the majority religion, and restrictions on minority religions. Finally, I place these findings into a larger theoretical framework which focuses on the secular-religious competition perspective.

The secular-religious competition perspective

In this perspective, which I call the competition perspective for short, I argue that religious actors and actors who support political secularism compete in the political arena to influence state policy. I define political secularism as an ideology or set of beliefs which advocates that religion ought to be separate from all or some aspects of politics and/or public life. Thus, political secularists seek to at the very least reduce religions’ public role. However, at the same time religious actors seek to increase the public role of religion. Put differently, no matter how strongly a state supports religion, there are people who feel that it does not support religion strongly enough and no matter how secular a state, there are those who feel it is not secular enough. These actors compete in the political arena to influence state religion policy.

While this theory was developed from secularization theory, which was the dominant theory on religion in the social sciences during much of the 20th century, it is better described as built upon the ashes of that theory. Secularization theory predicted that challenges inherent in modernization would cause the demise or at least severe decline of religion. I argue that the theory was correct regarding the modern challenges to religion but wrong about religion’s inevitable decline. Rather, these challenges both include and facilitated the rise of political secularism as a political ideology, which competes with religion in every country in the world. Thus, modernity has changed the dynamics of religion and politics, but religion remains a relevant and potent influence. However, removing the element of religion’s inevitable decline from secularization theory essentially cuts out the theory’s heart and soul. Thus, I consider the secular-religious competition perspective to be a new theory which, while having some roots in what came before, is not a new version of secularization theory.

Government religion policy in practice

In practice, government religion policy conforms largely to the secular-religious competition perspective. Most of the 110 types of government religion policy, each of which I discuss in detail in the book, shifted over time. More states are supporting religion, regulating the majority religion, and restricting the religious practices and institutions of minority religions.

To give a couple of examples: In 1995, the Swedish government and the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden decided to separate from one another. As a result, local parishes and the government had to divide vast amounts of property, the Church received significantly less state support, and the government no longer appointed the Church’s bishops. In 2001, Slovakia signed a Concordat with the Vatican granting the Catholic Church special privileges not given to other religions. That same year, the government of Yemen began a process in which it took control of all Islamic education in the country to eradicate teachings encouraging religious extremism and sectarianism. In 2003, it started dismissing religious figures who preached against the regime.

Taken as a whole, 98 countries (55.4%) exclusively added religion policies between 1990 and 2008, 22 (12.4%) exclusively removed policies, 28 (15.8%) both added and removed policies, and only 29 (16.4%) made no changes. This demonstrates that religion is becoming an issue that is, on average, attracting more attention than it has in the past. It also shows a give and take between secular and religious political actors with both influencing policy. Even though religious actors currently seem to have the upper hand, this vibrant political competition represents exactly the religious political economy described by the secular-religious competition perspective.

The Bigger Picture

I posit that the secular-religious competition perspective is key to understanding the nature of religion’s interaction with politics in the modern era, but it is also part of a more complex religious economy. That is, there are other influences on religion and politics as well as factors which make this relationship more complex:

  • Complex competition: Both the religious and secular camps are diverse. There are multiple perspectives on what it means for governments to stay out of religion. For example, the US model has the government separated from religion – meaning no support and no restrictions – while the Neutrality model, popular in Europe, allows governments to support and restrict religion as long as all religions are treated equally. There are also multiple religious traditions as well as multiple factors and interpretations within religions. Perhaps one of the most important examples of this today is the competition between Islam as traditionally interpreted and Islam as interpreted by radical organizations such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. Thus, while the religious and secular camps compete for political influence, there is at the same time competition within each of these camps.
  • Control vs. support: The motivations of government religion policies are often unclear. For example, one of the best ways to limit and control religion is to support it. When a state supports a single religion, this support almost always comes with overt control as well as the implied threat that support will be withdrawn if the religious institutions do not support the state. For example, when a state funds religion, this makes that religion dependent financially on the state and subject to the threat of the withdrawal of that funding. The results of this study show that all states which restrict, regulate, or control religion also support it and that levels of support and control are highly correlated.
  • Macro vs. Micro: Macro-level policies do not always translate into micro-level policies. While a state’s “high politics” official policy on religion is certainly correlated with its day-to-day policy on religion, there is wide variation on this issue. For example, states which have an official religion range between 2 and 42 of the 51 potential types of practical support for religion measured in this study.
  • National vs. local: Local policies are often at odds with national policies. That is, many local governments support the majority religion or restrict minority religions in ways not present in national policy. For example, most, but not all, restrictions on Muslim women wearing head coverings and on mosques in the West are by local rather than national governments.
  • Not all religion policy is motivated by religion: Many other political, cultural and economic factors as well as the interests of politicians also play a role.

All of this makes for a complex set of interactions which influence state religion policy. No two countries have the same policy and few countries have policies that are unchanging. Moreover, religious traditions are not monolithic. In the Christian world, for example, the states with the fewest religion policies, particularly discrimination against religious minorities, are in the Third World rather than in the West. There is also significant diversity in the Muslim world: Muslim majority states in West Africa have levels of government religion policies similar to those of Western democracies, for instance, while the Middle East and Asia include regimes which are heavily involved in supporting and regulating the majority religion as well as discriminating against religious minorities. A comparative analysis of the relationship between state and religion thus yields some surprising results. The emerging global trends suggest that the study of governments’ religion policies is as important as ever.

About Jonathan Fox

Jonathan Fox

Jonathan Fox (Ph.D. in Government & Politics, University of Maryland, 1997) is a professor of political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and director of the Religion and State project []. He has published over 70 articles and nine books, mostly relating to religion and politics. His recent books include Political Secularism, Religion and the State: A Timeseries Analysis of Worldwide Data, An Introduction to Religion and Politics: Theory and Practice, and Religion in International Relations Theory: Interactions and Possibilities.

Jonathan Fox @ Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel

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