Church And State Research Paper

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The umbrella term Church and State is conventionally used to refer to a range of topics within political science which concern the relationships between religious organizations, institutions, and authorities on the one hand and the polity on the other. Across the world religion has from the earliest times been centrally concerned with the shaping and authoritative allocation of values with which political science in its broadest signification is concerned. In the West churches in their proper sense represent only one type of religious collectivity—albeit historically the most important—whose relationship with the state has been the subject of intense and prolonged controversy; sects, denominations, and cults, each with their distinctive characteristics and drives, have also given rise in their orientation to political authorities, and vice versa, to difficult issues of recognition, regulation, and control. Within the other world religions the term church has no analogue, although the Buddhist sangha is often thought to share some features. In the other monotheistic religions, such as Islam and Judaism, and in Hinduism the location of religious authority and the degree of its independence from political authority suggest quite different patterns from those typical of church–state relations in the West. The establishment since 1948 through various international charters and conventions on human rights of foundational claims to religious freedom presents the challenge of institutionalizing ostensibly universal claims in this field within culturally diverse contexts.

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1. Church And State In The Perspective Of Political Development

In the developmentalist, or modernization, perspective traditional religiopolitical systems were typically understood to combine religious and political functions within a single structure of authority. In certain, particularly oriental, cultures this took the form of institutions of divine kingship or theocratic rule, while in Christian cultures, where the church was from early on conceived as a distinct institution, rulers usually claimed and often successfully asserted over against the church some species of sacral authority. From the time of Constantine, the emergent system of church establishment shifted from epoch to epoch between imperial authority over the church and Papal or Patriarchal authority over the emperors and other temporal authorities, a tension which was only partially resolved into contrasting patterns prevalent in different parts of the Christian world at the times of the East–West Schism in the eleventh century and the Reformation Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth. In the high Middle Ages the Popes attempted to assert theocratic authority over the kings, princes, and emperors of Western Europe, while in the Orthodox East the Caesaropapist pattern of harmony between a dominant emperor and a subservient patriarch predominated. After the Reformation the authority of secular princes vis-a-vis the church was promoted both in the Protestant north and in the Roman Catholic south as the contest was prosecuted by and between the sponsors of the respective confessions.

Within Islam the institutional differentiation between religious and secular authority did not develop as Medina under Muhammad was considered to provide an unimprovable model for the life of the community of believers. The Prophet himself recognized the sovereignty of God alone; accordingly, it has not been open to his successors (the caliphs) or, more recently, the people and their representatives to claim sovereign authority in their own right. Within this restrictive view it has been the duty of all who exercise authority on behalf of the community faithfully to implement the rules encapsulated in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet as interpreted by legal scholars, the jurisconsults. Similarly, within Judaism, the authority of divine law, as interpreted by rabbinical scholars, was held to be supreme within the diaspora. The recent reassertion of theocratic claims such as these has helped to undermine the plausibility of the developmentalist perspective with its implication of a unilinear secularization process.

2. Religion And The Rise Of The Modern State In The West

The rise of the modern state with its characteristic claim to exclusive authority within a particular territory can be seen as part cause, part consequence of the Renaissance and Reformation crises in Western Europe which divided it between a Protestant north and a Roman Catholic south. It was the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, brought to an end by the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which institutionalized, over the protests of the Pope, the right of sovereign authorities to decide inter alia on the religious constitution of their territories. In northern Europe, typically, Protestant national monarchies reinforced their developing authority (and their resource base) by taking the church over and introducing more or less Erastian (i.e., unilateral secular) patterns of control; in the south the typical pattern which resulted was an alliance between royal absolutism and national Catholic hierarchies until the French Revolution led to a similar assault on the church’s property and independent authority. The subsequent decline of dynastic rule throughout Europe in the nineteenth century and the emergence of nationalist and liberal democratic mass politics saw a further weakening of church authority north and south, east and west. Institutional secularization was furthermore accompanied by a decline in levels of orthodox religious belief and practice as urbanization and industrialization transformed social and economic structures, although revivalism of various sorts meant that the trend was not unilinear. In the USA the first amendment to the Constitution introduced for the first time a relatively thoroughgoing separation of church and state, which barred Congress from making any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ A feature of the pattern which emerged in this context has been that, far from following the general secularising trend seen in Europe’ a ‘churching of America’ occurred as the proportion of members and attenders in the population tended to increase. Few other political systems, even among the liberal democracies, have, however, followed the example of constitutionally mandated disestablishment and even where they have, as for example in the case of France in 1905, the principle of separation has not been upheld with the judicial rigor characteristic of the American case in recent decades.

3. Religious Cleavages And The Development Of Party Systems

With the development of mass electoral politics in the nineteenth century the emergent party systems tended to reflect divergent systems of religious—in addition to social, economic, and other—cleavages; indeed, the relative prominence of religious or religion-related cleavages during the formative period up to the 1920s accounts for the survival, by inertia, of patterns of confessional politics which otherwise might well have disappeared. In northern Europe the existence of state– church systems had led over time to the emergence of movements of religious protest and dissent, which typically aligned themselves with other reforming elements in left or liberal movements. In the Counter-Reformation south on the other hand, where religious dissent had been more or less successfully repressed by the historic alliance of throne and altar, reforming and revolutionary movements tended to be militantly secularist, with the effect that the connection between religion and the political right was consolidated. A third pattern developed in the band of mixed-religion territories, which spanned Europe from Ireland to Transylvania, where the liberalization of political systems, when it occurred, ushered in patterns of confessional politics which, in nonmajoritarian settings, took the form of consociationalism.

Beyond Europe, developing party systems tended only marginally or incidentally to be affected by religious cleavages as such; religious connections were usually outgrowths of ethnic or community identities, whether on the part of immigrant populations as in the USA, South Africa, or Australia, or on the part of anticolonial movements committed to seizing independence on behalf of indigenous populations. In the latter case independence movements varied in terms of the religious structure of the populations affected, with the formerly united Indian subcontinent divided between Hindu, Islamic, and (in the case of Sri Lanka) Buddhist leaderships heading up parties which, on independence, became dominant in their respective systems. In more recent decades the often secular leaderships of the movements which successfully claimed independence have been challenged by movements of religious insurgency, driven in part by disappointment with the fruits of independence. Some authors have even identified in these developments a global revival of the influence of religion in politics.

4. The Political Resurgence Of The Religious Factor

The late twentieth century has certainly seen a recrudescence of the religious factor in politics which would have surprised (and dismayed) the more naive modernization theorists. In 1979–80 the religious-led Iranian revolution, the prominence in the United States Presidential election of an emergent new Christian right, the overthrow of Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, and the emergence after the visit of Pope John Paul II to his home country Poland of the church-supported Solidarity, indicated that the phenomenon was not restricted to any one corner of the world. Each case could be seen as involving reactions to what were regarded by the ‘fundamentalist’ militants and activists involved as trends toward secularization or obstacles of entrenched corruption. Prominent among the issues involved were respect for religious authority, the maintenance of religion-related rules governing morality in all its guises (including in the West abortion, pornography, and contraception), and the re-introduction as normative for the political community of core religious values whether Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Buddhist, or Hindu. The liberal rule that the state should be neutral as between different religions and between the religious and nonreligious was most often regarded as either illusory or misguided: illusory, because the all-embracing nature of religious belief-and value-systems left no neutral space to be legitimately marked out, or misguided, because political authority in particular ought not to be exempted from the authoritative purview of religious values.

5. The Contemporary Challenge To State Religious Neutrality

In few, if any, cases has the ideal of state religious neutrality been realized, as the concept itself has progressively become problematized by significant voices claiming that the term has often been made to cover for the artificial and prejudicial exclusion from public debate of religious claims. Until the 1950s in the USA ‘mainline’ Protestant religion remained as a sort of informal establishment, recognized, albeit without the confessional label, in certain Supreme Court judgments, but since the early 1960s the separation rule has been applied to exclude religious symbol and activities from public institutions such as schools. In a number of cases of continuing church establishment, evenhandedness has been approached by the extension of the list of recognized religions and other ‘communities of belief’ (as in Belgium, where the state pays the salaries and pensions of religious officials of six recognized confessions) or the effective diminution of the privileges of establishment (as in the UK). Since the end of the Cold War official hostility to religion as such (amounting in the case of Albania to the attempted suppression of religion for over 20 years after 1967) has greatly diminished, although it has not disappeared; thus, China and North Korea, for example, continue to exercise heavy-handed control of religious bodies and activities. Within the world of Islam meantime there has been a significant growth in the number of states, which are either organized as theocratic regimes dedicated to the implementation under clerical leadership of religious law, the shari’a (e.g. Iran and Sudan), or which harbor important movements that aim to introduce such a regime (e.g. Pakistan and Algeria).

In the West in particular, the increasing religious diversity of populations occasioned by the emergence of new religious movements, both independently and within existing traditions, and the growth of immigrant communities with distinct confessional profiles has given rise in recent decades to a range of new problems, or the re-emergence of old ones. Thus in connection with Scientology and Transcendental Meditation, questions of recognition have arisen in several countries: are they to be regarded as religions and so accorded attendant tax or other advantages, or not? More established religious traditions, in particular Islam, have called for their values to receive the protection of the law, so that what is judged to be blasphemy should be punishable through the civil courts. In the field of education, historically one of the most contentious in church–state relations, several issues continue to present themselves: should independent schools provided for the education of children of particular religious communities receive recognition, tax advantages, or direct state aid? What provision, if any, should public schools make for collective worship or religious instruction and how should any such arrangements take account of the new religious pluralism? Should public schools allow the display of distinctive religious symbols either on the walls, as in the case of crucifixes, traditional in Catholic communities, or on the pupils themselves, as in the case of Islamic girls’ headscarves? Many of these issues continue to agitate public debate episodically but none so much as the traditionally religion-related issues, such as abortion, where religious conservatives of the most varied religious persuasion continue to prosecute a bitter struggle against what is typically seen as an outgrowth of secular humanism.


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