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Religion has traditionally served as a source of authority, law, and moral norms for society, even in predominantly secular societies. Through most of the world’s history, religious traditions have had formal ties with governments and have been seen as an important source of legitimacy of rulers.
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Religion and government have often existed in complementary roles throughout world history— with religion lending authority to a government, and government legitimizing a leader’s rule. Various societies throughout history have practiced toleration or acceptance of minority faiths, although only rarely based on principled beliefs in religious freedom. Modern ideas of rights to religious freedom and secular governmental systems are based in a variety of sources, but draw great strength from the Western church-state tradition and the Enlightenment.
Religion: Source of Law, Authority, and Moral Values
Throughout world history, religious traditions and beliefs have been a direct and indirect source of law and authority. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, for example, begins with a reference to the gods Anu and Bel, who called Hammurabi (reigned 1792–1750 BCE) to “bring about the rule of righteousness in the land.” The Jewish Law of Moses not only codified religious belief, but also set forth an extensive and elaborate legal system that governed all areas of social life. In more recent times, the Bible formed the basis for laws in the early American colonies and was used to resolve issues as far-ranging as procedural rules, property law, criminal law, and, in general, the ideal of the rule of law. Even in modern secular societies, religion is still regularly used as the source for moral values and arguments for reform. For example, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) drew extensively on the Christian and Hindu traditions in their calls for social change, and similar religious beliefs have informed debates on the abolition of slavery, care for the poor, abortion, marriage, and other social and economic issues.
Traditional Religious– Governmental Ties
In the ancient world, religion was traditionally intertwined with ruling hierarchies, through either theocracies or divinely ordained rulers. In the Chinese Confucian tradition, for example, emperors were believed to have the Mandate of Heaven, sanction from a divine power that justified a ruler’s actions as long as it was beneficial to those he ruled. Roman emperors claimed to be descended from the gods or to be gods themselves, as did Egyptian pharaohs. The Japanese emperor served as the head of the Shinto tradition. In the caste systems of the Vedic and Hindu traditions in India, the priests were traditionally the highest castes. Roman Catholic popes ordained the Holy Roman Emperors and Protestant kings claimed a divine right to rule. From the time of Byzantium, Orthodox countries were marked by caesaropapism, a system in which the head of state has authority over the church. Ties such as these conferred legitimacy on the rulers and gave religion an important role in ensuring the community’s stability, unity, and compliance with law. For example, a strong, unified religious tradition was seen as playing an important role in ensuring the binding power of oaths and contracts. The close association of a religious tradition with the ruling hierarchy was usually also associated with political privileges for the favored religion and limitations or bans on the practice of minority religions.
Experiences of Religious Tolerance
Despite the tendency for governments with strong religious ties to limit protections to a favored religion, some rulers throughout history have accommodated and tolerated minority religious traditions, although this tolerance was not always principled and was often limited by the perceived needs of the sovereign. In many cases, tolerance served as a practical way to handle a multiethnic, multireligious empire. For example, the Persian Empire from Cyrus II (reigned 559–530 BCE) to Darius I (reigned 522–486 BCE) employed a policy of religious toleration and support for minority groups, allowing the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and returning images of Babylonian gods to their sanctuaries in Babylon. The Mongol Empire created by Chingghis (Genghis) Khan (c. 1162–1227 BCE) practiced toleration of Buddhists, Christians, Confucians, Daoists, and Muslims, and the Qing dynasty in China (1644–1911/12) maintained a general policy of religious toleration toward Jews, Muslims, and Christian missionaries until antiforeign and anti-Christian sentiments led to the expulsion of foreign missionaries from China in 1720. The Muslim Ottoman Turks developed a “millet” system in which other “religions of the book,” that is, Christianity and Judaism, could be practiced and had some self-rule, albeit with significant discrimination. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) at the end of the European Thirty Years’ War established limited religious tolerance in which believers had time to leave their country and move to one that supported their religious beliefs.
Principled Conceptions of Religious Freedom
In contrast to tolerance or acceptance of religious minorities by the grace of the sovereign, rulers and governments have only occasionally developed a principled basis for protecting the beliefs of others. In most cases, this basis itself has come from the religious beliefs of the ruler. For example, Asoka, the last major emperor in the Mauryan dynasty of India (reigned c. 265–238 or c. 273–232 BCE), adopted Buddhism and then promoted religious tolerance through his “Rock Edicts” based on the Buddhist idea of dharma. Anabaptist preacher Balthasar Hubmaier (1485–1528 CE) argued against the coercion of heretics or nonbelievers and wrote a defense of religious freedom based on the Bible. Roger Williams (c. 1603–1683 CE), the founder of the American colony of Rhode Island, wrote passionately in support of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, both based on his understanding of the Bible. Despite his own strong religious convictions, he opened the colony of Rhode Island to people of all faiths, where they were welcome to freely practice their beliefs. During the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church adopted a policy statement, Dignitatis humanae (1965), which endorsed religious freedom and the independence of church and state based on religious reasons such as human dignity.
While some thinkers and religious leaders in some traditions still struggle with a principled basis for religious tolerance, modern scholars from all major religious traditions have identified resources within their own traditions that could support a principled belief in religious freedom. Drawing on worldwide legal, philosophical, and religious beliefs, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, supports the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” which includes “freedom to change his religion and belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” (Stahnke and Martin 1998, 59).
Much of the contemporary strength of the concept of religious freedom as a human right and the role of a secular state, however, comes from the Western tradition. The growth of Christianity in the originally pagan Roman Empire led to a system of “two kingdoms,” where both the emperor and church leaders exerted power over the faithful. The competition for power between the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire escalated in the middle ages under Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020–1085), who forbade the appointment of bishops by kings in 1078. This controversy, referred to as the Investiture Contest, strengthened the power of the church vis-a-vis the state. This contest for power, together with Western Christian notions of an independent duty to obey one’s conscience and natural rights, laid the groundwork for modern conceptions of a limited government and individual rights to religious freedom. Enlightenment scholars, such as John Locke in his famous Letters on Toleration, also advocated religious freedom and argued for the limited competence of governments in the field of religion, based on both philosophical and pragmatic reasons. The search for religious freedom was an important factor in the founding of the American colonies and was first embodied in a written constitution in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While religious freedom has since been enshrined in many national and international legal norms, many governments still significantly limit religious freedom.
Although most modern governments are primarily secular in nature, religion still plays an important role in government and society. For example, religious traditions still often serve as a source of reform and law. Religion traditions and emblems still provide important ceremonial and spiritual influences in most countries. Unlike the United States, most governments still have formal, institutional ties, often including subsidies and other forms of state cooperation. Religious buildings, social services, or workers may be supported by the state and may serve as a resource in times of national crisis or on public holidays. Even in more separationist governmental systems, such as the United States and France, religious leaders often serve as chaplains in the military, prisons, and hospitals. While individual countries may have particular historical or cultural ties with a single religious tradition, most governments with cooperationist or accommodationist systems allow multiple religions to obtain government benefits and cooperate with the state. Despite the wide variety of current structures of the relationship between religion and governments and the many remaining challenges to religious freedom, a range of accommodationist and cooperationist systems throughout the world still preserve religious freedom.
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