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Religion and the Secular State
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-11-20 11:04:22
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Abstract: Far from being a mere vestige of the past, religion continues to be, even in a post-modern world, an essential component of a culturally vibrant society. Moreover, the latest world-wide social research shows that religion and democracy, far from being mutually exclusive, can in fact co-exist and support each other.

We live in a post-modern Western society which, since the age of Enlightenment, has tended to see religion as an obstacle to progress, a mere vestige of the so called times of Medieval Christendom, long superseded. Christians themselves are partly responsible for this distorted view when they nostalgically hark back to Medieval Christendom and ignore the new Humanism in the making that the Church herself is encouraging nowadays.

What is even more puzzling and disturbing, however, is a mind-set (also derived from the Enlightenment) which proclaims that religion by its own nature trumps and excludes democracy. The other side of that coin is that capitalism automatically excludes totalitarianism; the example of present day China proves otherwise. Likewise, the example of present day India, the biggest democracy in the world, also contradicts the former proposition. But let us take a close look at the phenomenon of religion vis-à-vis democracy.

Before we do so, I’d like to also suggest that since 1980, phrases such as “liberation theology,” “solidarity,” “moral majority,” have been heard in diverse political circles in Latin America, Iran, Poland and the United States; they suggest that the topic or religion and politics is alive and well and far from being a boring anachronistic issue. There has been a veritable resurgence of interest in the phenomenon of religion and the secular state. For example, in the last fifteen years or so, Jay Demerath, an eminent scholar of sociology and religion, has examined the relations between religion, politics, and the state in some fifteen countries around the world. Besides the United States he has visited and observed the phenomenon in the following countries: Guatemala, Brazil, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan. This monumental project spans various forms of religion and non-religion: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

One of Demerath’s most important findings is that while few countries have the kind of formal, legal separation of church and state that characterizes the U.S., an informal de facto separation is almost a commonplace. The most conspicuous exception to this norm is the “state religions” (in effect theocracies) in which government seeks to control religion, as was the case of Afghanistan under Taliban rule and Iran under the mullahs. Demerath investigates four types of situations implied in the intersection of two basic distinctions: one between the religious and the secular (in Europe it goes under the name of “laicism” and it ambiguously straddles the non-religious and the religiously neutral), and the other between politics and the state. Thus one can imagine four situations: 1) religious politics with a religious state, 2) secular politics and a secular state, 3) secular politics and a religious state, 4) religious politics with a secular state. Those four combinations have empirical standing even if the boundaries are not always clear cut. Let us now look at each of these manifestations as suggested by Demerath.

1. Religious Politics with a Religious State

This is the most pure of the possible combinations and perhaps the most common stereotype of non-Western non-secular societies. But even here, the two spheres are rarely if ever symmetrical to each other. Nevertheless this is the pattern that lends itself to the most widespread religious and cultural violence. It is however a rare category. In the past we have had Catholic states as proclaimed in their constitutions, such as Brazil. In Brazil, such a proclamation of state religion involved the subjugation of indigenous religious alternatives.

In Italy, it involved the privileging of Catholicism over Protestantism or atheism. That is no longer the case in both countries and in most countries in the world. In this matter, Italy has abrogated its Lateran agreements signed with the Church by Mussolini’s regime in 1931. Israel, despite Zionism, seen as a secular movement, is nevertheless perceived as a religious state given that Israeli politics often take religious forms. But the clearest example of a religious state with religious politics is Northern Ireland, perceived in Protestant terms, de jure and de facto. In those countries that retain the religious state, social violence is high. It stands to reason that this ought to be the least desirables of combinations.

2. Secular States with Secular Politics

At the opposite pole we have secular states with secular politics. This can be considered the most stereotypically Western form. It represents in many people’s minds a realization of the Enlightenment’s vision of the so called “de-sacralization” of the state. It is associated with Western Europe in particular. This is so, even when you have, in countries such as Germany Italy and France, the existence of so called “Christian Democratic” parties. It is also true for Anglican England and Lutheran Scandinavia, despite appearances. They are religious nations only symbolically and those symbols are usually defended on non-religious grounds, as cultural ceremonial vestiges from the past.

The influence of the secular state model is most apparent in Turkey which has been tilting toward the West throughout the latter days of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century; a century that had a fascination with the secular theology of Emile Durkheim proclaiming that an ethical society could be sacred without being religious. Hence Ataturk, in line with such a secular theology, proceeded to ban religion from both government and politics in Turkey. Whether this pattern can be exported to other countries with a Muslim population is problematic at best. Nevertheless, it remains a unique model indicating that it is possible to have a co-existing democracy, secularism and religion in a Moslem country. Turkish leadership in fact, considers this model as a bridge of sort between the West and the Orient.

China too qualifies as a doubly secular case on the basis of an imported Western ideology, namely Marxism. This may explain in part slogans seen on the debate of the future of Europe which proclaim loudly and proudly “viva la France, viva la Cina” oblivious of the fact that China is no democracy, despite its pretension to be a “people’s republic.” After a careful phenomenological observation, what can be safely said so far of this combination secular state-secular politics, is that in its purity, as even Chinese leaders are becoming increasingly aware, it risks cultural sterility; it risks producing a value-less society where only money has currency. One needs not to travel to China to observe the phenomenon. It can be observed in Western Europe too where Epicureanism seems to be alive and well. Its critics blame it on the American popular culture but that is a misguided analysis in my opinion. It is misguided because if one travels to Europe one immediately observes that all the worst features of American culture are eagerly imitated, especially by the young. Not many people are interested in the best.

3. Religious States and Secular Politics

In this combination, while the state is formally religious, it actually reflects a culture and political scene which is highly secular. Lutheran Sweden is perhaps the best example here. But there is another model, found in countries such as Thailand, Pakistan and traditionally Catholic Latin American states wherein religion is embraced by the state for legitimacy’s purposes, not out of any moral conviction. Religion is banned from politics precisely because it is such an emotionally charged component of the culture at large. In Indonesia however, an imposed civil religion has attempted to co-opt the loyalties of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and animists as well as Muslims. The whole idea was to stifle Islamic fundamentalism. This combination does indeed produce some strange partnerships.

4. Secular States and Religious Politics

This is the most intriguing combination because it gives the lie to those enlightened people in the West that proclaim that democracy cannot co-exist with religion, and that in fact religion destroys democracy. India is instructive in the matter. The country happens to be the biggest, most populous democracy in the world. Since independence in 1947 India has managed to remain a stable democracy with a Constitution that insists that he government, while guaranteeing and protecting religion which is integral part of the nation’s cultural identity, remains neutral and above the fray of religious contentions.

However, since 1980 there have been complaints within India that the Independence fathers were perhaps too quick to apply Western secular forms to an Eastern cultural reality; that while a secular state may work well enough in a country like the U.S., it is discordant in an Indian society that remains non-secular at its core. Two such intellectuals are T.N. Madan and Ashish Nandy. Others however continue to defend a reading of the Indian Constitution that is a-religious, not anti-religious, claiming that communal violence proceeds not from the fact that the state is too secular but from the fact that it is not secular enough.

In a strange way, the reading of India depends upon one’s reading of the United States. On the one hand the U.S. has been construed as among the most religious nations in the world, with some 95% of Americans claiming belief in God” and more than 60% claiming attendance to religious practices. On the other hand, the U.S. can easily be portrayed as the secular nation par excellence with its separation of Church and State. This explains the culture wars among the orthodox (conservative) and the progressive (liberal) religious forces. In a way this is democracy at work. It is exactly because there is clear separation between Church and State, which we can have in America highly vocal religious politics.

The separation itself would not be acceptable without an opportunity in the society to freely express one’s religious preference. So the U.S. remains a paradox and the exception which commends the rule concerning the virtues of a secular state and a religious polity. There is another state that qualifies as a secular state with religious politics, and that is Poland. But here too rampant secularism is on the ascendance and many Poles are now mere cultural Catholics. The government is currently enacting a liberalization of many Church prohibitions. In short, Poland too will eventually join the combination of the doubly secular category of its European sisters.


So, which are the conclusions derived from the above analysis of religion and politics? At a minimum these four: 1) a religious state combined with religious politics is the most potentially violent. 2) by contrast, on the other side of the spectrum, the doubly secular combination may provide political stability, but at the price of cultural vacuity. 3) the conjunction of a religious state with secular politics is either a symbolic anachronism or an imposed religious anti-democratic religious orthodoxy. 4) a secular state with religious politics though rare now, may yet prove to be the most promising type of combination for promoting political stability and cultural vitality at the same time, to wit India. Therefore, those who claim that religion is by its own nature anti-democratic and anti-progressive and therefore to be eliminated from the body politic, may have to re-assess their thinking in the light of those findings.

A final footnote and comment: the late Edward Said alerted Western scholars to the dangers of “Orientalism”, understood as cross cultural stereotyping. Those distorted perceptions occur in both directions I am afraid, as James Carter’s “Occidentalism” has proven. This problem is further exacerbated when cultural and political leaders in both West and East, seek not only to understand but to prescribe their own medicine for every patient, or, on the other side of the coin, they take refuge into a relativism that is “politically correct” today and that believes (incorrectly, in my opinion) that there are no universal values and every society is only changeable in its own terms; what Charles Taylor has referred to as “the obligatory hypocrisy” and a false cultural respect in today’s “multicultural world”.

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Sand2007-11-19 11:49:13
There is an old story of a violinist who, perhaps, had promise, but one day in his playing at home he started playing just one note. His wife stood this for a day or two but that one note was rather shrill and somewhat loud and it never stopped. Finally the wife could stand it no longer.
The violinist looked at her in calm patience and stopped his playing.
“My dear,” he said quietly, “ you might have noticed that when other violinists play their fingers wander over the strings as if they are looking for something. Well, I have found it!”

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-19 11:59:22


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