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Religion and the Secular State: A Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-04-10 09:35:20
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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 within a multiplicity of modernities. In fact, 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. In light of the latest controversies in the pages of Ovi on religion, secularity and modernity let us revisit this crucial issue.

We live in a post-modern Western society which, since the age of Enlightenment, whose greatest icon is Voltaire, has tended to see religion as an obstacle to progress, a mere vestige of the so called times of Medieval Christendom, disparagingly called “gothic,” long superseded. Christians themselves are unfortunately partly responsible for this distorted view when they nostalgically hearken 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 quite 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 a 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. Jurgen Habermas has recently talked of a post-secular Europe and has put forth the notion that religion should not be relegated to the private sphere but ought to have a voice in the public square.

Moreover, 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, 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 are 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 rule of 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 fact 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 as President Barack Obama has reminded the world lately. Turkish leadership in fact, considers the 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. In spite of its fancy definition as a “people’s republic” this is no democracy. 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. But one needs not to travel to China to observe the phenomenon. It can be observed in Western Europe too where Epicureanism and even hedonism flourishes wherever it is unrestrained by religious values. Without those values one ends up not with a visionary constitution underlining common values but with a treaty whose only purpose is an economic one: the union of banks.

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, that 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 in the public square as well as in private. 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.

Conclusions :

So, which are the conclusions that can be 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. I’ll have more on this in another article. 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; unless that is, they are secular fundamentalists and bigots, the other side of the religious bigot and fundamentalism.

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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AP2009-04-10 17:22:36
I am curious on how do you define "religious politics"?

AP2009-04-10 17:36:33
ps - about Brazil, I'm not exactly sure what you're talking about, since it had 7 different Constitutions since its independence in 1822 and the last one, from 1988 (post-dictatorship), has seen 62 reforms to its original text, presently including the clear statement according to which the Brazilian State is secular and should not discriminate its citizens on the basis of the religion adopted by them or even their atheism.

AP2009-04-10 17:38:52
In the end, you seem very nostalgic about the influence of your faith's leaders over the State, Mr. Paparella. Good old times...

AP2009-04-10 17:51:03
ps2 - Voltaire was not the Anti-Christ and he used to criticize (very accurately, by the way) the representatives of Christianity in France and all their vices, promiscuity and influence over the government's issues and power positions and decisions. He actually built a chapel on his private property, and studied Buddhism and other oriental religions.

The problem is not whether you tolerate religion, because you should in a democratic state respect every religion + atheism. The problem continues to be, for me, very clear: how do you exactly define "religious politics" (couldn't we call G.W. Bush's "Crusade against terrorism" religious politics?) and the clear mechanisms by which you keep it separated or interconnected with a secular state and its decisions, in practical terms. That's where all the problems come up.

Emanuel Paparella2009-04-10 20:22:53
Ms. Pereira, “religious politics” as explained clearly in the essay, obtains in a population which respects freedom of religion or non-religion (atheism) but is also a largely practicing society believing in a higher creative power as is the case in democracies such as the US and India where religion is indeed part of their politics. In America at leas 90% of the population believes in God and some 60% practice their religion, whichever it happens to be. Which is to say, religion in those societies is considered an important cultural heritage, not to be treated lightly and caricaturized as a vestige of superstition and obscurantism, a la Voltaire, (the one who talked of that “nasty thing,” the sooner gotten rid of the better, thus confusing in his supreme “enlightenment” religion per se with the abuses of religion and throwing out the baby with the dirty bathwater, to be relegated to the private sphere of assorted bigots. As suggested in the essay, that is where the problem lies, as Habermas, among other scholars has well pointed out. Paradoxically, that kind of mind-set is the other side of the coin of religious intolerance and bigotry. It too expresses an intolerant attitude when it comes to religion often expressed in caricature and outright slander. Had you read the essay a bit more carefully and aerenically without ideological lenses, you would have notices that I expressely chide Christians for being nostalgic for Medieval Christendom a la Charlemagne. I also wrote that both Brazil and Italy have changed their constitution by which they are now secular states with religious politics. In any case, stay tuned. I have just sent a follow-up essay which deals with the issue of what happens when religion is deemphasized in a culture, to wit China which has copied all the worst features of capitalism and none of the virtues of democracy and religious freedom.

AP2009-04-11 05:12:25
China is pretty much a dictatorship and I prefer to discuss democracies. One thing is to emphasize religion as an important part of a culture, the other is to allow religious leaders to make the laws, decide in the place of the elected representatives and be the supreme judges - don't you think? I thought so.

ps - "The word secular was inserted into the Preamble by the 42nd amendment act of 1976, during emergency. It implies equality of all religions and religious tolerance. India, therefore does not have an official state religion. Every person has the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion they choose. The government must not favor or discriminate against any religion. It must treat all religions with equal respect. All citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs are equal in the eyes of law. No religious instruction is imparted in government or government-aided schools (...) The Supreme Court in S.R Bommai v. Union of India held that secularism was an integral part of the basic structure of the constitution."

AP2009-04-11 05:27:40
Or why do you think Picasso used to draw Franco dressed as a bishop in the panflets he sold in Paris to collect money for the Republicans?
By the way, do you also know that his bulls represent not only the Spanish people, but also the bull in Gilgamesh - the Sumer Epic? You know that Sumer is Iraq nowadays... Oh History, it is so interesting...

AP2009-04-11 05:43:19
Finally, I don't know what's your problem with the ones who practice religion in the private sphere... Some even like it to be secret - like KKK and many Fraternities. Of course, Inquisition's fires were VERY public... and just because they were public they were good? That's a wrong premise, I believe.

AP2009-04-11 05:47:30
Also, I think we all dispense the Pope going PUBLIC in Africa with his speeches on HIV and how condoms make it worst. He would have won much with keeping it private, for once at least.

Emanuel Paparella2009-04-11 06:15:55
Citizens should be allowed to practice their religion in private if they so wish but to deny religion a voice in the public domain within a democracy is to cheapen such a democracy and become a secularist intolerant bigot and in the process become as intolerant as religious fanatics; in fact one is the other side of the other. I submit, once again, that such is the real issue rather than whether or not religious leaders are making the laws in a modern democratic state or cherry picking the abuses of religion from the past which is intellectually dishonest especially when it fails to mention the good. Moreover, to mention the past abuses of religion is another straw issues since nowadays that happens only in theocracies such as Iran. As clearly stated in the essay, that is the least desirable of combination of religion and politcs.

AP2009-04-11 14:43:00
I suppose it is nowadays a sign of tolerance to advise your followers to be exposed to risks and die. What kind of moral do the Catholic authorities have to condemn any occasional terrorist after statements like that? Absolutely none!
Your example of Iran is ludicrous.

Emanuel Paparella2009-04-11 16:26:21
Point proven, if indeed we needed a proof.

AP2009-04-11 19:28:17
"We"? As you write: :)

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