Religion, Politics, and the State: Cross-Cultural Observations

by N.J. Demerath and Karen S. Straight

Worldwide, the volatile - and often violent - combination of a religious state with religious politics is on the rise. Of the alternatives, the authors find the secular state with religious politics most promising. But it is increasingly rare.

ay Demerath, professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is co-author of A Bridging of Faiths (Princeton University Press, 1992). He presented a reduced version of this paper on May 20, 1996, at the Institute of Oriental Philosophy in Tokyo as part of the spring lecture and dialogue series cosponsored by the Boston Research Center on Religion and Transnational Civil Society in the 21st Century.

Karen Straight is completing her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Massachusetts; her dissertation involves a multinational analysis of women in politics.


Twenty years ago, most social scientists tended to see religion as a vestige of a bygone age, an increasingly irrelevant remnant from a prior epoch of superstition and miseducation. But about 1979 things began to change. Astonishingly enough, religion took on a new political importance as phrases like "liberation theology," "fundamentalism," "solidarity," and "moral majority" were shouted from the political ramparts in countries as diverse as Nicaragua, Iran, Poland, and the United States. Suddenly the topic of religion and politics was less boring, and like the scholar whose scoffed-at laboratory work finds an indispensable application, we found people actually cared. But, of course, we had not been alone in chronicling religion's new political urgency. In the last several years, several other scholars have written important works that deal with religion and politics in different countries. We commend especially the recent works of Martin Riesebrodt (1990), Mark Juergensmeyer (1993), Jose Casanova (1994), Lester Kurtz (1995) and the magisterial five volumes on fundamentalisms edited by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (1991-95).

Meanwhile, over the last ten years or so, in search of key sources of violence, vacuity, vulnerability, and vitality, Demerath has been examining the present and tending relations between religion, politics, and the state in some fifteen countries around the world. He has visited Guatemala and Brazil in Latin America, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Sweden in Europe, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey in the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Thailand in South Asia, and China and Japan in the Far East. Of course, our own country, the United States, always lurks in the background as a comparative anchor point. Moreover, the project spans various forms of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as political systems that range between dynamic democracies and strict one-party states.

One common finding within this variety involves the very different relations between religion and politics, on the one hand, and religion and the state, on the other. Few will be surprised to learn that campaigning politicians everywhere tend to invoke local religious themes and symbols as sources of legitimacy and what Demerath and Rhys Williams have called "cultural power" (1992). What may be more surprising is the frequent tendency for governmental regimes and their officials to try to keep religion at arm's length. While religion is often an ally in the pursuit of power, once power has been secured, religion can become an unwelcome constraint in the quite different processes of state administration.

Demerath developed this point in an earlier article (1991), arguing 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 exceptions here are not "religious states" but rather "state religions" in which the government seeks to control religion. Strangely enough, this often involves state support for religion in an effort to coopt and nullify it as an independent power-base.

Here we want to continue in a similar vein but with somewhat wider scope. Specifically, we want to sketch four types of situation implied at the intersection of two basic distinctions, one between the religious and the secular (ambiguously straddling the nonreligious and the religiously neutral, as we shall see), and the other between politics and the state. Thus, one can imagine religious politics with a religious state; secular politics and a secular state; secular politics and a religious state, and finally religious politics with a secular state.

We shall comment on each of these four combinations momentarily. But a few preliminary cautions are in order. First, typologies for their own sake and in their own terms can be stultifying as mere scholastic exercises. However, each of the four combinations here has empirical standing, and the differences between them amount to more than a conceptual conceit. In many situations, life itself hangs in the balance, since levels of religiously implicated violence vary greatly among the types in question. Second, these distinctions are not as clear as the bold dichotomy suggests. For present purposes, the "religiousness" of a government or a political party is more a matter of consensual perception than formal acknowledgment or even legal documentation. In virtually every country, as we shall see, one can identify tendencies towards combinations other than the one assigned. Then too, every state administration involves some degree of politics as well; politics only become religious in response to broader religious tensions within the society at large; and the distinction between religion and the secular is itself artificial, especially if religion is defined more sociologically than theologically in terms of the sacred. Third, although each of these types deserves detailed exploration, we shall devote disproportionate attention to the last combination of a secular state with religious politics. If it is not a panacea, it at least offers hope in an area too often suffused with hopelessness.

Religious States and Religious Politics

From both a simple conceptual point of view and a simplistic historical perspective, this would appear the purest of the four cases, and perhaps the most common stereotype of non-Western, hence nonsecular, societies around the world. Because religion in one sphere is matched symmetrically by religion in the other, a religious state would seem to go hand in hand with religious politics.

In fact, the combination is more the exception than the rule, and this is because it is so volatile and potentially violent. When a religious state is faced with religious politics, there is a religious conflict at issue. Under such circumstances, the state's very legitimacy is called into question, and violence may reflect preemptive actions of state control as well as the clash among contending religious parties. If there is a single pattern that lends itself to the most widespread religious and cultural violence, it is surely this one. And, alas, while the category is rare, it is hardly nonexistent.

Within our "sample" of countries, several cases invite inclusion here - at least at various points in their histories. Like most other Latin American countries, both Brazil and Guatemala were once officially Catholic states in a religious political system that involved the subjugation and suppression of indigenous religious alternatives. Formally, both countries had severed these state religious ties by the end of the nineteenth century; informally, ties have persisted in varying forms. In Brazil, the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy is now seeking to reappropriate and renegotiate its seat at the right hand of the state, while at the same time both church and state are engaged in a new religious politics animated by persistent strains of liberation theology on the one hand and a surging pentecostal Protestantism on the other. In Guatemala, the dominant military state has shifted its ostensible religious affiliation from Catholic to Protestant in the last decade, and there is no question that its ongoing guerilla opposition is in part a movement of Mayan religious revitalization.

Or consider the case of Israel. Many Israelis would protest its categorization as a religious state, arguing that Zionism itself can be seen as a secular movement, and that the state makes ample provision for both secular practices and various non-Judaic faiths, especially Islamic and Christian. At the same time, there is no question that the Israeli state is perceived as Jewish by most Jews and non-Jews alike. Even if this were not the case, Zionism itself may be a sufficiently sacred commitment to qualify as religious in its own terms. Certainly there is no question that Israeli politics often take religious forms. This not only applies to the participation of Muslim Palestinians, including the Hamas, but also to the struggles among various Jewish groups - whether secularists on the left or contesting movements on the right, such as the Gush Emunim and the ultra-orthodox Haredi. As Yitzhak Rabin's assassination makes clear, the stakes are large and the rates of violence are correspondingly high.

But perhaps the clearest combination of a religious state with religious politics is found in Northern Ireland. There is no question that the state is perceived in Protestant terms, whether de jure as a result of its inclusion within Anglican Britain, or de facto because of the three-hundred-year political dominance of local Protestants. Certainly there is no doubt that politics are riven with religion - at least insofar as they have involved extreme civil religious blocs that are "culturally" if not always "religiously" Protestant and Catholic respectively. The recent truce and possible signs of a negotiated settlement signal a change in the religious politics, but by no means its end. What was once a small Catholic minority may well become an effective political majority early in the next century, and Catholics have already begun to make gains through the ballot rather than the bullets of the IRA. Such a development is hastened by the increased out-migration of Protestants with resources, who read the new writing on the graffiti-emblazoned walls; it is compounded by the frustrations of those less advantaged Protestants remaining behind.

As all of the above examples attest, the combination of a religious state and religious politics has occasioned some of the most deeply rooted and tragic violence of the modern era. This makes it especially important to consider the alternatives, even though it is one thing to point out the dangers of this combination in the abstract and quite another to prevent countries from sliding towards it in reality. Then too, some of the alternatives have warts of their own.

Secular States and Secular Politics

If the first combination is stereotypically non-Western, this one is commonly associated with the West. In one sense, it represents a realization of the Enlightenment vision through what Bryan Wilson (1966) called the "secularization of public religion" and what Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone (1994) call the "de-sacralization of the state." However much these authors are thought to disagree on other matters, they are in basic concurrence here.

There is no question that the secular-state secular-politics combination is often associated with Western Europe in particular. Despite the continued existence of "Christian" Democratic parties in Germany and France, both countries fall into this category, as does Italy in the wake of its recent revocation of its long-standing concordat with the Vatican.

Much the same is true if one looks functionally rather than formally at Anglican England or Lutheran Scandinavia. In fact, there are active movements on behalf of religious disestablishment in all of these symbolically religious nations. In part, these are efforts to revitalize religion as an autonomous political force, since many church folk now regard the relationship as inhibiting their prophetic roles. Indeed, the establishments that survive are often defended principally on nonreligious grounds. In Sweden, the church has functioned somewhat like an unofficial census bureau and is subvented for the purpose. However, Sweden has recently voted to dis-establish religion by the year 2000. Many politicians see these establishments as cases of the sublime-gone-ridiculous and the purely symbolic source of vestigial charm and occasional humor.

Although Europe does not exhaust the secular-secular category, its influence is apparent in two additional cases: Turkey and China. Turkey had been tilting toward the West throughout the latter days of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, where there was a special fascination with the secular theology of French positivism. In a sense, Kemal Ataturk both had and ate the Ottoman cake when he seized power in 1921 and carried through one of the most far-reaching and enduring politico-cultural revolutions in the twentieth century. Ataturk was familiar with sociologist Emile Durkheim's argument that an ethical society and effective political culture could be sacred without being religious. Partly as a result, Ataturk banned religion from both government and politics, just as he banned irregular verbs and Roman numerals from everyday discourse. For the most part, the reforms have remained. Although there have been several instances in which the military has stepped in to preserve secularity, it is characteristic of Turkey that even some members of the Islamic Refah ("Welfare") Party describe it as "fundamentalism-lite." However, Muslim political interests have begun to mobilize, and after winning a plurality of more than 20 percent in the 1996 election, Refah is now sharing power with the previously dominant "True Path" Party.

China also qualifies as a doubly secular case, again partly on the basis of an imported Western ideology - in this case, of course, Marxist socialism. Actually, the regime's opposition to religion has softened of late, and there is even waggish talk of a "Third Opium War," in this case an intra-party dispute concerning whether Marx was correct in dismissing religion as the "opiate of the masses." Of course, there are many respects in which Marxism itself resembles a religion, including its recent secularization. Indeed, one of the reasons why some Chinese leaders are more accepting of traditional Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic religious communities (as long as they operate on the state's own terms) is a much-lamented void at the core of Chinese society where only money has currency. While some would argue that this is a cue for the reintroduction of Confucianism, this is less preferable than imported faiths because party cadres see it as a feudal and anti-revolutionary anachronism, despite its considerable informal persistence. This is a time of transition in China, but not one that threatens a serious religionizing of either the state or politics in familiar terms.

Clearly, the combination of a secular state and secular politics has some empirical standing, and it is in some measure correctly associated with Western post-Enlightenment developments. But this does not mean that all cases are confined to the West, or that religion is entirely absent in any instance. Indeed, the combination in pure form runs the risk of cultural lassitude, if not sterility. Many of the above cases reveal persisting strains toward some form of religious or "sacred" alternative that must often be officially, if not coercively, dampened. While these pressures rarely operate as major trends in their own right, they are also seldom dismissable as idle epiphenomena.

So far, then, we have dealt with the two opposing polar combinations: the doubly religious associated with violence and the doubly secular tending toward vacuity. Of course, there are many anomalies within each. But the most instructive disjunctions involve the two combinations off the main diagonal. In most typologies these bear the most succulent fruit of the conceptual labor.

Religious States and Secular Politics

There are basically three scenarios for the combination of a religious state and secular politics. The first involves instances in which the religiousness of the state is an empty symbol rather than a compelling commitment - more a case of anachronistic form than contemporary function. In fact, I noted several such countries under the secular-secular rubric. Lutheran Sweden is a case in point. While the state is formally religious, it actually reflects a culture and a political scene that is highly secular; the occasional religious movements and issues which compel attention are very much the exception.

If this first model suggests a certain ritualized indifference to religion, a second version involves a far more active and pointed religious presence. Here, religion is an important source of state legitimacy, and no alternative religious views are tolerated. Religion is banned from politics precisely because it is potentially so upsetting as an emotionally charged component of the culture at large. Often politics of any real substance is frowned upon, and religious grievances against the state are suppressed along with all others. Here are the true theocracies represented by some traditionally Catholic Latin American states as well as a number of Islamic hegemonies in the Middle East, including Pakistan at various points in its history. It also applies to several countries in South East Asia such as Buddhist Thailand. Here the state controls the political world very tightly and embraces religion more to control it than to submit to it.

In some ways these first two models of religious states with secular politics are opposites of each other. The first represents religious tokenism in the midst of apathy, while the second reveals a religious order imposed to quell potential religious disorder, Meanwhile, a third qualifies as a perverse variant of the second: states that carefully construct their own religion to frustrate the political mobilization of a genuine religious alternative.

Indonesia offers a case in point. Here the state has used "pancasila" as an imposed civil religion seeking to bind syncretically the loyalties of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists - not to mention the 90 percent of the population who are formally Muslims. Strict electoral rules make it virtually impossible for any one religious group to rise up against the regime, and the state's administrative apparatus ("golkar") also functions as a controlling political structure. In all of this, the object is to stifle the development of the so-called "Islamic fundamentalists," some of whose actual agendas are more secular than religious.

Thus, the combination of a religious state with secular politics produces strange partnerships. All three of its model scenarios are somewhat procrustean, and the latter two share a sense of unstable vulnerability as a sort of way station for cases caught in transition between the other three basic combinations.

Secular States and Religious Politics

At first blush, this seems another strained and uneasy combination with squirming inclusions. After all, if a society is able to sustain a government that is basically secular, isn't this because there is too little religious action to animate its politics significantly? Put oppositely, when any society's politics become religiously infected, how can its state structures be sufficiently inoculated to resist the virus?

There is merit in both these queries; yet the logic behind a secularly neutral state with a free-ranging religious polity is that each complements and constrains the other. There need be no limits to the free exercise of religion in politics as long as there is a strict prohibition of any religious establishment within the state. Politicians, as politicians, may campaign on - and even vote - their religious consciences; nor is there anything to prevent them from bowing to the bidding of their religious organizations. But state officials and state administrations have a different responsibility. They must remain formally and functionally neutral, and not only in the pluralistic fray between religions but also in the larger struggle between religion, on the one hand, and secularism, on the other. The overall result should be a necessarily contested but vital politics framed by an equitable state that rises above the fray to guarantee fairness to all.

This at least describes the constitutional theory and founding enthusiasm behind two countries that constitute the world's largest and oldest democracies respectively; namely, India and the United States. When India obtained independence in 1947, it took three years to develop a constitution. The result reflected a number of Western models, including the U.S. itself. But while the Indian form of government enjoyed a successful run of almost thirty years with its stability and legitimacy intact, this began to unravel in the 1980s.

A growing complaint within India today is that its Independence leaders were too quick to apply Western secular forms of government to an Eastern cultural reality that required a unique state response. The argument as articulated by such leading intellectuals as T. N. Madan and Ashish Nandy holds that a secular state may work well enough in a country like the U.S., but it is discordant within an Indian society that remains intransigently nonsecular at its core. Indeed, the very imposition of Western secularism has served perversely to fan the flames of religious politics by forcing religious advocates to adopt increasingly more extreme measures to make their case - measures that even include communal violence. Some go so far as to suggest that India is not just a deeply religious country but a basically Hindu society that can only be led by a Hindu government. As Hinduism finds its natural expression in state control, it will revert back to its natural historical tolerance of the minority religions in its domain.

And yet this is only one reading of the Indian case. By no means all Indian intellectuals have thrown in the secular towel. Scholars such as Andre Beteille, Dipankar Gupta, and T. K. Oooman continue to defend an areligious rather than anti-religious reading of the Indian constitution. From this perspective, the cause of communal violence is not that the state is too secular but rather that it is not secular enough, not that the state should use its influence to curb or end religion, but rather that the state should be neutral among contesting religious groups and concerning the larger question of religion versus nonreligion as a cultural desideratum. Alas, from the very beginning, the Indian constitution included controversial religious allowances such as a state exemption for Muslim personal law; it also mandated liberal religious reforms within Hinduism concerning such matters as temple administration and a continuation of the British "reservations policy" designed to provide a form of occupational affirmative action for Hindu "untouchables."

These exceptions in secular state policy have festered and exacerbated over the years. From a neutral vantage point, religious personal obligations are fine as long as they do not contradict the minimal (not maximal) rights and responsibilities of the citizenry at large. Rather than use religious status as a basis for reserving jobs, some argue that this should be based on more general socio-economic disadvantagement (and with an educational rather than occupational compensation).

In any event, it is clear that India's recently increasing "communal violence" (Hindus vs. Muslims in Ayodyah, Bombay, and Kashmir; Sikhs vs. Hindus in the Punjab; Tamil rebels in the South) reflects the tendency for state leaders and state structures to become embroiled in religious conflicts. As concessions made to one group require concessions made to its rival, constructing state policy has come to resemble shortening a chair one leg at a time: the results are never quite even, and the seat of power becomes increasingly unstable. The assassinations of both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi offer tragic reminders of the possible consequences.

But in a strange way, one's reading of India depends upon one's reading of the United States, and here too there are opposing options. On the one hand, the U.S. has also been construed as among the most religious nations in the world. It ranks high in virtually every measure of religiosity, with some 95 percent of Americans claiming a "belief in God," and more than 40 percent claiming to attend religious services on any given Sunday. And amongst the profusion of active religious movements, today one hears a good deal about America's "culture wars" as storm clouds gather on the religious right.

On the other hand, the U.S. can be portrayed as the secular nation par excellence, especially given its widely heralded "separation of church and state." This image has provoked both positive and negative assessments, the latter including Richard Neuhaus's critique of the "naked public square" (1984) and Stephen Carter's more recent concern over a "culture of disbelief" (1992). James Hunter's portrayal of hostility between "orthodox and progressive" religious forces (1991) can be seen as illustrating a democracy at work rather the kind of culture wars that are tragically waged elsewhere (cf. Demerath, 1991). And as for those high estimates of religious belief and participation - both have come under close recent scrutiny. For example, Hadaway, Marler and Chaves (1993) have shown that actual religious attendance is probably less than half of what is claimed. If Asians tend to minimize their involvement in religion, Americans tend to maximize theirs. It is not hard to produce corrected estimates that are quite similar for both.

As Demerath and Williams have argued (1992), however, these two images of the United States are not as contradictory as one might suppose. Like the earlier account of a secular state and a religious polity, they are contingently compatible in the sense that each depends upon the other. Thus, we can have highly vocal and widely mobilized religious politics precisely because there is a separation of church and state where the actual affairs of government are concerned. At the same time, that same separation would be intolerable if there were not ample opportunity elsewhere in the society to exercise and express one's religious preference - or lack of one.

Overall, the United States may be the exception that commends the rule concerning the virtues of a secular state and a religious polity. It would be naive and unseemly to assume that the same combination would work identically for all other nations. Nor is India the only cautionary case. In Egypt (as in neighboring Algeria), the nation as a whole seems a battleground between a coercive and antireligious (as opposed to neutral) state "secularism," on the one hand, and a small group of religious extremists (led by the Islamic Group and other legatees of the Muslim Brotherhood). The scenario is not uncommon and has surfaced in a variety of other states that are unsuccessful in their efforts to suppress religious opposition - e.g., as previously described, Indonesia, Turkey, and Thailand. Of course, a variety of factors are involved, and "democracy" itself is not always a panacea or even always interpreted the same way. Thus, democratic elections are one thing, but a democratic state is often quite another. In addition to regimes that constrain electoral democracy to uphold a nominally democratic state governance, there are certainly opposition movements that see electoral democracy as merely a stage in the ultimate suspension of democratic governance in the name of religion itself. The choices are not easy.

Meanwhile, post-1989 Poland also qualifies as a secular state with religious politics. Although one might suppose it to be doubly Catholic as a reflection of both its dominant cultural religious alignment and the oft-chronicled role of the church on the Solidarity side of the recent revolution, this has already begun to shift. Many Poles are more cultural than religious Catholics, and the old patterns of opposition to ecclesiastical authority are resurfacing, especially as the church pressured the new government to outlaw divorce and abortion. The response is especially apparent in the 1995 defeat of Lech Walesa by a crypto-communist but authentic secularist - a defeat that may have occurred because of (rather than in spite of) the intercession of Cardinal Glimp and Catholic officialdom on Walesa's behalf. And just recently, the government enacted a liberalization of the church-backed abortion prohibition of 1993. In sum, while Poland currently illustrates the combination of a secular state with religious politics, it may soon join its European sisters to the West in the doubly secular category as its politics lose their religious flavor.

Locating Japan

Finally, there is one country that offers an instructive case in flux. To this point, we have not even mentioned Japan, one of the most important, dynamic, and currently conflicted countries in the world. This is partly because Japan is a country where we are still very far from being experts, though we have learned a great deal from many Japanese scholars and such U.S. mentors and sources as Winston Davis (1992), Helen Hardacre (1989), Daniel Metraux (1996), James W. White (1970). It is also because Japan's position within our four types or categories is a matter of some doubt. In fact, at various times in its recent history, Japan has qualified for placement in all four combinations. While this is also true of many other countries - including some we have already categorized simplistically - it is worth pausing to note how the four types occur within the Japanese experience.

First, one reading of the almost 250 year, pre-1868 "Tokugawa" period in Japanese history is that it combined a religious government (or shogunate) with religious politics in the jousting among various Buddhist, Shinto, and even Christian movements. Second, it is at least arguable that the 1868 "Meiji restoration" ultimately produced a combination of a religious state and secular politics as a small elite self-consciously fashioned a new state religion out of traditional folk Shinto. The resulting State Shinto was used to define the government and to mobilize both industrialization and militarism. Opposing religious voices were stilled, at least during the war years, as the imprisoned leaders of such dissident groups as the lay Buddhist, Soka Gakkai, attest. Third, at least for the first three decades following the war and the adoption of a new constitution, the situation was more that of a secular state with secular politics. Not only was State Shinto disestablished but there was relatively little religious presence in the world of politics.

Fourth and most recently, the combination of religious politics and secular state has begun to surface, however imperfectly. Formally, of course, the state continues to be secular. Although some might argue that the Ministry of Education's 1989 requirement of the singing of the national anthem ("kimigayo") at public school graduation ceremonies and the retention of some aspects of Shinto mythology in the school curriculum marks a first step down a slippery slope toward a religious state, there remains some doubt in the courts whether Shinto itself qualifies as religious. Similar ambiguity surrounds the Cabinet member visits to the Yasukuni shrine honoring the war dead that began in the mid-1980s. And yet conservative politicians are increasing persuaded that some kind of sacred revitalization is necessary to fill the void at the nation's cultural core where a devotion to industrial capitalism and a "yen for the yen" does not suffice.

Meanwhile, religious politics of a quite different sort are involved in the increasingly conspicuous role of new religious movements over the last decade. An especially pivotal event was the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the cult, Aum Shinrikyo. The resulting trial of the leader, Asahara, has turned out to be a siege for many marginal religious movements who feel stigmatized by the same stereotypes and sanctions applied to the Aum. This is especially true of the growing Soka Gakkai, whose membership has been reckoned one-sixth of the population but whose seventy-year history has been consistently controversial because of its zealous proselytizing and its formation of the only religious political party in Japan which is now the country's largest opposition party. It is true that Komeito (or the CGP, "Clean Government Party") has not been legally linked to the Soka Gakkai since 1970, and it has recently merged with the "New Frontier" Party. And yet there are sufficient perceived affinities remaining between Komeito and the Soka Gakkai so that discrediting one tends to discredit the other.

This is at least one plausible motivation behind the dominant (and generally conservative) "Liberal Democratic Party's" recently successful Religious Corporation Law. The result here is partly political in applying the same brush that tars the Aum Shinrikyo to the Soka Gakkai and then Komeito in turn. But it also marks a potential sea change in state policy toward religious groups generally, especially those that are somewhat off center. The introduction of tighter reporting requirements, greater monitoring vigilance, and vague new standards of religious propriety licences the government to fish in deeper waters for its opposition prey. This might seem consistent with a secular state in the antireligious sense of the phrase. But it is an alarming departure from a secular state that is neutral concerning both religion in general and religions in particular. It is precisely this connotation of a neutral secularity that best avoids a "religious establishment" while promoting the "free exercise" of religion. Of course, we would argue that this same combination is optimal in the long run not just for religion but for society as a whole.

So much for a cross-cultural reconnoitering of the various relations that exist between religion, politics, and the state. Any exercise that presumed to freeze and fit whole societies within a single simple conceptual grid would, of course, be a fool`s errand. At the same time, it is sometimes useful to gain a sense of the various combinations and tendencies that exist today as a guide to tomorrow - especially since there is no more volatile intersection or one with greater consequences than the one at issue.

Of the four combinations we have examined, that of a religious state combined with religious politics is certainly the most potentially violent. Unfortunately, it is also a direction in which many societies are being pressed. By contrast, the doubly secular combination may provide political stability at the price of cultural vacuity. The conjunction of a religious state with secular politics can be either a symbolic anachronism or the result of an imposed religious orthodoxy that relies heavily on coercion and tolerates no opposition.

While the coupling of a secular state with religious politics is currently rare, it is arguably the most promising type for promoting both cultural vitality and structural stability. In the final analysis, no country need be dominated either by a vacuous and ahistorical secularism or a raging religious current that sweeps all else before it.

Let us end with a more personal postscript. Anyone engaged in comparative research learns early and often to take refuge in the phrase, "all else being equal." In addition, any American engaged in global analysis and prescription must be especially sensitive to our long tradition of triumphal "exceptionalism" (cf. Lipset, 1996). One of the problems of comparative work concerns the dilemma of dissimulating one's own values and one's best sense of what might work for others. Certainly Edward Said (1978) has alerted all Western scholars to the dangers of Orientalism and has made the term a byword for cross-cultural stereotyping. However, as James Carrier's collection on Occidentalism implies (1996), distorted perceptions and communications occur in both directions and are endemic in any situation in which power imbalances are compounded by cultural differences.

The problem is exacerbated when one seeks not just to understand but to prescribe. But even here there are two possible errors. The first is to blunder ahead and prescribe one's own medicine for every patient, regardless of the ailments and host conditions; the second is to pull back into a benighted relativism that treats every society as only analyzable in its own terms and only changeable in its own fashion. The latter is especially problematic when it is merely a pose - what Charles Taylor has referred to as the "obligatory hypocrisy" and false cultural respect of today's "multicultural" world.

India again offers a pertinent example, as we can see in Donald Smith's magisterial volume India as a Secular State (1963). The definitive work on the then new constitution, the book concludes by noting some of the evidences of the religious nose in the constitutional tent cited. But the author goes on to express full confidence that India in its wisdom will work its way through or around them. One can only wonder whether that confidence was any more genuine then than it might be now. If, as Durkheim once suggested, comparative sociology is the only sociology, then a sharing of comparative assessments must be encouraged rather than censored. Both social analysis and social policy depend upon candid cross-cultural exchange.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 1997, Vol. 47 Issue 1.

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