Religion and politics share a common concern: the order of human beings in the social world in order to avoid the problem of chaos. If at least one definition of politics is the means by which we order our community and even our personal conduct through the formulation and acceptance of certain rules, laws, and institutions that oversee them, then religion has always had a political function by structuring the world—both inner and outer—in order to provide or enforce some kind of organizing order and meaning of the community. Dominating premodern or pre-Enlightenment concepts of religion and religious life was the notion that the individual was ensconced in a broader order of things, one ordained supernaturally that structured communal relationships as well as personal attitudes toward authority and social power by linking that order of things to some transcendental authority. Religion possessed a political function precisely because it served as the undergirding rationalization for law and the ways that social relationships were governed and organized within the community.
At the same time, religion also, and most important, provided an inner sense of obligation on the part of individuals that legitimized certain forms of social power and hierarchy. The separation between the inner or private life and the outer or public one was always unified in traditional religious societies, or at least mostly so. The result was that ritual and belief served a political purpose in the sense that they provided a legitimation for authority, since they were able to unite the political hierarchies that existed within the community with a cosmological schema. Thus, the relation between religion and politics has always dealt with the problem of value orientations: individuals must orient their subjective values, at least in some degree, toward the acceptance of the order in which they live. Both religion and politics therefore find a common ground in that they seek, albeit in different ways, to orient individuals toward social order and in some way to legitimize that order.
The word religion is a compound of two Latin words: re (“again”) and ligare (“to bind”). In this sense, it denotes a strong connection with origins, with the foundations of the past, as an authority for grounding or validating the present. But its connection with politics becomes more explicit when we realize that the past participle of the verb ligare is lex (“bound”), which is the Latin word for “law.” Religion, therefore, becomes more than simply a metaphysical doctrine in this sense, for it takes on the status of an order between members of a community by “binding” them to certain acts and beliefs. Religion, therefore, can be said to possess a political function in the sense that it provides a framework—either through subjective ethics or through sacred law—to orient individuals toward a particular social order, usually a social order that has some grounding or validity in a transcendent authority (i.e., a god or gods). Historically, religion and politics existed more as a unity—each one informing the other—to the extent that, in some cases, as in ancient Egypt, little distinction existed between religious understanding of the universe and social order and political authority.
The relation between religion and politics becomes a distinct problem once politics becomes secularized; that is, once the foundations of political meaning and authority no longer synchronize with religious world-views. In Western political history, this begins with the closing decades of the Renaissance and, most explicitly, with the writings of Thomas Hobbes, who provided a rationalization of politics outside the bounds of religious authority, and Benedict Spinoza, who argued against the sacred authority of religious moral teachings. Religion bases its claim to moral authority not upon social conventions, institutions, and values, which are created by humans themselves, but on God or god(s) as a transcendental source of moral authority. As a result, religion and secular politics can come into conflict, since they offer different grounds for moral and ethical duty and obligation as well as different rationalizations for the sociopolitical order.
Max Weber rigorously pointed this out in his discussion of “other-worldly ascetic religion.” For Weber, the key problem was that individuals who cling to religious belief as the rationalization of the social world come into tension with the secular world. The sanctity of religious conventions comes into a dissonant relationship with secular social and political institutions and values. Indeed, for Weber, the key problem was that of secularization, or the “disenchantment” (Entzauberung) of the world through the spread of rationalism and modernity. The encounter with modernity (i.e., with secularism, rationalism, and so on) therefore tends to undermine the traditional authority of religious worldviews, and the political function of religion must compete with the autonomy of secular politics. This can give rise to religious extremism and/or other forms of religious life and activity that engage, in a critical way, secular political and ethical life.
A different approach to the relation between religion and politics stems from the work of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s idea about religion was that it constituted a symbolic order that served as a mode of social cohesion. Religion serves a social function since it provides a continuity of belief through which social order is maintained. From this theoretical perspective, religion and politics become a problematic mix once political institutions and ideas begin to change their modes of cohesion. Secularization therefore leads to a problem of a certain incommensurability of value claims, since it rationalizes the structure of social relations differently from religious systems.
Although distinct from one another, the rise of both religious fundamentalism and religious extremism thus becomes understandable as a response to a crisis in social meaning and modes of cohesion. Once the forces of secular modes of social ordering begin to fragment sacred or religious modes of cohesion, religion becomes deprived of its political function. Traditional forms of social cohesion are then called into question by the emergence of secular social and political institutions and by the cultural and social pressures brought on by the process of secularization. Religious worldviews become challenged, and a crisis of meaning begins to take place. The radical return to religious values to combat the emergence of secular worldviews becomes a major field of contention and plays itself out, sometimes through violent means.
This breakdown of the relation between religion and politics can also explain less radical forms of religious resurgence. In liberal societies, issues such as abortion, attempts to include religious morality into public education, and other related attempts at blending politics and religion are also responses to this breakdown of collective meaning. Since liberal societies allow for the plurality of worldviews through tolerance and an avowed separation of church and state, there emerges a perceived breakdown of moral cohesion. The rise of religious conservatism and its increasing political activity and influence—as exemplified in U.S. politics during the closing decades of the 20th century and beyond—can therefore be seen as a reaction to this “fragmentation” of ethical meaning as prescribed through religious worldviews.
However, the religious response to political life is not always of a reactionary or conservative character. Religious, ethical worldviews can also transform political life in progressive ways. Sometimes it is simply a rhetorical device, clothing more secular political arguments, such as in the U.S. civil rights movement, when the power of the pulpit in black communities was particularly important in mobilizing opposition to racial segregation. The essential critique of the institutions of racial segregation was always basically liberal in character, but when clothed in religious language, it became a potent mobilizing force. Similarly, what is known as “liberation theology” in Latin America was a reshaping of the teachings of Catholicism to provide a political vision of liberation from tyrannical political regimes and institutions during the 1970s.
In the end, however, the relation of politics and religion consists in what can be called the “political function of religion”: in the ability of religion to offer an alternative interpretation of both social order and subjective value orientations that legitimate social relations and the sources of moral authority. To the extent that there is some dissonance between religious worldviews and secular political worldviews, the possibility of social problems arising from the relation of religion and politics is always a lingering concern.
- Durkheim, Emile.  1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by K. Fields. New York: Free Press.
- Ferry, Luc. 2002. Man Made God: The Meaning of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Gauchet, Marcel. 1997. The Disenchantment of the World. Translated by O. Burge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1988. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
- Hobbes, Thomas.  1974. Leviathan. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
- Neumann, Erich. 1999. Origins and History of Consciousness. New York: Pantheon.
- Spinoza, Benedict.  1951. A Theological-Political Treatise. New York: Dover.
- Weber, Max. 1963. The Sociology of Religion. Translated by E. Fischoff. Boston: Beacon Press.
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