Magoosh GRE

Religion and Politics: Can they be combined or should they always be clearly separated?

| March 18, 2015


Politics is the rational science of governing a nation and religion is fuelled by the belief in a supernatural power. Is it possible to combine these diametrically opposed tools in a successful leadership or should they always be clearly separated? This question has been around as long as civilisation itself and its answer will inform the entire path that global government takes in the twenty-first century. In this essay I will argue rationally using a discussion of fundamentalism, secularism and democracy that there is no place for religion in contemporary governmental politics and that a clear barrier must exist in legislation to prevent religious issues intruding into the public political sphere.
Firstly, we can see that a nation run along secularist lines, where religious considerations are excluded from public education and civil affairs, works to foster a sense of multiculturalism and common identity amongst its population. As Hoffman and Graham (2009) state in ‘Introduction to Political Theory’, the radicalisation of individuals in society is commonly pre-empted by an identity crisis caused by a sense of exclusion or differentiation. This sense of ‘being different’ can be averted by policies that ensure their citizens receive equal treatment. A case in point here is France, which has a long history of laïcité (secularity). The 2004 ban on wearing ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in schools, whilst criticised by some for being harder on Muslims that on people of other faiths, did much to promote the people from different religious backgrounds being treated equally as French citizens first and foremost. Also, as mentioned by Hoffman and Graham: ‘it could be argued that Islam treats men and women unequally and this is manifested in gender-differentiated dress codes; the French parliament is, therefore, striking a blow for gender equality.’ (2009, pp.341).

Moreover, the recent controversy concerning Roman Catholic crosses in German and Italian schools, as well as wearing the hijab in German and Turkish classrooms, highlights the kind of problems that can arise when an individual’s private religious life is allowed to encroach too far into the civil sphere. As noted by Alessandro Ferrari, it is to be expected that schools form a focus of this debate as these institutions have historically been a very important tool used by governments to promote social unity and create a ‘common citizenship’ (2008, pp.113). I assert on this basis that this goal of ‘common citizenship’ can be achieved only when, as with the French philosophy of laïcité, a strict line is drawn between state and religion.

In order to make my central argument, I cite the example of the US and the benefits of the separation between church and state that has existed since its foundation. French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his book ‘Democracy in America’, originally published in 1835, that: ‘In the U.S., from the beginning, politics and religion were in accord, and they have not ceased to be so since.’ (2000, pp.129)

The founding fathers of the US, many of whom themselves had first-hand experience of religious persecution, were careful to incorporate a formal separation between church and state into the constitution of their new country. As Luca Diotallevi echoes in his essay contained in ‘Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe’, this legislative barrier resulted in a religious freedom and tolerance that was unknown to those contemporaries living in the areas of Europe where the religion of the sovereign dictated the religion of his people.

Where religion and state are not legislatively separated, the role of religion in the political arena is may be taken to the extreme, and this is when we are confronted with fundamentalism. The legal enforcement of an absolute religious authority creates a regime that is essentially a form of totalitarianism and, as such, commonly involves the suppression of the free thought, speech and expression that are vital components in social and economic progress. The ruling priest class receives their authority from God (or gods) and are therefore essentially unaccountable, which removes the elements of liability and competition that are necessary for a healthy political system. As Buruma states in his work ‘Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents’:

‘Radical secularists often assume that any organized faith poses a threat to liberal democracy. In cases where religious authority assumes political authority, this threat is real’ (2010, pp.2). Furthermore, we can see that the extreme example of fundamentalism also reveals a deeper incompatibility between religion and politics. The nature of democracy is that it involves a process of negotiation in order to reach a compromise between parties who have conflicting interests. Religious institutions, however, follow strictly codified beliefs and, as Buruma points out:
‘A religious institution claiming to represent absolute of divine truth cannot make these necessary compromises without the danger of corrupting its own principles’ (2010, pp.2)

Maintaining a clear boundary between the private life, in which religious practices may play a part, and the more public political and civil world in fact means that the population are able to adhere to whichever faith to which they feel drawn. In the absence of a ‘state’ religion, each individual may experience religious freedom, from which more widespread societal religious tolerance can grow. As explained by Scott M. Thomas in ‘Religion in International Relations’, religious tolerance often contains the seeds of political tolerance; itself the basis for democracy, a civil society and ‘lasting political stability’ (pp.46). The fuel for a democracy is dissent; as Hoelzl and Ward (2006) illustrate in ‘Religion and Political Thought: Key Readings – Past and Present’, dissent both against the sovereign and the majority guarantees the population’s freedom. Only when religion is excluded from governmental life can the population enjoy the religious and political freedom that comprises a healthy democracy.


By the end of this investigation we have seen that considerations of secularism, fundamentalism and democracy all illustrate the necessity of drawing a clear line between religion and state. The secular French model of confining religious practices to the individual private sphere, away from the public arenas of education and civil affairs, demonstrates the importance of equality in building a crucial sense of ‘common citizenship’ and avoiding the phenomenon of radicalisation as far as possible. The US is another case in point. In this new country, where the constitution legislated for a formal separation between church and state, was to be found a religious freedom and tolerance unknown at the time in areas of Europe under the rule of cuius regio, eius et religio. When this separation does not exist, there is the danger that a fundamentalist society may evolve. In this case, an absolute and unaccountable religious authority is legally enforced, leading to widespread oppression and loss of freedom. Thus we have seen that, at all levels, allowing religious authority to intrude into the political sphere works against the religious and political freedom that forms the cornerstone of a healthy democracy.


Buruma, I., 2010. Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

de Tocqueville, A., 2000. Democracy in America. Edited and translated from French by H. Mansfield and D. Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fay, B., 1975. Social Theory and Political Practice. London: Allen & Unwin.

Fowler, R.B., 2010. Religion and politics in America: faith, culture, and strategic choices. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Goodwin, B., 2007. Using Political Ideas. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.

Haynes, J., 1998. Religion in global politics. Harlow: Longman.

Hatzopoulos, P. and Petito, F., 2003. Religion in international relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hoelzl, M. and Ward, G., 2006. Religion and Political Thought: Key Readings – Past and Present. London: Continuum International.

Hoffman, J. and Graham, P., 2009. Introduction to Political Theory. 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Marquand, D. and Nettler, R.L., 2000. Religion and democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Motzkin, G. and Fischer, Y., 2008. Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe. London: Alliance Publishing Trust.

Plant, R., 1991. Modern Political Thought. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Social Sciences Essay Examples