Magoosh GRE

Should politics and religion be kept separate?

| August 13, 2016

In order to address this issue, it is first necessary to define the two colossi of politics and religion. The first term is used here to mean the science of governing a nation, and the second is defined as the belief in a supernatural power that informs an institutionalised code of behaviour. These two subjects lie at opposing ends of the human spectrum and it may appear initially that religious ideas have no place in a twenty-first century government. The contemporary global political scene, however, demonstrates that the long-standing relationship between religion and politics has historically been much more complex than this. In order to assess the value of this relationship, this essay will examine the current global scene with reference to the US, the UK and China.

The science of politics and the seemingly archaic superstitions involved in many organised religions at first instance appear to be diametrically opposed. The natural conclusion here is that there allowing religion to play a part in politics is to preclude a successful twenty-first political leadership and there are, indeed, numerous arguments for this case. When religion enters the political arena, it often threatens to impede technological and social development. An example of this was seen in the UK in 2008, when Gordon Brown was faced with a ‘damaging rebellion by Catholic cabinet ministers’ (Telegraph, 2008) over a Bill to reform fertility laws and allow lesbian couples to become legal parents. The government’s plans were attacked openly by the Catholic Church and three MPs threatened to resist the order because of their religious beliefs. This incident 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)

In the UK, the tactical exploitation of religion by politicians tends not to achieve positive results. Photos of Tony Blair launching the 2001 general election campaign that showed him standing against a stained glass window with hymn book in hand were widely criticised by the general public and press alike as tasteless and ‘cheesy’ (TES, 2008). Political parties in the US, in contrast, have found it much easier to exploit contentious issues such as abortion and homosexuality in order to gain extra votes. The Republican party, for example, incorporated an anti-abortion position in its programme in the 1970s and hardened its stance during the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections in a bid for support from the Christian Coalition (BBC, 1998). The danger here is that the deciding factor in election results becomes pressure on voters from their religious groups rather than a reflection of their individual political views. Additionally, a small number of contentious issues may become the focus of entire campaigns to the detriment of a well-rounded manifesto.

Taking the role of religion in the political arena to the extreme creates a theocratic form of government such as that found in Iran. A theocracy is essentially a form of totalitarianism and, as such, commonly involves the suppression of 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, removing the elements of liability and competition that are necessary for a healthy political system. As Buruma states:

‘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).

However, the long-standing relationship between religion and politics cannot be described in such black-and-white terms. 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)

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. Although de Tocqueville’s comment portrays the contemporary situation in a very favourable light, it can be observed that this barrier has in fact had the opposite effect – many Americans actually want their leaders to have religious belief. A poll conducted in 2004 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 72% agreed with the statement “The president should have strong religious beliefs.” (BBC, 2004). The key here is that the church does not confuse its role with that of the state. Preachers in US churches may strongly discourage their congregation not to have sex before marriage but there is no danger that this moral imperative will become law.

The case against mixing religion with politics often rests on the assumption that the former is the enemy of democracy. Whilst it is undoubtedly desirable to establish a system of democracy whenever possible, the reality is that this is not always so. Religion throughout history has repeatedly been used by those in power as a tool to maintain social stability and, while far from ideal, this is certainly preferable to the societal chaos and widespread destructiveness that can ensue where a power vacuum exists.

The current circumstances in the US, UK and China all serve to illustrate the fact that legislatively separating religion and state may be an unpredictable strategy. The UK formally recognises the Church of England as an authority but, in practice, religion is widely separated from state affairs as much of the population is agnostic. The US constitution separates church and state but religious affiliations play a much larger role in national politics here and, in China, where the government is officially atheist, there exists a wholly undemocratic one-party system.

To conclude, there is certainly much evidence for the dangers of mixing politics with religion. Allowing religion to play a part in politics may open the door to contentious issues such as abortion and stem-cell research overshadowing many more valid matters, particularly at election time. It may also be exploited by politicians as an easy strategy to gain votes, as religions members of the population feel pressured to vote solely on the basis of their religious convictions. The practical realities of contemporary government, however, cannot be prescribed by sweeping assertions. Legislatively separating religion and state does not necessarily lead to a healthy democracy, as demonstrated by the political climate in the UK, US and China. Moreover, it is questionable whether it is even possible to keep religious beliefs, which inevitably inform an individual’s moral and ethical code, out of the world of politics entirely.




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


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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Political Science