If you’ve taken any history class, chances are you’ll notice a striking marriage between politics and religion. Since the beginning of history, politics and religion have come hand in hand, during times of war, times of peace and anything in between. Open any historical text and you might find references to gods, a God and any other host of supernatural beings. Some of the most important religious texts in the modern era, including the Quran, the Bible and the Torah, have rules and regulations regarding political activity and social and political hierarchies. This is nothing new, political scientists have theorized about the ways in which politics and religion are used in human society, from the ancient days to the modern years. As students who will enter the general society in the near future, understanding the ways in which religion and politics interact and dance with each other is critical in understanding the broad forces at play in our society, our politics and even our economy.
“There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious.”
One of the most important texts one must read to understand the ways that religion impacts politics is "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli. This text is critical in understanding how religion and politics coexist and influence our lives on a regular basis. This quote and its truth can be seen clearly even throughout the modern days. American presidents like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have all shown themselves to be religious. Whether they actually were religious, we will never know. However, what we can know for certain is that religious presentations are critical from the state and local political landscapes. It has been said that in order to obtain most political offices in the United States, one must present themselves to be Christian. That is because most Americans are Christian, and therefore their representatives must be Christian as well. America is not the only country where politics and religion are undeniably linked.
In much of the pre-modern era, including the 1400s to the 1600s, politics and religion were connected even more so than they are now. During the time of Martin Luther, there were distinct Protestant nations and Catholic nations. Additionally, countries would adopt one of the religions as a method of conflict or peace with other nations. Do you want your nation to become allies with Italy? Just announce that your nation is Catholic. Interested in making the Papal States angry? Just announce that you are now a Protestant king. Politics and religion not only find themselves married in a Christian context, but also in other huge religions.
Take, for example, the pre-modern state of Israel. Read the Torah and you’ll find stories of God himself choosing kings, as well as rules and regulations for social and political life. Punishments are given to those who do not obey their parents, and religion played an active role in daily life. Despite Israel’s current claim to the same land in the modern era, the current state of Israel is not the same as the pre-modern state of Israel, based primarily on the fact that the modern state is an explicitly secular state.
The final example I will give is the modern Arab states, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that both of these states have awful relationships with each other, they both found their political environments on their religious ideologies. According to the United States Department of State, regarding Iran: “The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on 'Islamic criteria' and an official interpretation of sharia.” (2) Saudi Arabia is similar as it also bases its political and legal system on some interpretations of Islamic texts. The United States has this to say about Saudi Arabia: “The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.” (2)
Based on the information presented, it is clear that from Judaism to Islam to Christianity, religion and politics have been undeniably linked, and the way they both influence each other expands far before the modern era. As we continue to shape our political and religious worlds, it is critical that we respect the separation of church and state, and while that might seem impossible, I believe that maintaining a secular state that respects everyone’s religions is the best way to have a functioning society, religious scene, political atmosphere and effective economy.