Government Systems: Religious Governments Research Paper Starter

Government Systems: Religious Governments

(Research Starters)

This paper takes an in-depth look at religion in government. Specifically, the essay discusses the various sociological elements of organized religion and how they can permeate governmental institutions. It also illustrates some examples of nations in which organized religion plays an active if not integrated role in government. By casting a light on this form of leadership, the reader gleans a better understanding of the significant role religion plays in the twenty-first century.

Keywords Ayatollah; Divinity; Secular; Shia; Theocracy

Sociology: Government Systems: Government Systems: Religious Governments


In 1948, Arab forces, including fighters from five sovereign nations as well as Palestinian guerillas, combined to try to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. They were defeated, but regrouped shortly thereafter to return to the fray. Jewish and Muslim combatants each lay claim to Israel based on the traditional claims of their religious ideologies. According to the Bible and the Qur'an, Jews and Muslims, respectively, were promised by God ownership of the land. Indeed, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict has proven to be an international relations conundrum for virtually every nation.

The mixture of religion and government has long been a common formula. In the modern world, however, the great majority of nations place a higher priority on governance and policymaking than religious doctrine. Then again, faith and organized religion have always been important to political leaders, just as they have been in every society and culture. And there are examples, even in the twenty-first century, of political systems in which religious tradition plays a much more active role than is typically the case.

That political systems and religion are often intertwined (whether intentionally or subconsciously) is but a part of a larger picture. After all, most world religions are not designed with political leadership in mind — they defer to a higher power or powers. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity all challenge a person not to command others but rather to take individual responsibility for his or her own behavior according to the revealed truths of their respective spiritual tradition. It is no surprise, therefore, that individuals content with their own faiths look outward to share their moral and ethical ideals with others within the society and within the government institutions that they develop.

The question thus arises: To what degree do certain systems incorporate their religious beliefs into government, and what sorts of societies embrace this behavior? In some cases, faith becomes such a powerful social player that it is incorporated into every aspect of life. Islamic societies, for example, often view the Qur'an in the same light that Americans view the Constitution. Other societies might see a need for a moral compass to guide them away from war, poverty, or near-anarchy and toward unification.

Mainstream sociologists have held the seemingly logical assumption that economic success and religious zeal are linked — poorer nations are likely to embrace religion more than wealthy countries. However, empirical data suggests that while there are correlations to be drawn between economics and religious development, the link is weaker than one might assume (Snoep, 2008).

In light of this weakness, it becomes evident that there are other factors at work. Among them are recovery from political instability, social and economic stratification, and disenfranchisement. These factors are not issues addressed directly in most faiths — rather, they are social problems that allow leaders to call upon religious doctrine for moral guidance. In the case of heavily religious states, that doctrine might be modified to serve as a blueprint for political leadership.

This paper takes an in-depth look at religion in government. Specifically, the essay discusses the various sociological elements of organized religion and how they can permeate governmental institutions. It also illustrates some examples of nations in which organized religion plays an active if not integrated role in government. By casting a light on this form of leadership, the reader will glean a better understanding of the significance religion plays in the twenty-first century.


The study of religion and government as a combination is a relatively new discipline. Religion has, throughout human history, played a significant role not only in individuals' personal faiths — it has been a major contributor to every culture, every social institution, and every society. There are obvious examples — the Ten Commandments, for example, have instilled Judeo-Christian values into American culture. The familiar phrases "In God We Trust" and "One Nation, Under God" are also reflective of Americans' fundamental religious values.

In the United States,faith has also played an increasingly integral part not only of political candidates' campaigns but of people's involvement in such activities as well. In fact, studies indicate that there is a correlation between religious belief and political participation (Driskell, Embry, & Lyon, 2008).

Whether a society embraces religion as applicable in every facet of its infrastructure, however, remains the subject of debate. Indeed, a recent ten-nation study asked respondents about their views of religion and how it impacts their daily lives. Relevant to this discussion is the question of whether religion (or at least religious values) should play a role in government. Ironically, the one country that makes a constitutional point of separating church and state, the United States, appeared to be the nation in which religion most comprehensively permeates political activity. In fact, nearly 40 percent of Americans believe that religious leaders should try to influence political decision-making.

In contrast, only 12 percent of the heavily Catholic nation of France felt similarly. Of Mexicans, who are the closest in the study among those cultures that embrace their faith, only 20 percent felt their religious leaders should be lobbying government. Remarkably, 80 percent of Italians say that their faith is important to them, but only about 30 percent of them believe that religion has a place in politics (Lester, 2005).

Nevertheless, each of the countries captured in the aforementioned study maintains a secular, or nonreligious, political infrastructure. While there is no doubt that religious faith and values are successful in infiltrating the political decision-making process, they remain separate nonetheless. The same cannot be said for other systems. Theocracies, for example, are political systems in which the authority to govern is said to come from divine sources. True leadership in these systems comes from individuals who are priests, sheikhs, imams, or other figures. Theirs is divine power, derived from the supernatural (or special links to a higher power).

For the purposes of discussion, secular governments (in their purest, ideal form) and theocracies may be said to rest at two opposite ends of a spectrum. Just as the study above reveals, however, many systems may not have visible links between religious leadership and government in the manner of a theocracy, but the two do not remain entirely separated, either. As stated earlier, religion and faith permeate nearly every developed and developing national government in one form or another. Hence, amid the two polar extremes of theocracy and secular government is a middle area in which the two mix and interact but are not connected.

The following sections look at examples of each of these three types of systems: secular governments, theocracies, and "hybrid" governments, providing examples from the modern era.

Japan: From Theocracy to Secular Government

The Meiji Era

In the latter nineteenth century, the largely secular Tokugawa era in Japanese history gave way to an industrialized Meiji era in which Japan was introduced to the rest of the modern world. The breakdown of the shogunate, however, meant that Japan needed to be unified behind Emperor Meiji. In order to do so, the emperor underscored what was believed to be his heritage as a direct descendant of Amaterasu, a relatively obscure goddess of a religion that had until Meiji had been buried in Japanese history: Shinto.

By highlighting his connection to the newly revitalized Shinto faith, Meiji elevated Shinto to the highest levels of both Japanese government and culture. The polytheistic tradition had become the official state religion of Japan, with Meiji as its highest representative. Of course, Meiji did create a constitution that, as was the case in the constitutions of the Western world, did allow for freedom of religion. However, he had also claimed his lineage to Amaterasu, and through him, the Japanese people were therefore also linked to the divine. By virtue of their connection to the supernatural world, the Japanese "race" and the statewide practice of Shinto were considered...

(The entire section is 4017 words.)