A person’s religious beliefs inform his or her worldview. This, in turn, affects how one acts in the world. It follows that a nation’s prevailing religious belief system affects its politics. This is true not only in countries that are openly theocratic in nature, but even in those that attempt to maintain the separation between the church or religion and the state. Understanding how religion impacts the politics and governance of a society is essential to understanding how that society functions. Examples of the interaction between religion, government, and politics in the United States as well as in Muslim and Hindu countries are discussed.
Keywords Belief System; Catholic; Empirical; Fundamentalism; Ideology; Marginalization; Protestant; Religion; Religious Pluralism; Social Change; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Worldview
Sociology of Religion: Religion, Government
In the United States, the discussion surrounding religion and government often involves the concept of separation between church and state. Although this political and legal doctrine means that government and religious institutions are to be kept separate and independent of each other, it does not mean that they do not influence each other. For most people who are adherents of a religion, religious beliefs inform one's worldview. This, in turn, affects how one acts in the world. One's worldview does not simply inform one's day to day actions in little things such as how the person treats others, however. It also informs one's broader beliefs at society and what constitutes appropriate behavior not only on the individual level but on the societal level as well.
Individual religious beliefs also inform opinions on controversial issues. A person’s opinion on controversial issues such as terrorism, the bioethics of stem cell research, the morality of abortion, equal rights for women and homosexuals, and whether the death penalty should be legal are all informed by spiritual beliefs. Moreover, many of these issues are debated in public forums. Political organizations, in turn, work to ensure that politicians that reflect their worldview are elected to office.
Unsurprisingly, research has found that many American politicians act on their religious beliefs in the political arenas. For example, research has shown the voting records of Congresspersons are often predictable from their religious beliefs. Certainly this makes sense on such morally and ethically charged issues as mentioned above. However, research has shown that the relationship between voting patterns and religion extends into other spheres such as defense spending, minimum wage laws, and welfare reform. Although such issues may seem less strongly linked with religious beliefs, they are, in fact, issues of social justice that are strongly related to one's religious beliefs (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).
However, although there is an empirically-derived relationship between religion and politics, it is not necessarily a straight-forward one. For example, studies have found that Protestants are more likely than Catholics to want to reverse Roe v. Wade and ban abortion. This relationship is probably due in part to the large number of fundamentalists (who stand against abortion for religious reasons) that are numbered among Protestants. There are other, less obvious, links between religion and political attitudes as well. For example, individuals with deeper religious involvement typically have more traditional attitudes toward gender roles. Specifically, Roman Catholics tend to have more liberal attitudes while Mormons, Pentecostals, and fundamentalist denominations tend to be the most traditional and conservative. American Jews, Unitarians, Universalists, and those with no religious preference tend to be the most liberal in their political views. Because of the easily discernible trends within religious groups in the United States and the great and obvious differences between groups on many issues serves to make the relationship between religion and politics and increasingly important one (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).
The church has long been an agent of social change in the United States. A powerful example of the role of religion in social change and its impact on government and politics can be seen in the interaction of race, religion, and civil rights in the United States. Within the African American community, religion in general and churches in particular frequently serve as sources of political activism and social and community services. In fact, churches and religious organizations have arguably become the most important institution in many Black communities and have given rise to many prominent leaders including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X., and Louis Farrakhan. African-American churches also had a prominent role in leadership during the civil rights movement in the United States. Churches served as headquarters for protesters, clearing houses for information, and meeting places to develop strategies and tactics. Further, the association of the Church with the activities of the civil rights movement went at the moral authority and helped reinforce the rightness of the movement based on religious values.
There is a strong relationship between religion and politics in the United States. For politicians trying to win elections in a nation with religious tolerance and religious pluralism, striking the appropriate balance between meeting the needs of one religious group without alienating another can be a delicate balancing act. Not every nation is so tolerant of religious pluralism, however, and there is often no separation between religion and government.
A Look at Theocratic State Systems
In an example of the influence of religion on politics and government in an Islamic nation, Casey (2008) analyzed the politics and perceptual bounds of Islamic authenticity in northern Nigeria. As of 2012, Sharia law served as the criminal law system for nine Nigerian states. This change was implemented after a concerted appeal from the Shariah Implementation Committee to encourage Muslims from all sectors of society to institute Shariah as the criminal law for all Muslims in these states in order to effect desired political and economic changes. The change was encouraged in order to better comply with the religious principles of Islam and in opposition to the colonialism, elitism, and corruption of politicians and both the state and federal levels. Adoption of Shariah as the state criminal law did more than prescribe issues of enforcement and punishment, however. It also reframed what constituted a crime. The colonial definitions of crime were replaced by those of Islam, and identity in these states was redefined in terms of ethnic and regional Islamic forms including dress and comportment (Casey, 2008).
As opposed to the civil law in the United States, Islamic law is theocratic in nature and is based on the concept of divine law revealed through Scripture. Shariah comprises divine revelation through the Quran (Islamic scripture) and the acts and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. According to the Islamic system of jurisprudence, Allah is the giver of the law and Shariah law is Allah's command. Because of this belief, the Islamic code for proper behavior demands total compliance with all these commands. Shariah law is in sharp contrast to the Western penal philosophy, which legislates morality through an exhaustive list of prohibitions. Shariah law, on the other hand, requires compliance with all God's commands. These are presented as obligatory rules and prohibitions for benevolent society. Shariah is designed both as a moralizing agent and a preventative one implemented through five factors. First, Shariah attempts to continually reform and purify the individual with the Islamic ideals and morals. Second, Shariah warns against committing offenses and reminds defenders of the consequences of their actions both in this world and the next. Third, Shariah commands Muslims to assist each other in righteousness and piety through counsel, moral support, and teaching. Fourth, Shariah prevents crime by reducing opportunities commit crime (e.g., minimizing encounters between the sexes in order...
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