The Inevitable Entanglement of Religion and Politics

  • Michael Allen Gillespie
Part of the Boston Studies in Philosophy, Religion and Public Life book series (BSPR, volume 6)


Since the Emperor Constantine knelt in prayer with his army prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge in October, 312 A.D. and saw a cross above the sun accompanied by the inscription “CONQUER BY THIS,” the question of the relation of religion and politics has been unavoidable for the Western world. Christianity, which had hitherto sought to give God what was God’s and Caesar what was Caesar’s, thereby came into an uneasy alliance with Caesar. This relationship was broadened and complicated in many ways by the subsequent conversion of Roman officials who brought their politics into religion and used their new religion to pursue their political agenda. Constantine himself had clearly been looking for a new religion to reinvigorate the empire and Christianity helped to sustain the empire for another 150 years in the West and for almost 1150 years in the East. In various ways since that time, popes and emperors, kings and cardinals, reformers and princes, confessional groups and parliaments have struggled to find ways to co-exist. They have often been deeply divided and in tension with one another, but this was not always a bad thing. In fact the two have often checked one another in ways that have generally been positive for the majority of the population. Occasionally they have been united, working to great, although at times horrible, effect. In the late eighteenth century, new regimes in both America and France made an effort to provide for some separation of religion and politics. Their efforts were an outgrowth of earlier attempts by political theorists to find ways to mitigate the religious conflict that had shattered European civilization during the Wars of Religion that were spawned by the Reformation. In their view there were basically three possibilities: first, religion could be subordinated to a sovereign who could command a uniform religious practice; second, religious groups could tolerate one another; or finally third, religion could be completely privatized and removed from political life. The first course was institutionalized by the Treaty of Westphalia. It led to the sectarian state with the Church as a subordinate power. The second alternative grew out of disagreements between Protestant confessions and the growing belief that if humans are saved by faith alone, coercion cannot serve the cause of religion. This view was accepted by Catholicism only in the later twentieth century. The third possibility was exemplified by Voltaire’s proclamation that religion should be “crushed” as a political force, and confined entirely to a private sphere. Most European states (and early American colonies) established sectarian states with state religions, sometimes tolerating dissenting religious practices in private but allowing them no public role. However, the supremacy of the state over religion along with a growing privatization or religion, led to a gradual reduction in the importance of religious differences and a growing willingness to tolerate if not affirm dissenting religious practices. With the growth of competing sects and democratization, disestablishment was more or less inevitable although it was not until the twentieth century that it became widespread.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Duke UniversityDurhamUSA

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