The role of religion in political affairs
By Rodrigue Tremblay
Online Journal Guest Writer

Sep 18, 2006, 02:17

"I base a lot of my foreign policy decisions on some things that I think are true. One. I believe there's an Almighty. And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you like or where you live, to be free." --George W. Bush, April 24, 2006

"I am pro-Israeli, not because of political expediency, but because I believe Israel is the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy." --Jimmy Carter, Democratic presidential candidate, 1976

"It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law, if it acquires the political power to do so . . ." --Robert A. Heinlein

The role of religion in political and geopolitical affairs has taken center stage in many periods in history, with disastrous results. Religion can be rewarding for individuals as a source of private morality and meditation. But when politicians and leaders start using religion for political purposes, disasters inevitably follow.

Against all expectations, the mixture of religion and politics is presently making a powerful comeback, first, in the Middle East, where Judaism and the various strains of Islam are fighting each other; secondly, in Islamist terrorism which is partly motivated by Islamic fundamentalism; and, thirdly, in the United States, where religious fundamentalism wields increasing power in the political arena.

President Thomas Jefferson, probably the greatest American president, thought that there should be a "wall of separation" between the government and religious organizations in a democratic republic. It was his understanding that such a wall of separation between church and state had been erected with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbids the establishment of a state-supported religion. In that spirit, there is a current law, the 1954 Revenue Act, 501 (c)(3), which states that a tax-exempt religious organization cannot get involved in partisan politics without losing its privileged tax-exempt status. The law says that organizations risk loosing their tax-exempt status if they "participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for political office."

Why is the introduction of religion into politics a dangerous development? Essentially, because religion tends to paint the world in black and white, and is inimical to compromise, essential for peace in human affairs and a democratic form of government. When religious extremists accede to positions of power, the risk of social strife and political conflicts increases markedly. Armed with metaphysical certitudes, the religious leader cannot help but divide humanity between Good and Evil, between "those who are with us, and those who are against us." This allows him to demonize his enemies and to proclaim that he is 100 percent in the right and others are 100 percent in the wrong. All errors are on one side and all the pious justifications on the other. Between friend and foe, between the pious and the infidel, there is no middle ground. There is only a wall of hatred and distrust that violence or warfare help to cement. Dictatorship, not democracy, is the ultimate result when religion takes over a government.

The same applies internationally. Indeed, to have peace among nations, even in the best of times, there must be some mechanism of mediation and a system of international law. For instance, in the 5th century, after the demise of the Roman empire, the Catholic Church and its pope filled the institutional gap and were often called upon, not always successfully, to mediate international conflicts between states. A case in point was the mediation that Pope Alexander VI carried on between Spain and Portugal to divide the newly discovered territories of the Americas. The Pope issued a papal bull on May 4, 1493, dividing the New World between the former and latter countries. After minute negotiations, the Treaty of Tordesillas drew an imaginary line on the globe. Going from north to south, and situated at 370 leagues or about 800 miles west of the Azores, it delineated the oceanic world between Spanish (western) and Portuguese (eastern) spheres of influence. That is why Brasilians speak Portuguese today, while most Latin Americans speak Spanish.

After the last war of religion, from 1618 to 1648, i.e., the Thirty Years' War between European Catholics and Protestants, the world became more secular, less fanatical and more civilized; henceforth, religion was kept out of major international conflicts. The charter of the then new world order was the Treaty of Westphalia, which was signed at the end of the Thirty Years War.

The Treaty of Westphalia incorporated four basic principles: 1) The principle of the sovereignty of nation-states and the concomitant fundamental right of political self-determination for peoples; 2) the principle of (legal) equality between nation-states; 3) the principle of internationally binding treaties between states; and, 4) the principle of non-intervention of one state into the internal affairs of other states.

That is why the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) is so crucial in the history of international political relations. This important treaty formed the basis for the modern international system of independent nation-states. In fact, it marked the beginning of an international community of law between sovereign states of equal legal standing, guaranteeing each other their independence and the right of their peoples to political self-determination. The two most innovative principles being proclaimed were the principle of sovereignty and the principle of equality among nations. They were truly political and legal innovations for the time.

The treaty defined these new principles of sovereignty and equality among states in order to establish a durable (eternal) peace and friendship among them, within a mutually acceptable system of international law, based on internationally binding treaties. This was a revolutionary approach to international relations because, for the first time, it established a system that respected people's rights and which relied on international law, rather than on brute force and the right of the strongest to regulate interactions between states.

A fifth principle was also present in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, and it is the idea that in order to achieve an enduring peace, magnanimity, concessions and cooperation had to be shown by the victorious parties in an open conflict. It was the beginning of a genuine international constitution for humanity, the advent of a new international order and a big step forward for Western civilization.

After the Thirty Years War, religion became less and less a politically motivating force behind conflicts between European states, being replaced by considerations of national interest. In a way, after 1648, international affairs became "secularized" and somewhat devoid of religious considerations.

It is to be deplored that some current day politicians would like to push international law aside and bring the world back to what it was before 1648. Nowadays, the only widely accepted international dispute resolution mechanism is the United Nations. Members of the current American administration have taken steps to undermine this institution, but they have nothing to replace it. Indeed, under George W. Bush, it can be feared that the United States is falling into the Old World pattern which prevailed before the American Revolution and the French Revolution, that is, the existence of an unhealthy symbiosis between political power and religion.

The separation of Church and State brought the greatest advance in Western civilization in the last three hundred years. Democracy and freedom from state intervention in religious matters are the two underpinnings of such a demarcation. What is most ironical is that many Europeans chose in the past to migrate to the United States in order to flee a Europe corrupted by the very mixture of state religion and politics. That the same debilitating corruption is coming back in the contemporary U.S. should be a concern to all.

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and can be reached at rodrigue.tremblay@ He is the author of the book 'The New American Empire'. Visit his blog site at

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