"Reflections on Politics and Religion"

Robert S. Wood

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall 2009)


1 Comment



Note: This talk was presented to the BYU Tocqueville Society on 9 October 2009, and has been abridged.

           “Politics and religion” is really an interesting subject. In my experience when people considered the involvement of religion in politics they thought that it was either irrelevant or dangerous. I still remember when I was a first year graduate student at Harvard University, and studied with a  very famous American political scientist by the name of V.O. Key, a native of Arkansas. I remember he gave a lecture one day and saying, “I want to tell you that religion in this country is largely irrelevant to the political process and will become even more so as the years go by.” I went up to him afterwards and said, “Professor Key, you have spent entirely too much time here in Cambridge and too little time in Arkansas. I can assure you that religion is not irrelevant to the political process in this country and it’s likely to become more relevant.” He replied, “We’ll see.” Well he’s dead, and when I pass through the veil I’m going to tell him, “I told you so.” Professor Key thought religion was basically a non-starter in domestic politics.

           Now in more recent times, many tend to think of religion in politics as dangerous. Some consider it dangerous because of the aftermath of Roe vs. Wade.  That decision of the Supreme Court ultimately gave rise to a great coalition of Catholics and Evangelicals, which became a very powerful force in American politics.  For those who disagree with their point of view and engagement in politics, this coalition seemed very dangerous.

           On an international level the impact of religious sentiment struck some as even more dangerous when several airplanes were deliberately crashed into two buildings in New York City and the Pentagon.   We began to hear a lot about the dangers of radical Islam.

           Irrelevant, dangerous, or normal, let’s begin by putting the relation between religion and politics in perspective.  Religion and politics are now and always have been inextricably linked. It could not be otherwise. Politics is not only concerned with how power is acquired and maintained, how  the political community is ordered, and how the benefits of that community are distributed, but, as Plato and Aristotle pointed out a very long time ago, Politics with a capital “P” necessarily raises the question of justice--which is to say, what is proper for man? What are the ends or objectives of man and therefore what are the objectives of the political community? Now once you begin to think about these issues, you’ve just entered the area of religion, as well as politics. You remember what we read in Micah--it’s a question that every single prophet, ancient and modern has posed: “Oh man, what is good and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8) And the Lord declared to Jeremiah, “Thus saith the Lord; Execute ye judgment and righteousness and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood.” (Jeremiah 22:3)

           As Latter-day Saints we have declared in our most sacred canon, that governments are instituted of God for the benefit of man and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them. Moreover, institutionally as a church we have certain vital interests that must be established or maintained  if the mission of the Church is to be realized, including the freedom of conscience, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the right to propagate the gospel, the right to order our internal policies, procedures, and religious practices, and to insure that the communities in which we live will be morally healthy (which is to say, to reflect certain family and personal values which we believe are critical for the propagation of the gospel and are essential for the viability of any free community). So the church institutionally and necessarily has an interest in the political sphere because it affects even our mission as the Latter-day kingdom. Now for this reason, the Lord has commanded us to befriend those laws and constitutional charters that, as it says in the Doctrine & Covenants, support principles of freedom, in maintaining rights and privileges belonging to all mankind and is justifiable before God.

           As to our respective duties toward the temporal order and the eternal order, the Lord perhaps said it best, “Render unto Caesar, that which belongs to Caesar and render unto God that which belongs to God.” Now as I have commented many times, that doesn’t really answer the question as to our precise duties, but it does pose the problem as to what the delineation between those things that belong to Caesar and those things that belong to God are and what is the appropriate interaction between them. 

           With this general introduction, let us consider three issues: first, civilization and religion, second, the secular state and secularism, and, third, identity politics. So I am going to range beyond the American sphere and look at the whole problem of politics on a somewhat more global and historical basis.

           Arnold Toynbee, a great British historian, published just prior to and after World War II ten and ultimately twelve volumes called A Study of History. And in those twelve volumes, he said that the most fruitful unit of analysis for historians should be not the state, nor the local political community, nor the individual, but civilization itself. He said civilizations ultimately shape the local political communities and the state and most critically the kinds of questions that people ask and the answers they give.   He identified twenty-one higher civilizations, as he called them, six of which are still in existence today, the rest having passed into history. In recent years a professor at Harvard University, Samuel Huntington, recently deceased, took up the same notion of civilization and talked about what he called a clash of civilizations, that is to say, where different civilizations would rub up against each other and ultimately come into conflict.  What is it that distinguishes civilizations that might lead to conflicts?

           In all twenty-one cases that Toynbee identified, he said that every one of them was founded on religious conviction. Religion, said Toynbee, has been the foundation of all civilizations up to this point. Now that doesn’t mean that over time people are faithful. They may become highly secularized in their attitudes, such as Western Civilization to a large degree has become. Fundamentally, he argued, as did Professor Huntington, even our secularized societies have been shaped by certain Judeo-Christian questions and certain Judeo-Christian answers.  Whether we know it or not, they literally suffuse everything we think or say even though we may be highly secular in our attitudes. 

           The questions that civilizations ask are: What is the relationship between God and man? What is the relationship between a parent and a child? What is the relationship between a man and a woman? What is the relationship between rights and responsibilities? What is the relationship between the individual and the community? And which has priority over the other? If you get into those kinds of questions you are in the world of politics whether you realize it or not. Those are the most fundamental kinds of questions you can ask. And different civilizations come up with different answers. It was for that reason that Samuel Huntington argued that there would be a clash. To the degree that those questions remain vibrant and vital, in, say, the Islamic civilization or the Western Judeo-Christian based civilization, as long as those questions remain vital, there is bound to be some tension because these are not simple questions—and the answers have vast political consequences.

           Generally politicians prefer to be able to bargain and to split the difference. Even American political scientists think that way. They often believe that political activities can be so ordered and even numbered as to be divisible.  Often, however you can neither quantify nor split the difference.  Consensus may be elusive because fundamental questions with fundamentally different answers are being posed.  Lurking behind many political debates are great questions and answers implicit in the foundations of civilizations themselves.     

           Consider for a moment one particular issues not unrelated to civilizational values—the secular state and secularism.

           How many of you believe that “secular” is a bad word? The fact of the matter is that the word “secular” covers a host of virtues and vices. Let’s distinguish between the secular state and secularism. The United States is a secular state, by which is meant that ultimately the state will allow all religious expressions and most religious practices. But these activities do not in effect control the state itself. That’s what freedom of conscience means and that’s what “no establishment of religion” means.  Ultimately the state transcends different beliefs and different religious practices. It neither prescribes nor proscribes.  In a large sense, this is what defines a free state.

           There are, however, even among free states, different models of the secular state.  Let me note but two.  These are the American model and the French model. The American model has always been that there is nothing particularly wrong about making in the public square or civic forum a statement or asserting an interest arising from ones religious values.  Everyone is coming from somewhere. If you are a Latter-day-Saint, you have Latter-day Saint values that shape your political perspective. If you’re Catholic or a Jew, it’s the same thing. If you aren’t any of the above, you’re still coming from somewhere, and the American attitude has been—just go ahead and express it.  Ultimately however, you must convince others that your policy preference is good for others, even from different traditions and points of view.   In a free society, you must broaden the dialogue in a way that you convince others.  “Only by persuasion…”

           Whatever your religious, non-religious, or anti-religious perspective, one you enter the public arena in a free society, political arguments must be compelling to others on ground other than a particular religious authority.   But this is not about suppressing the fact that you are Mormon or a Catholic or an atheist or whatever you might be: basically you are free however to express where you are coming from. But you try to express it in a way that you get agreement from those who are not members with the same point of view.

           From an American point of view that’s a viable and a vital secular state. Today, alas, some people in our country are uncomfortable with the statement of any religious conviction in the public arena and would like to suppress the ability to state where you are coming from. They have a different model in mind, and that model is France. The French model of secularism is quite different. France is a free state—it  does have freedom of religion--but it has a strong belief that religious convictions should not be stated in a public forum at all, nor should religious symbols be shown in the public forum.  Basically once you enter the public forum, you leave behind you your religious attachments. This conception comes out of the French traditions that are strongly anti-clerical.  The French Revolutionaries saw the Catholic Church as being an opponent of the revolution itself and so ever since the French revolution the French concept of the secular state is one hostile to religious symbolism, conviction, or argumentation within the public sphere. After World War I, that model was adopted by Ataturk for the newly formed Turkey.  He did not adopt the American model because, for him, if you allowed religious symbolism and convictions to be expressed in the public sphere, the Islamic faith would dominate everything and would lead to an Islamic regime hostile to modernity and inclusion. So he basically said there will be no religious symbolism in the public square and you will not use religious arguments whatsoever. Now of course Turkey today is governed by an explicitly-designed Islamic party, but the Turkish army sees itself as the protector of the secular Turkish constitution and keeps “wagging its finger at the leadership, saying, “Do not go too far in your religious convictions.” With the Islamic revival and radicalization of some of the population, however, the attempt to keep all religious elements out of the public forum may prove to be counterproductive.  There is growing a disjuncture between the state and the constitution, on the one hand, and many of the people, on the other.

           Have you ever noticed that people who say, “I want to be different,” want a lot of people to join them in their difference?!  I’ve never known anyone who really wanted to be different alone. Human beings are natural proselytizers: we like to organize into groups, If you say to a whole group of people, “Well, you can’t do that in politics.  You can’t bring your religious convictions into the political sphere,” you build up enormous pressures such as are found in Turkey today. Even in France, with a large Muslim population, the traditional notion of the secular state is creating real tensions. Can women wear the scarf over their heads when they are in public? The French have sought to suppress that.  Why?  Because it’s a religious symbol.

           The key question is how to preserve freedom of conscience, religious expression, speech, and assembly.  Can this be done, as the French have believed, by removing religious expression from the public square or by allowing such expression within an atmosphere of tolerance and of constitutional prohibition of the establishment of a state religion, which, at least historically, has been the American stance. There are altogether difference approaches as well, such as in Indonesia—but the crucial question remains:  how to accommodate in a free society strong religious attachments, affections, and values within the public square.    

           There are many people in this country who would like us to adopt the French model and to not allow expressions of religious feelings within the public sphere because they think it dangerous to allow that to happen. I would argue it would be dangerous to suppress it. In fact, it needs to be in the open and expressed.

           Secularism is different than a secular state. Secularism is a society emptied of religious meaning and conviction and symbols. It in fact is a form of atheism. It is an attempt to empty the religious content out of society and there are substantial and influential groups of people in all Western societies who basically think that should be the case. There were two groups of people who believed that society was going to automatically become secular anyway because of the forces of history. Karl Marx was one of them. He said, “The logic of the economy will ultimately empty any religious conviction out of society.” The other group who believe that are the nineteenth century style liberals. That’s V.O. Key, my professor. He believed that as we get more scientific, as we become more involved with the market, that economic and scientific calculations would ultimately empty society of any basic or important religious convictions or symbolism. Both Karl Marx and the 19th century liberals are wrong. They were wrong when they wrote it and they are wrong today. In fact, going back to Toynbee’s point, religion is just part of the warp and woof of who we are. People ask fundamental questions and they believe there are fundamental forces which transcend any society. Some wish to change the character of American society in order to empty it of religious conviction? This would be an historical tragedy.

           Have you heard the expression, “the American science of politics”? The founding fathers believed that the great experiment we were engaged in at the time of the American Revolution and the development of the Constitution was to develop a set of political institutions and practices that were separate from those of Europe. It was a new American science of politics. What they meant was a society where rights would not pertain to groups but to individuals. Now individuals have the right to organize into groups, but groups per se have no rights. Only individuals have rights. Individuals also must have the freedom of conscience, the freedom to hold property, the freedom to engage in free commerce, and the right to organize.  If you are Calvinist or a Catholic, or member of any other group, that collective distinction holds within it no political rights whatsoever, but as an individual you are a carrier of fundamental and in some cases inalienable rights.  That was the classic approach that they felt was fundamentally different from the way which Europeans saw and practiced politics in the 18th century.

           Having said that, the world right now, looking beyond the United States, is, generally speaking, using religious convictions and symbols to define who they are and they are doing it terms of groups. As I said earlier, politics is much easier if the issue is territory, or an increase in my social security check, or reduction in Medicare payments, or whatever other area where one can split the difference. But if the question you are asking is, “who am I and who are you?”, then we have got serious problems. If in fact I say, “I am Muslim and you are not, and society ought to be based upon Islamic law, not simply Islamic law as it shapes the public debate, but Islamic law as the foundation of the state itself,” then you’ve got a serious conflict brewing. By the way, it doesn’t have to be Muslims. It can be Christians, it can be anybody who in effect says, “I’m a Christian and this society should be organized according to my Christian convictions solely and it will be enforced in law.”

           I’ve often said that—and I’m speaking figuratively—my neighbors do a lot of things with which I disagree, but in a free society, if I’m going to be free to do what I believe is right, I’ve got to leave my neighbors largely free to do what I think they should not do, but have the right to do. Now there are limits defined by public safety, health, and the basic moral tenor of society, but a free society requires a high degree of tolerance, not only on the part or the majority but the minority as well. 

           So we allow a wide range of behavior and thinking in a free society. However, if you are engaged in identity politics, you are not likely to think this way. You want to organize society according to your deepest convictions and everybody else should also organize themselves that way because you would enforce it in law. This is not a new thing. If you decided in the beginning of the Reformation you wanted to move to Geneva, and you did not happen to agree with the Calvinist principles, the chances you were going to get dunked in Lac LeMans and drown was very high. In fact I’ve often in jest expressed and explained the westward migration in those terms. Many years ago in England they said, “Look, the church and the government of England--love it or leave it.” So those who didn’t love it left, they went to Massachusetts Bay Colony, and what did they do there? Well they established their own little intolerant community. “Massachusetts Bay colony-- you love it or leave it.” So people like Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson, didn’t agree so they left it, went down and established the colony of Rhode Island--but what did they do? Ultimately they established their own little intolerant community. So those who were more different kept moving west until the most different people in America ended up in California. I think the empirical evidence for that is just overwhelming!!

           The fact of the matter is, it’s very difficult to live in a society where we let people be different. And you’re not going to be able to do that if you insist on organizing the political community in terms of your identity. That’s the basis of that great discussion we have, “is this a Christian state?” I would argue the answer is no. We are a Christian society. Most of our values have been heavily influenced by Christian values, Christian philosophy (largely Protestant) but the fact of the matter is, we are a Christian society in our fundamental values to this day. But the state, as Adams and Jefferson themselves would have insisted, is not a Christian state: it is truly a secular state which allows and in some sense even favors a Christian society, expecting Christians to be engaged in politics--but the state itself can accommodate a wide variety of beliefs. That has been the ideal, although it hasn’t always been practiced. We as Latter-day Saints know that. That has been the ideal of the American science of politics.

           But identity politics is something quite different and it’s that which led to Professor Huntington’s thesis of the clashes of civilizations, a thesis very misunderstood. He argued that after the Cold War, the issues of politics were likely to change. In the early state period they were defined basically by a struggle between states. After the French Revolution, international politics was increasingly defined as a struggle between peoples and nationalities. In the 20th century, after the First World War, it was a struggle of ideological belief—Fascism, Communism, Capitalism. He argued that with the end of that clash, that civilization as the ultimate identity would reassert itself. People would increasingly define themselves in terms of a civilization and the religious civilization from which they came. Since we live in a world of massive migration and movement, people will bump up against each other and that is going to give rise to conflict. For instance (and he argued this before it happened), Huntington suggested that Yugoslavia would be the first place that would take place. Yugoslavia was a state held together by an ideology and by political power under Tito but ultimately it was a state divided into Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims. Not that anybody was very devout. Go to Northern Ireland as well, the people who fought in Northern Ireland were not devout Catholics and they were not devout Protestants, but they were different than those people over there who came from a Catholic or Protestant tradition. It’s interesting that civilizational identity lasts long beyond the conviction that gave rise to it. So it was in Yugoslavia, and if you do happen to be in a period of religious revival as we are in the world of Islam, that means that religious revival is itself a formula for conflict.

           An interesting study bears this out: I was recently reading a report on Utah. Utah is a very religious state. Have you noticed that? It’s not only Mormons. The study I read indicates that Catholics are more Catholic here, Protestants are more Protestant here, Evangelicals are more Evangelical here, and Jews are more Jewish here. Why? Because the Mormons are very Mormon in Utah, and therefore if you wish a separate identity you have to identify yourself much more strongly than you would have to do if you were a Jew living in Scarsdale. You would be very casual there, but not in Utah. Why? Because John Jones, the Mormon is very devout, Frank Smith is going to be a much stronger Episcopalian than he ever was in Rhode Island.  And so it is with many groups.  Now that is not identity politics per se, but it does delineate lines much more clearly.  And that may help us understand a lot of what’s happening in the world today.

           India tried to solve this problem of identity, first of all, after World War II when many of the Muslims went into another state called Pakistan. But the fact is, many Muslims were still within India, so what the government did was to draw state boundaries according to religious orientation.  So Indian states are largely Hindi or Muslim, with most being Hindi states. What does that do for people who are Christians or Sikhs? You know which group of people are the most discriminated against in India? Christians and Sikhs. Why? Because they have no territorial foundation, and the Indian government demarcated the state along territorial foundations supporting different identities.

           Interestingly enough, it’s among people who are marginalized where the greatest conversions come from. It’s true across the board. People who in their own society are already a minority and have been marginalized to some degree, are more subject to conversion--if you are Sikh to Christianity, or if you are a lower caste in India you are also more likely to convert to Christianity. That’s true even if you look at the United States, where the great conversions are coming from people who are not fully integrated into American society. They are immigrants to a large degree. That is true in many societies.

           So one approach to identity is to accommodate it territorially. Another approach is seen in Lebanon, where they simply divide up the offices of power between the Shiite, Sunni, and the Christians--according to a pre-World War II census. They are scared to death to take a new census in Lebanon. Why? Because the balance among the groups has changed and that could upset the political formula for dividing up the positions of president, the prime minister, and the speaker of the house.  If they did a population check they’d probably find that Lebanon is predominately Shiite. It could create all kinds of problems, therefore, let’s not count.

           Do you ever read in the papers about controversy over the census in this country? You think that a census is benign? It’s one of the most political acts that can take place. Go back to Caesar Augustus: And they all went to be taxed….What that meant was that they all went to be counted so they could be taxed. And public benefits in this country are distributed according to the size and distribution of groups. So censuses are important, particularly when you are in the world of identity politics.

           To reiterate, historically, the American approach to politics has been the following: we as a state allow a diversity of beliefs—if you will, a free marketplace of beliefs—which to say you can believe and associate any way you want as long as it is lawful, and you can affiliate or disaffiliate at will. Proselytism is built in to the American political system just like competition is built into the American market system. But rights are based not on your status as a Mormon or a Catholic or a Protestant but on your status as an individual. And that will allow you to organize and assemble into groups. And, historically, that system will allow religious expression/symbols to be expressed.

           One of the great contemporary debates is over the issue of multiculturalism. If multiculturalism is nothing more than eating pizza or Mexican food or having Polish dances, or having an Irish festival and then a parade, it is no big deal. But, if multiculturalism means that the state must protect your language, your history, your customs, and grant you special benefits and rights because you belong to that group--if you are doing that, then you are transforming the nature of American society and American politics. The debate over multiculturalism has nothing to do with the diversity of groups.  It has to do with whether or not the groups will receive a special and protected status.  There is one country in North America that has done just that. Which country is that? Canada. “French” Canada is written into the constitution. There are some groups that argue that various ethnic or linguistic or other groups should be given protected status within the United States.  Understand that such proposals raise fundamental questions as to the nature of American politics and may well affect even the status of religion in American life.

           Religion in politics—certainly not irrelevant, at times dangerous, but always important!


Full Citation for This Article: Wood, Robert S. (2009) "Reflections on Politics and Religion," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleWoodReligionPolitics.html, accessed [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 300 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 1 Comment

1) Nathan Nielson, January 2011

LDS Public Affairs just published on our Newsroom website a new commentary called “Religious Values in the Public Square.” It recognizes the need for robust civic virtues, promotes civic cooperation, acknowledges pluralism, as well as degrees and variations in secularism, and encourages a thoughtful approach to political neutrality in the Church. I have a feeling you might find it interesting and helpful in your own publishing venture, Square Two.