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Religion and the State

EuropeRome And Revelation., The Islamic Caliphate., Christian Europe: The Middle Ages., Christian Europe: The Reformation.

In order to discuss religion and the state, the demarcation between the two must be clear, which leads to the postulation of distinct and potentially conflicting purposes. For most of the world's cultures at most times, a separation of political and religious goals was simply unimaginable. In social systems such as ancient Egypt's and Japan's, where the supreme leader was accorded the status of a deity, the fusion of the religious and the political was seamless. Obedience to the divine and to the ruler could not meaningfully be distinguished, and a heavenly mandate alone determined who should command. Likewise, in urbanized polities such as the classical Greek polis or the Roman Republic, performance of one's public duties included a clearly religious dimension, and priestly offices were civil in origin and nature. When Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) was tried and convicted by an Athenian jury in 399 B.C.E. on the charge of "not recognizing the gods that the city recognizes," this was an overtly political crime inasmuch as disrespect to the local deities meant undermining the traditional arrangements that characterized Athenian civil order. To "invent new gods," as Socrates was further accused of doing, violated the shared bases of citizenship.

The historical division between religion and politics that leads to the problem of their proper ordering and relation emerges only in coincidence with the phenomenon of divine revelation, and hence only with the so-called Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religions that rest on a direct relationship between individual human beings and a deity effectively circumvent the monopoly of spiritual authority claimed by the state and its authorized priestly agents. Hence God's revelation may contradict or contravene political commands, generating a conflict that requires resolution. One solution to the dilemma is for the state to adopt some form of tolerance for the revelation claimed by members of a religious group. An alternative is to engage in widespread persecution and repression of religious communities that assert the precedence of God's word over earthly legal command. Another alternative might be the complete co-opting of the religion by the state, which then claims divine right.

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