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Updated June 2011  

Why is religion so important in modern political matters?

Historically, religion has always been associated with government and politics. Much of the history of the Western world involves the influence of Catholicism and, subsequently, the Protestant schisms. Similarly, the history of the Near East and parts of Southern Asia have been characterized by the spread and influence of Islam. Hinduism which incorporates a belief in a caste social structure has profoundly affected Indian history and presents significant challenges to modern development on that subcontinent. The first settlers to the U.S. arrived primarily because of religious motivations.

The interconnection between religion and government is inevitable because in varying degrees both institutions are involved in regulating social behavior.

In reality, religion has been less influential during the past half century. Modern governments, especially in the developed world, have been profoundly influenced by Democratic principles which emphasize the importance of the common man and a sharing of the world's resources. These ideas continue to shape modern society in a variety of ways the emerging status of women is but one prominent example. In addition, technology has radically altered the nature of life and work. Traditional religious systems, which tend to promise a reward in the next life to compensate for the limited potential and hardships of life, may have gradually become less relevant.

Recently, though, the United States has been profoundly affected by two important religious-based political phenomena. As the military leader of the Western world, the U.S. has been targeted by Muslim extremists who are bitterly opposed to many Western values perhaps the most important being the open displays of sexual imagery which dominate Western films, television programming and advertising. In addition, the past President George W. Bush was very receptive to what he describes as "faith based" initiatives and at least some of his political success can be attributed to his religious beliefs. Indeed, there has been a signifficant partisan divide between as reflected by the last three Presidential elections.  (Click to see chart)    In 2004, those who regularly attend church regularly voted primarily for Bush.

Why is religion on the rise?

It is not. From a global perspective, the trend toward secularism continues.

Generally, the more advanced the economy, the less importance the public gives to religion.  (Click to see map)   In most developed countries, only a small minority of adults attend church regularly.    Today, only a minority of British people believe in the existence of God, a drop from 77% in 1968.  (Click to see chart)

While it is true that Islam is the fastest growing world religion, there is every reason to believe that religion will become less a factor if real economic development accelerates in the Muslim countries. Although Iran, for example, reverted to an intensely religious government after ousting the tyrannical and secular Shah, there is considerable internal pressure within Iranian society to modernize particularly by providing appropriate status to women.

The trend toward secularization has not been nearly as pronounced in the United States. Regular church attendance began to substantially dip in the 1960's and early 1970's but it now has rebounded to levels approaching the post-World War 2 period although statistics on attendance vary as respondents tend to overestimate their attendance.   Other measures of religious fervor are less indicative of this trend. Only a slight majority of Americans now consider religion "very important" in their lives, down from 70% in the 1960's.

The importance of religion in U.S. culture is greatest among the youngest and oldest adults.    Generally, religion has more appeal to Americans who are less educated but the educational differences are not dramatic.   Religion has far more serious adherents in the American South.

The reasons for difference between the United States and other developed countries in the frequency of church attendance are unclear. As in the case of Ireland and Poland (countries with even higher levels of church attendance), religion in the United States may have strong cultural roots dating from the original arrival of religious settlers. The correlation between the comparative level of economic inequality and religiosity in the U.S. and other developed countries  is perhaps coincidental, but nonetheless remarkable. The level of "social fear", perhaps media driven, appears to be higher in the United States and there is a statistical association between public fear and the importance of religion.    The relative mobility of the American work force may be a factor as people choose churches as a vehicle for developing a sense of community. Prompted by zealous advertisers in a largely unregulated broadcast media, the U.S. has engaged in a "culture of consumption" to a greater degree than in other developed countries. One consequence has been greater pursuit of pleasure-seeking behaviors such as substance abuse and an excessive focus on sexual matters. Many Americans may turn to religion either to recover from these influences or as a defense against them.

Although the level of church attendance in the United States remains high, there have been some changes in the demographic makeup of church-goers. As in Europe and Canada, large numbers of Americans particularly upper middle class Americans have abandoned the religious traditions of their parents and no longer attend church regularly. Their numbers have been replaced by the "born again" converts who did not come from church going families. Many have turned to religion for help with substance abuse problems. In addition, the U.S. has experienced a new wave of immigration (primarily Hispanic immigration) during the last twenty years. Churches may be an important cultural refuge for these new entrants.

What about the separation of church and state?

The concept of separation of church and state does not mean that churches should not have influence in public affairs. Rather, it is associated with the idea that governments should not favor one particular religion over other belief systems.

Because America was in part founded by ostracized religious sects fleeing from the dominance of the Church of England, it was important that the U.S. founding fathers prohibit the establishment of a state sponsored religion. This was the motivation for the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment.

In the modern world, the concept of religious freedom has broad international support. Beginning with the 1948 adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and continuing with the nearly global ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the nations of the world have affirmed the principle that governments have a fundamental responsibility to protect freedom of religion. With the exception of several Islamic countries, most notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, there is little institutional interconnection between religion and civil authority. Only a distinct minority of countries have an officially designated "state religion"  and in many of these countries the concept only has historical and traditional relevance. The U.S. State Department issues an annual report which monitors international violations of religious freedom which can occur either through governmental interference with all religious activity or excessive governmental preference for a particular religion.

The absence of institutional integration between church and state does not mean that religions are unconcerned about state matters. In most countries, marriage is recognized as both a religious and civil concept. In many, including the U.S., civil marriage registration is incorporated into the religious ceremony. Religious considerations affect many issues which confront modern governments such as the death penalty, stem cell research, same sex marriage, divorce policy, and abortion. In recent history, religious activism has also been an instrument for advocating reforms in totalitarian governments. For example, the late Pope John Paul II was instrumental in supporting the Polish Catholic opposition to Communist Poland. Catholic missionaries in Central America have been instrumental in pressing for social justice in those countries.

In the U.S. today, there is widespread political involvement by churches on the political/social issues of abortion and gay rights. Many analysts credit religious organizing efforts which focused on these issues for delivering the key state of Ohio to President Bush in 2004, thereby accomplishing his reelection.

When polled, Americans are ambivalent regarding the role that religion should have in governmental matters. By a narrow majority, they believe it is appropriate for religions to express their positions on issues but a sizeable majority believes that religions should refrain from endorsing candidates.    In addition emst believe that politicians should not legislate their religious beliefs  and that such beliefs should be a private matter.

Yet Americans strongly support the symbolic linking of Christianity to government even though such linkage does not reflect the belief systems of everyone. The public overwhelmingly opposes the recent court decision which held that the phrase "under God" should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance  and also supports the display of religious statues such as one commemorating the "Ten Commandments" in government buildings.    Despite its judicial prohibition, Americans continue to support daily prayer in public school classrooms   but efforts to create a constitutional amendment to support this practice have foundered.

Beyond these symbolic issues, there is an indirect governmental support for religion in a variety of ways. A full 40% of charitable contributions in 2007 were religious in nature  and even larger contributions are for educational, health related and social services programs operated by churches. Churches and church schools are exempt from property taxes virtually everywhere. The emerging school-voucher practice amounts to a government subsidy of many church-administered primary schools. Religious higher education institutions are partially subsidized through the issuance of government-guaranteed student loans.

A current major controversy regarding the church/state relationship concerns the increasing participation of religious groups in the administration of federally-funded social service programs the so-called "charitable choice" policy. Traditionally, churches have been reluctant to accept government funds because of concerns that they would be required to accept non-church members as employees. But in 1996, welfare reform legislation included provisions which encouraged churches to participate in the job training of welfare recipients. According to one study, these church-based programs are able to assist more clients for less money than other programs, while providing a more holistic level of service.

In a largely partisan 2003 vote, the House extended this type of funding for faith-based programs and included a provision which permits these programs to favor church participants in hiring decisions.   Although this law prohibits the use of federal grant money for "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization," it does not bar religious organizations from including in federally funded programs religious activities that are paid for with private funds. In fact, the provision states that religious organizations who receive funding retain control over the definition, development, practice, and expression of their religious beliefs and may continue to display religious art, icons, scripture, or other symbols in rooms where they deliver funded services.

In February 2004, the President issued an Executive Order earmarking $3.7 billion to be issued to faith-based and other organizations for a variety of social service programs. The constitutionality of "charitable choice", especially the hiring provisions, has yet to be judicially reviewed.

This increased funding for religion-based groups accompanies proposed deep cuts for many traditional anti-poverty programs. The result is that many small church- and community- based social service programs are slowly assuming the lead role in the war on poverty once held by long-established community development organizations.

What are the world's major religions and how do they differ?

Religion in the modern world is dominated by Christianity and Islam, both of which share an ancestry with Middle East Judaism. It is indeed fascinating that these religions, which began in such a small and remote area, could have so quickly and universally spread throughout most of the world

Today, there is a consistent geographic pattern in the distribution of the world's religions which crosses national borders.    In terms of the number of believers, Christianity has the most global adherents, followed by Islam.   But primarily due to comparative geographic birth rates, the number of Islam adherents is increasing steadily.   

Among Christians, the number of Protestants is increasing at the expense of Catholics.   The U.S. remains overwhelmingly Christian although the percentage of the population indicating this preference has dropped from over 90% to about 80% since 1990.

The world's religions are similar in the sense that they all provide their believers with a spiritual life purpose. Religions generally include a concept of a life after death, the nature of which will be governed by the believer's adherence to religious dictates in the current life. These "life rules" are remarkably consistent in various religions and usually reinforce the prevailing cultural/social expectations regarding personal behavior. Most prominent is an emphasis on marriage and family and the individual's adherence to the family duties and responsibilities.

Religions do differ in the manner in which they interact with the political order. Buddhism is a more spiritual and personal life philosophy and has comparatively less interconnection with the political systems of the Asian governments where it is prevalent. Hinduism incorporates a harshly discriminatory social philosophy which promotes and justifies class division. On the other hand, it is more of a belief system than an organized religion and thus does not have a significant institutional interaction with government. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, have historically been concerned with political order and government. Today this is particularly true with respect to Islam. In countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, religion is inseparable from the government.

Will the modern secular trend destroy the world's social and spiritual order?

While this is a passionate fear of many clerics and believers worldwide, the answer appears to be no. In fact, there are indications that secularism promises a more unified and advanced spiritual order.

To be sure, religious beliefs generally promote positive personal behaviors which can lead to a sound social morality although the relationship between religious adherence and responsible social behavior is not statistically clear. For example, American Protestants are more likely to divorce than are American atheists or agnostics.    Studies of U.S. prison populations reveal that virtually all prisoners profess to believe in God.

There are aspects to organized religion that are unquestionably destructive to a peaceful and improved social order. The problem is that the fundamentalist sects of Christianity and Islam incorporate a "my way or the highway" belief system accompanied by very competitive evangelism. The result can be an intolerance that severely impairs rational efforts at compromise and instead creates social division and sometimes even violence. The radicals involved in Islamic terrorism are religiously motivated. Likewise there have been acts of domestic religious terrorism directed at doctors who perform abortions, although these acts are very extreme and condemned by all Christian religions. The conflict is not just between the major religions, it often is between sects of the same religion. The ongoing conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq are but two examples. This is not to suggest that all churches promote this attitude. Particularly in the past 50 years, most churches have a developed a more ecumenical outlook which encourages religious tolerance toward the belief systems of others.

The current religious political activism in the U.S. has produced deep divisions in the American electorate. As concerned church-going Americans vigorously support a "pro-life" and anti-gay agenda to the exclusion of other serious governmental concerns, many other Americans recoil in discomfort at these efforts.

The rise in secularism is not necessarily associated with anti-spirituality. Much of modern spiritual and religious thought places great emphasis on matters such as environmental protection, an end to all armed conflicts, and worldwide social, racial and economic justice. These ideas are promoted by many churches who work tirelessly alongside many non-religious individuals who share these goals. An analysis of official church web sites reveals a widespread concern for such issues but not among fundamentalist churches. Most politically active "liberals" or "progressives" are in agreement with the much of the personal moral code prescribed by all religions. But they have additional spiritual issues which are not addressed by and which are in some ways opposed by religious activism.

Those who give little thought to spirituality invariably have little positive interest in the political process or in social morality. To the extent that political efforts are viewed as vehicles for the advancement of the human condition, these are unquestionably spiritual undertakings even when they are not directly associated with religion. There is no indication that Europeans are less interested in such matters in the wake of the significant rise in secularism there. Nor is there any indication that European secularism has led to a rise in anti-social behaviors. On the contrary, European political activists are comparatively prominent in pro-environmental and anti-war causes. Although many might argue that a world with less religion would be a world that is less spiritual, the evidence to date does not support such a conclusion.

Religion Links

ReligiousTolerance.org Excellent statistical and other information regarding world religions

Barna Group Excellent church funded site focused on research regarding American religiousity

Belief.net Extensive links to religious information

Open Directory - Society: Religion and Spirituality

About.com - Religion & Spirituality

Religion refdesk.com

Religion Gateway - Academic Info

World Religions Religion Statistics Geography Church Statistics

American Academy of Religion

BBC - Religion & Ethics - Homepage

Religion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Religious Freedom Page

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Journal of Religion and Society

CrossCurrents Magazine

The Journal of Religion


Federal Funding of Faith- Based Services Although written from a liberal perspective, this article provides a good summary of the development of faith-based initiatives.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

God, Guns and Gays - Religion and Politics in the US and Western Europe. This analysis links religiousity to levels of income inequality.

(click to enlarge)

Presidential Votes By Religion

2004 Vote by Church Attendance

Percentage Who Consider Religion "Very Important" in Selected Countries

Percentage Regularly Attending Church in OECD Countries

Changes in British Religious Beliefs 1968-2004

Percentage of Americans Who Attend Church Frequently

Americans Who Consider Religion "Very Important"

Age Differences in Church Attendance

Educational Difference in Belief in God

Americans Considering Religion "Very Important" by Region

Relationship Between Religion and Economic Inequality in Selected Countries

Weekly Church Attendance Before and After 2001 Terrorist Attacks

Countries With State Sponsored Religions

Countries Where Religious Freedom is a Concern

Public Opinion on Religious Involvement in Political Matters

Should Government Officials Try to Legislate Their Personal Religious Beliefs?

Should Presidential Candidates Discuss Personal Beliefs?

Should Ten Commandments Be Displayed in Government Buildings?

Should Voluntary Prayer Be Allowed in School?

Types of Charitable Giving in 2007 in Billions

Comparison of Welfare to Work Program Efficiency by Organization

Type House Vote To Extend Faith Based Funding

Prevailing Religions in World Countries

World Religious Affiliation

Trends in Distribution of World Religions

Changes in Christian Populations

Changes in Religious Identification in the United States

Percentage of Adults Who Have Been Divorced by Religious Preference