III. The State, Politics and Social Forces.
3.2. The Politics of Cultural Pluralism.
Howard Handelman, The Challenge of Third World Development, chapter 3 “Religion and Politics” pp.
68 – 105
The meeting of church and state
In most developing countries, religion and politics are still very closely linked. Religion is firmly embed in
Third World cultures, even more than in developed countries. It is so central to traditional values that
we often identify national or regional cultures by their predominant religion. This blending of religion
and politics is most apparent in theocratic states (political states dominated by religious leaders and
Great religions in the Third World
There are four:
- Catholicism (Philippines; Latin America)
- Islam (Asia; Middle East; Africa)
- Buddhism (East Asia; Southeast Asia; parts of South Asia)
- Hinduism (India; Nepal; Bangladesh; Indonesia; Sri Lanka; Pakistan; Malaysia)
There are three other religions present in the Third World: Protestantism, Confucianism and Christian
Orthodox. Given the minority they concern, the chapter focuses on the four main ones listed previously.
None of the Third World’s major religions is monolithic. The Catholic Church comes closest.
Buddhism has two major schools, Theravada (“Way of Elders”) and Mahayana (“Great Vehicle). Doctrinal
differences in non-hierarchical religions, such as Buddhism, have rarely provoked political conflict or
violence, but elsewhere, particularly in several Muslim countries, clashes between contending
branches of the same religion has often been intense and violent. The most important division within
Islam is between its two major branches, Sunnis and Shi’ites. Currently, 85/90% of the world’s 1.5 billion
Muslims are Sunnis, while the Shi’ites account for 10/15%. Other religions that lack such formal divisions
may still have competing theological or ideological perspectives.
Religion, modernity, and secularization
What is the impact of religion on modernity? In the realm of politics, it is assumed that the intrusion of
religious institutions into government impedes the development of a modern state.
Other analysts linked Catholic, Islamic and Hindu beliefs to authoritarian values.
The argument that political modernization requires secularization has two bases, an empirical and a
- Empirical: as Western countries became more and more modernized, they necessarily became
secularized as well. Both church and state stopped interfering in each other’s realm.
- Normative: secularization is not only a common trend, but it is also desirable because it increases
religious freedom, reduces the likelihood of state persecution of religious minorities and permits
the state to make more rational decisions free of religious bias.
The assumption that religion necessarily impedes on a state’s modernization is, however, not entirely true.
In fact, modernization frequently has precipitated a religious backlash when pursued too rapidly.
At an individual level, many people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East have defied the notion that more
educated and professionally trained citizens will be less religiously orthodox.
Church-state relationships are more varied and complex than early development theory had assumed.
Clearly, some religious influences contradict accepted norms of modernity, as when they induce
political leaders to violate the rights of religious minorities. Similarly, many religiously inspired
restrictions on women are clearly antithetical to modernization. But is a strict wall between politics and
Structural and theological bases of church-state relations
The political impact of the Third World’s four major religions differs. Two factors help define a particular
religion’s political involvement:
- Theological views (regarding the relationship between temporal and spiritual matters)
- The degree to which its clergy are hierarchically organized and centrally controlled
Donald Smith: there are two types of religio-political systems:
- The organic system: weak or nonexistent religious hierarchy; clergy unorganized as a religious
institution and less able to influence the political system and/or leader(s); e.g. of such systems are
Buddhism and Hinduism.
- The church system: well organized ecclesiastical structure; have leader(s) who can exercise
considerable influence over a political system/leader(s); e.g. Catholic Church and Islam.
The political leadership recognizes the supremacy of the Islamic law. Because religious Muslims believe
that God wants them to live in a community governed in accordance with the Koran, the concept of
separating church and state is alien to most Islamic nations. The ultimate political authority is restricted
John Esposito: there are three types of Islamic regimes –
- The secular state: offers no specific status of society; “freedom of religion”; emancipates women.
Turkey = most notable example of secular state.
- The Islamic state: Islamic states are based on the Koran and Islamic law. They can be of four
different types: Sunni (Saudi Arabia); Shi’a (Iran); anti-Western (Iran and Sudan); pro-Western
- The Muslim state, such as Egypt and Morocco. Intermediate position on church-state relations.
Head of state must be Muslim, Islam = official religion, but general impact on political life = minor.
Well-defined hierarchical structure enabling it to have considerable impact on the political system. Pope =
head of the religious system. Unchallenged religious authority; whose matters of faith and opinions are
accepted as infallible. Papal declarations = considerable political importance. Catholicism was once the
state religion in a number of Latin American countries. Church doctrine usually supports the established
political regime and may even help legitimize it. However, there have been periodic clashes between the
church and the state, mostly regarding education and the violation of human rights.
Hinduism and Buddhism.
Usually less directly involved in politics than Catholicism and Islam have been.
Hindu social values, including the caste system, have significantly affected Indian and Nepalese
politics. But given that the religion is very diverse with no centralized, hierarchical structure, it has no
formal political voice.
Buddhism, though greatly influenced by Hinduism, rejects one of its basic tenets, the caste system. One
of its great appeals is its egalitarian outlook. Buddhism differs from Hinduism in that it has an organized
ecclesiastical organization. But, then again, given it is much less centralized than Islam or Catholicism, it
is less able to impact the political system.
Moreover, both these religions are less inclined to political involvement, and their emphasis is much more
on temporal and spiritual matters.
Religious fundamentalism and Islamism
Islamic fundamentalism is the expression of religious influence on Third World politics that has
attracted most attention, fear and loathing since the 1980s. There are many outlooks on this, especially
Howard handelman, the challenge of third world development, chapter 3 religion and politics pp. In most developing countries, religion and politics are still very closely linked. Third world cultures, even more than in developed countries. It is so central to traditional values that we often identify national or regional cultures by their predominant religion. This blending of religion and politics is most apparent in theocratic states (political states dominated by religious leaders and institutions). Buddhism (east asia; southeast asia; parts of south asia) Hinduism (india; nepal; bangladesh; indonesia; sri lanka; pakistan; malaysia) There are three other religions present in the third world: protestantism, confucianism and christian. Given the minority they concern, the chapter focuses on the four main ones listed previously. None of the third world"s major religions is monolithic. Buddhism has two major schools, theravada ( way of elders ) and mahayana ( great vehicle).