Religion, The State And Sovereignty

The influence of religion on humankind can be traced back to the
first records of history. Religion has served as a pillar of strength
to some and binding chains to others. There are vast amounts of
information and anthropological studies revealing the interaction of
religion and humankind. However, for the purposes of this paper, the
time periods of study will be broken up into three sections. Each
section will give a general description of how religion affected the
institution of the state and its Sovereignty in a Euro-centric
perspective. The first period is the early period, which will encompass
from Christianity and the Roman Empire to the Medieval times (approx.
311 to 1100 A.D.). The second period will include the Renaissance, the
Reformation to the Treaty of Westphalia (1101 to 1648 A.D.). The third
and increment of history will range from 1649 to 1945 A.D.
The date 311 A.D. marks the issuing of the “Edict of Toleration”
for Christians. This date is important because it symbolizes “national”
acceptance of Christianity, and planted its roots as a political
institution. Later the Roman Empire on the verge of internal collapse
acknowledged the importance of Christianity and used it to hold
together the remnants of it former self. This adoption of Christianity
took form and eventually became the Catholic church.

The church became intermingled with politics and became a strong
entity. The policies delivered from the church had more authority than
the local rulers and magistrates of the developing feudal system. For
example, St. Augustine wrote about war and what justified its enactment
against fellow men. This policy was followed and adhered to for
hundreds of years after St. Augustine wrote it.
Another example, is the use of the Bible as a guideline for
establishing governing systems. Scripture portrayed God as choosing the
king of the people. The pope, being God’s “representative” was then
given the authority to crown the king. This crowning process gave the
pope large influence in the political arena. This ritual continued for
a number of centuries.

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The Crusades, which occurred around 1100 A.D., played a crucial
role in challenging the church’s authority. The pope identifying the
spread of Islam as evil requested all of Europe embark on a “Crusade” to
defeat the infidels. As the battles were fought, great treasures were
found in the form of books and knowledge. These books were crude
translations of old Greek texts, containing information which would
eventually produce the waning of Church authority in the future.

The Renaissance marked the beginning of intellectual re-birth.
Writers such as Dante, Machiavelli, Guiarccidini, Vitoria, etc., all
attempting to reform and some even contest church dominance. Dante in
his imaginative work “Inferno” writes of hell which he envision is the
pope’s final destination. Machiavelli takes a more direct role
classifying the actions of a prince to be above morality and ultimately
above the Church. He continues the affront by classifying a human
character of “virtu” as being completely centered around man (humanism).
The Raison D’ Tat is supreme especially in terms of the church

In the middle of the Renaissance, the Church was dealt a deadly
blow from which it would never recover. This assault came via Martin
Luther. His work, “95 Thesis”, marked the beginning of the Reformation.
This movement split the church into Catholic and Protestant sects. It
marked the beginning of a bloody period which virtually split Europe in
half. Examples of the conflict raged between Protestants and Catholics
from the great slaughter of Protestants in Paris 1572 A.D. (7000 dead)
to the Thirty Years War. With the Church in disarray, freedom was given
to the “state” to begin to develop.
During this period of Renaissance the political identity was
going through a tremendous transformation. This transformation took
form in what is called Absolutism. “Princes” began to tolerate less and
less manipulation from the church. The political entity in the form of
monarchy began to wean itself from the Church for its legitimacy and
looked toward its own power.

Other writers began to rise and discuss issues of sovereignty
and the state. Thomas Hobbes discusses the state and refers to it as
“Leviathan” which is the concurring title of his work. Believing man to
be evil, Hobbes fashions his description of the state as the mechanism
to control and harness the capabilities of man. There can be no peace
as long as there is not absolute surrender to reason. The state’s
interest is supreme, as well as, its authority. These ideas were
written in direct opposition to the church and its history. Hobbes
desired a complete refutation of the Church’s influence in government.

Hobbes portrays a state as sovereign. The sovereignty of the
state is in direct relation to its longevity and basic existence.
State sovereignty must be perpetual and supreme. The authority of this
described state would over-shadow the authority of the church.

Continuing historically, the development of the thirty years war
was significant in its unique result.The treaty of Westphelia was the
agreement which not only settled the war, but gave absolute authority to
the sovereign of each individual state. This was accomplished by
granting the sovereign the right to choose which religion he/she desired
and that in turn transferred down to the people. Thus, once again the
authority of the church was restricted, however this time by the
emergence of an institution called the state.

During this period states begin to develop colonies and
exploration of the new world. The discoveries and travel further
challenged church authority. An example of this is the well founded
“scientific” fact that the earth was flat. After such journeys by
Columbus and Magellan, the concept of church’s monopoly on truth was
attacked once again.

The third period in history starts with the age of reason. Its
intellectual basis of the time period is science and natural law.
Empiricism plays a fundamental role in church legitimacy. Factual
concrete proof of God and his work is not provided by science. States
begin to mature politically as colonial powers. The Church or rather
the concept of religion is still strong but begins a transformation
during the Enlightenment. From Religion ideas of morality and natural
law arise.
Locke addresses the role of the government of a state. He
portrays the ideas of a social contract between the people and its
government. He continued by pointing out that the government has a
commitment with the people it must with hold. Locke’s writings also
contained concepts concerning of natural rights which are inherent to
human beings. This developed and identified that power now comes from
the people. These people from which the government is derived and power
(legitimacy) have rights and will be safe-guarded by the people.

The French and American Revolutions harnessed the ideas which
the enlightenment wrote and discussed. The French Revolution
exemplified the early stages of nationalism. Nationalism derives from a
grouping of people who share common cultural and social experiences.
>From nationalism the concept of self-determination is derived.
Phrases like,” We the People. . .” began to show up in constitutions and
declarations, which showed consensus among people with like-minded

The inception of positive law was the last and final blow to the
concept of religion. Positive law is fashioned and codified by man.
The law has replaced the concept of morality. The framework which laws
create make the state and its sovereign powers legitimate and legal.
States no longer operate in terms of what is just but on whether the
legality for the action or jurisdiction have application.

The evolution of the state and its sovereignty is clear. The
Church once being a dominant political factor has been reduced to a mere
whisper of advice. The influence of religion in instituting or in the
elective process of choosing a representative ruler has been severely
minimized. Sovereignty and the institution of the State has surpassed
predestination and Divine Right of Kings.

Category: Religion