Religion and State: Models around the World

Is the state prohibited from advancing any world view which promotes the meaning of life or to preach about how to achieve a better life? Does religion have a place in the education system? If so, how much of a place? Are religious characteristics in the public space emblematic of religious coercion or are they culturally vital? The Theologian and blogger, Dr. Tomer Parsiko takes a look at religion and state models from around the world, and how they are applied in Israel.

Dr. Tomer Persico07.07.15

Since the end of the 18th century, we have witnessed various efforts to separate the religious dimension from the public and political field.  The French Revolution, and then the founding of America were the first two attempts at creating a new and clear relationship, and separation, between them.  Both were done in different ways.  While the United States created a system of clearly leaving religion outside of the state,  yet at the same time maintaining a concern for religious freedom.  The French model, on the other hand, was an all out attack on the institution of religion, and the revolutionaries sought not freedom of religion, but rather, freedom from religion.


Before we look at other examples of religion and state models in the modern era, let’s ask ourselves for a minute, how did the demand come about in the first place?  We can attribute it to two historical processes, which gave birth to two parallel approaches.

Religion and State: Models around the WorldPhoto by Yehosha Yosef. The photo was a part of Be Free Israel and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty's photo exhibition, 'State.Religion.Freedom', November 2014

The first approach which developed tried to find the common ground between the various streams of religion, and base upon it a the religious-political constitution of the country.    General pillars of belief (such as “thou shall not kill” or “God is good”) would be protected by the state, while the differences between the religious streams (“the Pope is the Head of the Church) would remain outside of the political establishment.  This is an approach that anchors freedom of religion in religion and tradition, and sees religious tradition as a positive factor for society.  The general good, which is based on a common journey, is the guiding light.


The second approach begins with the individual, and protects the his or her rights to determine what is a “worthy life”, that is, what the most important pursuit towards happiness, as each individual sees it.  This approach leaves the state’s will out of public discourse on the subject, leaving it up to the society to determine its nature.  This approach anchors freedom of religion on the individual’s conscience.  The guiding light here is the individual’s freedom of choice, and the demand that the state withhold influence.


Various Models:


Out of these two approaches, four models have developed, for organizing the relationship between religion and state in the Western developed world (we will not get into the issues in the Far-East, and in the Muslim world in this article).



  1.       Sharp Separation: A clear demarcation between the political and religious fields.  The state does not fund, does not give preferential treatment to, and does not influence religious institutions.  The state is free of them and they of her.  Citizens are called to choose whether or not to adopt or reject religion. 
  2.       Separation with Preference: The state abstains from overseeing religious institutions, and the political establishment is not under the auspices of religious authority, but the state supports religious institutions, and may even prefer one religion over others. 
  3.       Forced Secularization: Not only does the state not support religious institutions, but it regulates all religious activities, in effect limiting them, in an effort to restrict religious influence in the public sphere.
  4.       State religion:  the political establishment is separate from the religious establishment, although there is close coordination between them:  the state supports and funds a specific religion, imposes parts of it on its citizens, does not recognize other religions, while also regulating religion, and uses its power to assert the reciprocity between it and the public sphere.


Various world views are behind each of these models.  Libertarians and those who support total moral neutrality  on part of the state (these are the heirs of the second approach above) will support the model of sharp separation.  The state must guarantee total individual ethical autonomy, and leave the public sphere free of any kind of official ideology.  Today this model is used, in a certain variation, by the United States.


The model of separation with preference is chosen by heirs of the first approach, of communitarians, who hold the idea that society needs a common ethos that generally includes a religious dimension, in order to prosper in all aspects of society.  Religion is not forced on the public,  but the state supports a certain religious expression, and determines a certain character to the public sphere.  On varying levels we will find this model in England, Sweden, or Greece, each of which has one official and funded church.


The third model, forced secularization, we know from the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, or from Turkey’s Attaturk.  Here religion is viewed not as a legitimate world view, but as a danger to society which must be driven out.  This attitude leans on the ideology that sees religion as an archaic and primitive relic which is not a part of “progress”.  The state, in this case, adapts a sharp communitarian approach, and sees fit to offer a clear model of the “the suitable life,” a model of efficient, militant, “noble” secularism.


The model of state religion draws from the communitarian modeal of separation with preference as well as from the spirit of aggressive noble secularism.  In this model, the state is interested in religion, and is interested in forcing parts of it on the public, while also controlling it.  This model can be seen in Putin’s Russia, and in the state relations with the pro Slavic church.  This model was also realized in the first decades of the State of Israel.  Under the leadership of David Ben Gurion, there was one official, regulated and funded religion, and it was generally accepted by all.  Various social, economic, and ideological trends made this model less and less acceptable by a large portion of Israel’s current citizens.  And that’s what we’re here for.



Where does Israel fit in?


In a liberal state, the last two models cannot occur.  There is no place for forced secularization because it infringes upon the freedom of individuals who would like to persue a religious life style.  There is also no place for state-religion, as this sort of institutionalized religion invades private life and is guilty of religious coercion.  Our interest here is in moving Israel away from state-religion and towards a version more in line with one of the first two models.


Some will want to move even closer to the model of sharp separation, others will prefer separation with preference.  The first group will prefer a state with a completely secular public sphere, with no religious character whatsoever.  A state for all of its citizens.  The latter group will prefer that Judaism be the preferred official religion, lending a certain character to the public sphere, which would emphasize that Israel is the Jewish home of the Jewish people.


Many times those who are interested in separating religion and state insist that only the model of sharp separation is acceptable.  If we take an example from one of the European countries that are clearly democratic, this does not hold.  We mentioned England, , Sweden, and Greece, all of which have an institutionalized Church (the Anglican, Lutheran, and Greek-Orthodox, respectively), and this is taking into account the religion and cultural heritage of the people living in them, and the desire to maintain the cultural  identity of these communities.  Most democracies in the world today do NOT apply sharp separation between religion and state, and rather fund and maintain certain religious institutions to some extent or another


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