The Political Science of Religion

There is definitely a political science to religion these days. There are rhetorical, linguistic, charismatic, media driven, economic, ideological and political components to virtually all religions that cross the line into secular matters and to influence the decision making authority of governments. Much political clout, money, fame and individual power over masses of people can be gained by religious leaders when they cross the line into secular matters and matters of elections, law and economies.

Even religious groups who eschew any form of technology or with contact with the general public are directly or indirectly expressing and publicizing some form of political, social and cultural ideology that is difficult to find clearly stated or dictated in holy texts. In some cases, holy scriptures are taken so literally that a form of deviance occurs. Ironically, such groups use an amazing amount of technology, since they do not live as prehistoric people lived.

But the mechanisms by which the isolationist groups gain the approval to live outside of government and social structures and programs are indeed political: by demanding their right to practice their religion, they invoke clauses in constitutions and may even fight lengthy battles in courts of law and public opinion, accepting the efforts of others who will use the most modern of political tactics and technology to gain public support for their causes and lifestyles.

The leaders of religions are the primary source of attempts to gain secular power by crossing the lines between politics, government and religion. If they desire power and influence over those who will never accept their leadership or religion, then they must engage in some form of political strategy and process.

Political scientists, practitioners of the law, legislators and leaders have to investigate, study, classify and identify the whole range of political acts and behaviors that are engaged by religious leaders and their followers, if just to determine whether they are a terrorist threat, are violating the constitution, or are violating the laws. In other ways, religious political activity must be analyzed to determine how much religious ideology is impacting public opinion, public behavior or voting patterns.

Examples are the Mormon Church funding the anti gay marriage proposition in California that eventually overturned the rights of gays to have state recognized marriages.  Iran is a theocracy, where an unelected religious leader actually rules, while the mere image of democracy allows the public to “elect” a president. The issue of churches being required to justify their tax exempt status when they engage in what is clearly political advocacy and schemes has been on the minds of the public for decades. Many churches serve as both religious centers and community centers, where the pastors, imams and rabbis have enormous leeway to influence the secular and political decisions and actions of their followers.

Further complicating matters, religious interference in political matters has gone international in some cases. An example is the secretive and questionable behavior of the “C” street gang of congressmen who were exposed for working with a religious group to influence laws in a foreign country that would have made it a death penalty offense to be gay or lesbian. The same group received substantial reductions in rent, living in a luxury housing that was funded by a secretive religious organization, raising questions of failure to report the rent subsidies as gifts that may have been used to influence their conduct as government officials.

The “C Street Scandals” represent one of the most obvious examples of literally melding politics and religion.

But the broader concepts of politics and religion will always confound political scientists, because religions legitimately cross the line into issues of secular life and into issues that affect people who exist outside the confines of specific churches and temples. While the law can codify specific places where there is a separation of church and state, reality calls for a broader approach to examining the political activities and structures of religions in a scientific manner.