Can one, and if so under what circumstances, distinguish the religious from the political? Answer, drawing on ethnographic material. There is an underlying assumption in this title that the religious and the political are intimately linked, to the extent that one questions whether they can actually be distinguished. In a first stage, this assumption needs to be addressed, by showing the ethnographic basis for its presence in anthropological theory. The contentious question as to whether they can be distinguished stems from an introspection by the anthropologists of Western countries into their won political and religious scenes.They seem clearly distinguished, unlike what is found in the most of the anthropological material, suggesting that conditions do arise under which the religious and the political act separately. The heart of the matter therefore lies in an assessment of the extent to which modern politics actually are ‘religion-free’. In the introduction to Political Anthropology, Myron Aronoff observes that “religion and politics have been inextricably interrelated since the dawn of human culture and civilization” (1984:1).There is indeed a potential for control over individuals inherent in religion which suggest certain affinities with power and the political sphere.
There are obvious ways in which this affinity realises itself in a social context. The most obvious one is when power is directly based on religion. This has historically been the case pharaonic Egypt, where the pharaoh guaranteed and maintained the cosmic order, and was himself seen as divine and omnipotent. This was also found in European monarchies, where the King was considered to be the representative of God on earth, in a Christian context.Another example corresponds to the Dalai lama, considered as the reincarnation of Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism and head of the Tibetan people.
In such cases, a unique divine link constitutes the source of power. Religion can also be manipulated in its practice, rather than in its ideology, to legitimise a ruler or ruling elite. In From Blessing to Violence, Bloch analyses the circumcision ritual of the Merina of Madagascar. The history of this ritual shows that it was manipulated by the succeeding Merina kings to be made from a ‘basically familial ritual’ into a ‘military and state ritual of the greatest political importance’ (1986:140).
By giving themselves authority over the ritual, the royal group was able not only to increase its power and control over the people, but also to legimize its heir during his own circumcision ritual (132). These developments in Merina religion were not only of significance in Imerina, the land of the Merina, but also outside, as it gained importance as an alternative to Christianity, and hence as a sort of opposition to the colonizer (161). This example therefore shows that religion can be made to intervene in power struggles, but also that political issues may give greater momentum to religion.Hence, religion and politics seem definitely intertwined though both ideology, in struggles of legitimacy and power. Nevertheless, the separation between the religious and the political seems to have been achieved when one looks at the modern industrialised nations of the West.
One occasion of this is the French declaration of the separation between the State and the Church, when such distinction was publicly and politically made. In most of the industrialised nations today, religion has become a matter for the individual and the State is secular, deriving its power from the people rather than through religious belief or practice.Asad’s study of the of the history of the Christian concept of religion, i. e. of the Western concept of religion, sheds light as to the origins of the separation between the religious and the political in the West.
He indeed suggests that the “separation of religion from power is a modern Western norm, the product of a unique post-Reformation history” (1993:28). Asad argues that this situation is due to a particular conceptualisation of religion, which he is able to pinpoint by analysing Geertz’s definition of religion, which appears to be the fruit of Europe’s historical discourse on theological issues.The particularity of this definition lays in the fact that belief has come to constitute the ‘true’ substance of religion, prevailing over practice. This relates to conceptions that religion has a universalised essence and ‘generic functions/features’, common to all religions, even though their expressions may differ; that it consists of abstract ideas rather than ‘practical rules attached to specific processes of power and knowledge’; ‘must affirm something about the fundamental nature of reality’ (42-43).This movement towards a religion focused on belief rather than practice must be closely related to the increased individualism of the West, which lead to a decline in collective fervour and practice. The fact that religion came to be a matter of individual introspection means that it lost its grip over the collectivity and was no longer an adequate power device.
Another significant aspect of the Christian modern conceptualisation of religion has been its reduction from an encompassing notion, pervading in all social domains, to that of a ‘perspective’, distinct, but equal, to the ‘common-sense’, ‘scientific’, or ‘aesthetic’ perspectives (48).With the emergence of modern natural sciences, and modern liberal ideals, inherited from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, a process of secularisation has fenced off religion, as defined above, as a specific domain, distinct from politics. This can be placed in the context of a more general observation of the increased segmentation of Western society, in which politics, the economy, science, art, and religion are all conceived as separate social spheres.