So, I just got back from writing my first final (one down, two to go) where I wrote a masterful essay on “church-state” relations in Japan. In this achievement of literary prose that is sure to achieve me full marks on that section (yeah, right), I posited that, as things existed, neither religion nor the state could ever reign supreme without acknowledging the power of the other. Now, we all know that talking out of oneâ€™s ass is a time honoured university tradition, but I must confess that it made perfect sense in the context of the essay. Having had all of twenty minutes to think about it, Iâ€™ve begun to wonder: do religion and the state really need each other?
In the Japanese model I used for my essay, I examined the power of the state versus Shinto (indigenous, polytheistic, kami worshiping religion), Buddhism, and Christianity. Overall, I saw these relations as a dance between the state and religion â€“ oscillating between one extreme and the other, but normally existing in a delicate balance with each other. I discussed the rise of Buddhism, how it (in the guise of â€œprotectingâ€ the state) eventually undermined state authority, which led to a violent suppression of religious power in the Tokugawa period. I finished with a discussion of the new religions that emerged in Japan, which restored an uneasy balance between state and religious authority. In all the cases, neither religion nor the state were able to fulfill all the needs of the people; even when one had its high watermark, the need for the other would change the balance once again.
Clearly, what happened with Buddhism and later the absolutist state of the Tokugawa are warnings against either religion or the state gaining too much power. I can think of other, modern day, applications of this principle (not naming any names, but the Shrub.com domain is often mistaken for a site devoted to making fun of a certain president that this applies to). Iâ€™m not all that knowledgeable about communism, but from what I know any attempts that communist states have made to suppress religion have either failed or backfired. Indonesia comes to mind, as part of its constitution, as either direct or indirect backlash against the attempted communist coup, states that one must have a religion, any religion as long as its not a lack of one.
As much as the bitter atheist in me hates to admit it, religion offers something to both the state and the people. For the state, it can be used as a tool to legitimize a rule â€“ whether it be the Japanese Emperor tracing back lineage to a goddess or President Bush using â€œGodâ€ as a smokescreen for his real agendas (Iraq, Iâ€™m looking at you). The people get a sense of community that cannot be offered by the state, as well as access to easy answers that often erase those pesky grey areas of life and replace them with simple black and white binaries. What results is a triangle of state, religion, and society that looks more like my South Asian professorâ€™s mapping of Ashokaâ€™s reign in India than my binary model of state/religion. Well, I suppose that just goes to show me that nothing fits into a neat little box, or triangle as it were.
So, are state and religion the One True Pairing (to borrow from fandom)? I donâ€™t know. I do know, however, that they have a long history of fighting and making up with each other thatâ€™s not likely to disappear anytime soon. I may not have said anything riveting or novel, but least thinking about this sort of stuff is more interesting than studying for my next final exam.