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RELIGION AND THE STATE

FEW beliefs or ideologies pose a direct challenge to state authority in the same way religion does. That some religious beliefs are older than most countries is a known fact and this often causes a struggle for them to fit into these new national identities and constitutions.

It is also no secret that some countries perceive religion as something outdated to be controlled, managed or avoided.

Religious leaders, the world over, have made no secret of the struggle for relevance in the modern world. How different nations handle this emotive issue can be a masterclass on legislative reconciliations or over-extensions, on one hand, and an uneasy harmony, on the other.

The State-and-Religion debate belies an ancient and evolving compromise between two competing authorities that are usually in conflict, in the lives of citizens.

For example, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God (or Allah for the latter) is a sovereign deity that pre-exists all creation and thus all nations; believers and followers must conduct themselves according to handed down guidelines and principles which are themselves, usually centuries old.

Not all of these principles or guidelines will be legally acceptable to the state – which also considers itself an eminent sole sovereign, de jure, de facto. 

By design, the state cannot share power or surrender its authority to another entity within its given domain. The very word, sovereign, entails singular authority without need to depend on or succumb to another.

For our discussion, religion will be understood as a general term referring to the many various spiritual belief systems or faiths that ascribe to their respective deity or deities, rituals and values therein.

A brief study of countries that are referred to as religious shows three main features: Firstly, that since the sovereign state is a creation and function of law in most cases, it uses the language of law to ensure that it does not legislate itself below any entity, whether spiritual or other.

Secondly, the state keeps a separate identity from the religious order as a soft compromise. Thirdly, for those few states which are formed as an extension of a given religion, the identity of the state and deity is singular and there appears less friction because the law is treated as an extension of religious beliefs and principles.

Countries such as Argentina, Guatemala and Paraguay all acknowledge the presence of God in the preamble and selected articles of their respective constitutions and give specific eminence to the Catholic faith.

The other common factor is that they do not bar other religions from practicing their faiths; Infact Guatemala even allows cults to operate within the limits of law as captured under Article 36 of their Constitution regarding Freedom of Religion. 

These nations actively legislate religion so that the State is both separate from, and above the religious order. The church can consult and work with government, but it does not – and cannot – create laws to describe the functions and limits of the state.

The legislated does not govern the legislator: one makes the law, the other obeys.  This appears to be the firm but subtle overtone among these countries and relates to the first two characteristics of religious nations.

The Indian constitution overcomes creating complex religious legislating by simply stating that the country is secular, not religious. Religious sects understand that authority belongs to the State. 

There are a class of nations that directly or indirectly ascribe a given religion as the foundation of their nation[hood]. Hungary’s 2011 Constitution, for instance, states that the nation was founded by King Saint Stephen on Christian principles.

However, their constitution in Article 7 asserts that churches are autonomous and therefore do not share singular identity with the state. The state remains unitary and supreme in the country.  

Thus, save for Israel which does not actually have a constitution but a number of basic laws, Saudi Arabia is a more perfect example of an indivisible link between state and deity. Article 1 of their constitution affirms that:-

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God’s prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution…”

 The state is born of a religion and the deity. The principles of that faith are the laws enacted by the state.

Iran and Pakistan are also Islamic states but their construct and application is slightly different. Iran was a monarchy before its constitution was re-written to become an Islamic state and the new constitution actually anchors the revolution of 1979 as the basis for the creation of the new Islamic State.

Pakistan on the other hand exercises democracy based on ideology than spiritual guidelines of religious faith. Saudi Arabia established itself with God as a forethought, foundation and future and may share the character of single identity of state and religion with Iran than Pakistan. 

In this respect, the declaration of Zambia as a Christian Nation sought and achieved singular identity between God and country so that the state is made autonomous, not the other way round.

The identity of the country grants pre-eminence to God without imposing that identity on citizens. It is that singular indivisible identity that allows the state to function independently with minimum friction because other religions are not barred. The nation assumes the identity of the creator to the extent that it becomes the overarching code and creed of the country.

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