Religious Influence on Politics and Political Influence on Religion: A Comparative Study

Even in countries such as the United States, which recognize the necessity of a separation between church and state, there will always be interaction between religious and political leaders. It seems to be an unavoidable result of the way most societies work, and it is foolish to imagine that politicians will be without religion, or religious leaders without politics. Both fields claim idealism and purport to seek ways in which to better our society. However, a cynic such as myself can find many ways in which individuals use either or both of these systems in order to gain power. I will admit to some bias, as I am an atheist, but I naturally recognize and tolerate the right of the individual to and from any religion of their choice provided the religion is not simply a play for political power.

In this node (taken straight from my Comparative Politics class, yay for noding your homework), I examine a variety of nation-states and their respective dominant religions, namely: Nazi Germany’s relationship with their Protestant and Catholic citizens, the Soviet Union’s state atheism, China’s policies on Christianity, Iran’s relationship with Islamic leaders, and finally, the influence with which most Americans are familiar—our own religio-political interface.

Before delving into a topic, however, it seems best to clarify what exactly I mean by a “religion”. In this node, the term “religion” refers exclusively to recognized formal religions and not to the idea of “civil religion”, which is related to nationalism. Specifically, a civil religion is a form of national self-worship (Schoffeelers 20). This topic will not be covered in this paper—instead I will discuss nations and their relations with formal church systems. 

Nazi Germany and Christianity. The record is clear. From the moment Hitler assumed office, we know that he immediately put antisemitic policies into effect. His goal was always “the complete removal of the Jews” (Scholder I:255). However, the atmosphere of early National Socialist Germany was surprisingly tolerant towards Christian worshippers. Protestantism, of course, has had a long tradition of antisemitism, beginning with Martin Luther: founder of the Protestant movement, author of ‘The Jews And Their Lies’, and an inspiration to Adolf Hitler. The Protestants generally did not object in any significant way to Hitler’s policies (Scholder I:270).

Early in his life, Adolf Hitler realized that an attack on Catholicism would prove futile (Scholder I:88). This led him to try to avoid unnecessary entanglements of church and state. In fact, Hitler publicly proclaimed his Christianity and encouraged unification of the sects under the movement of Naziism, stating (in regards to both Protestantism and Catholicism): “We are a people of different faiths, but we are one… …we tolerate no one in our ranks who offends against the ideas of Christianity, who offers resistance to someone with another disposition, fights against him, or acts as the arch-enemy of Christianity. This, our movement, is in fact Christian.” (italics added, Scholder I:98). Clearly, Hitler did not have any major bias against any sect of Christianity. Of course, the common rebuttal by apologists is that he was simply distancing himself from the Communists. Hitler stated that “Christians and not international atheists” had taken over the government of Germany (Scholder I:223), an obvious reference to Communist Russia. Hitler’s political plans for the churches seemed to come together perfectly: On Nov. 12, 1933, elections were held which showed little difference between the Catholic and the Protestant political districts (Scholder II:1). Hitler had his unification. 

However, when one examines the relationship between church and state, invariably there is a controlled party and a controlling party. In the case of Nazi Germany, the state was undoubtedly the controlling party. Unsurprisingly, Hitler used his secret police and methods of terror to manipulate the Catholic leaders of Germany, including the murder of Erich Klausner, the Bishop of Berlin, for his refusal to agree to German demands (Scholder II:197). 

The Soviet Union, State Atheism, and Christianity. In the former Soviet Union, the communist philosophy forwarded by Marx was the true state religion. Marx, an atheist, predicted the downfall of religion as a fundamental component of communism (Walters 4), and so his followers—Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky—tried to bring about his predictions by force of law. Surprisingly, however, the popular reports of Christian persecution in that country have been misleading to say the least. It is true that the Soviet Union frequently bombarded the civilization with atheist propaganda, but there were only a few brief times in Soviet history—generally at the beginning of a new Premier’s regime—when religion was truly persecuted

One such occasion was the Decree of 23 Jan 1918, which removed the right of the Orthodox Church to be recognized as a legal person, the right to own property, and the right to teach religion in schools. The Soviet policy at the time was to disseminate anti-religious propaganda and firmly separate church and state (Walters 6). The key difference between the Soviet seperation and the American seperation was one of implementation: the American way is to build a fence, the Soviet way is to define a line, which, if crossed, results in execution. For the most part, the Soviet government was tolerant of Protestantism and Islam, which tend to push a stronger work ethic; but the Orthodox Church bore both these sects’ share of hard times.   

In 1922, the government began to try to promote a schism within the Orthodox Church. May 1922 saw the growth of a group called the “Renovationists”, a sort of Communist/Catholic hybrid which took over the leadership of the Orthodox Church. It is generally accepted that Trotsky aided this coup (Walters 9). By 1923, the flow of propaganda from the government had slowed. Religion was not so persecuted with the Renovationists in control of the Orthodox Church, and Protestants and Muslims continued to enjoy their loose reins. 

But in 1929, Stalin took absolute control of the country, redoubling the anti-religious sentiment against any and all sects (Walters 15). He banned performance of religious services in unregistered buildings, conducting evangelistic activity or religious educations, printing of religious material, and fundraising. Religious groups were now no longer free to produce responsory propaganda to counter the Soviet propaganda blitz. The clergy, who were considered “non-working elements”, were subject to immense taxation, discrimination in housing, and deprivation of Social Security rights (Walters 13). But, after World War II, the anti-religious government backed off again, restricting their attacks on religion to words alone until Stalin died in 1953 (Walters 18). 

Then, after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s ascension to power, religious persecution once again rose (Walters 22), with a torrent of propaganda that was unmatched by that of any other period in Soviet history. Under Khrushchev’s leadership, propaganda stopped appealing to the educated, and became much more shallow and crude. Anti-religious filmmaking also became popular. But when Brezhnev took power, the anti-religious crusade finally began to taper for the last time (Walters 23). Except for a brief hiccup early in Gorbachev’s reign (Walters 33) the anti-religious sentiment decreased continually until the end of Soviet rule in the early 90’s.  

Obviously, in this case, the state controlled the church. Strict laws and regulations concerning what could and could not be done in the Soviet Union limited the ability of its citizens to worship as they wished. But it should be noted—even at the peak of Soviet religious persecution, execution and imprisonment were rarely if ever used. The peak number of imprisoned religious “criminals” was only 411. Generally, the extent of implemented anti-religious sentiment was merely a large quantity of anti-religious propaganda—the Soviets simply stole the Protestant idea of handing out tracts

China and Christian Missionaries. In the early 1920’s, a wave of Christian missionaries moved on China. They viewed themselves as bringing enlightenment to an unhappy and unfulfilled people, judging the Chinese by Western standards that simply did not apply to an Eastern civilization. Their firm belief in their Christian tradition wouldn’t allow them to even consider the possibility that the Chinese were more than happy without the Christian faith (Lutz 12). The prime source of the anti-religious sentiment, however, was the same as that of the Soviet Union—the communist philosophy of Marx and Lenin

And the major hotbed of the socialist view was the school. The Socialist Youth Corps would be the group that brought anti-religious views into the mainstream in China. Ch’ih Kuang, one of their leaders of this group, condemned Christianity as a “narcotic used by capitalists and as a source of conflict and intellectual oppression.” (Lutz 56)

Karl Marx was once quoted as saying “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” The recent Opium Wars in China made this quote even more poignant, and redoubled anti-American sentiment (Lutz 68). Because the missionaries were, generally speaking, the only Americans most Chinese met, they bore the brunt of this anti-American sentiment. Christianity was generally inseperable from the actions of Western nations and individuals (Lutz 87).

Of course, it was not only a disdain for Americanism that was the basis for the Chinese anti-religious sentiment—it was also a disdain for Chinese tradition. Ch’en Ch’i-t’ien, a high government official, said “We have just been struggling to break the hold of Confucian tradition; why should we permit another outmoded ideology, Christianity, to spread its influence in China?” (Lutz 70) It sounds like an attack on Christianity, but in context, it was an attack on parochial schools—the most common means by which missionaries enter a new country, indoctrinating the young while teaching them how to read.

We return to the question “Which controls which?” and here, in 1920’s China, the answer is not as simple as would seem. Missionaries set out to control China, but China fought back by restricting their rights in later years, banning parochial schools (Lutz 229), and heavy taxation—essentially following the early Soviet model. Was this strike by China warranted? It’s a matter of personal religious opinion, most likely.

Iran and Islamic Law. Until now, we have examined situations in which the government controls churches and clergy by strictly limiting rights, increasing taxation, imprisonment, and even in the case of Nazi Germany, through stealthy execution of dissidents. But there are many other governments in which the religion has either a “finger in the pie”, so to speak, or even a death grip on the national government. Iran is one such country.

Iran has only been experiencing some struggle between church and state for about eighty years. But this is primarily because for most Islamic sects, there is no recognized division between “church” and “state”. (Savory 129) They are in fact one and the same, the ruler of the region a divinely selected leader in the eyes of the masses, much as Louis XIV of France was the “Sun King”. Islam is the universal religion of God on earth, and only an Islamic government can represent God properly (Habiby 141). Islamic law is a primitive social system, to be sure, but it is also a more stable system than the Christian governmental system made so popular in the Dark Ages, proved by the fact that strong Islamic law government still exist today. 

Iran is a Shi’i state, the only Islamic state today not of the Sunni variety, which follows a more traditional view of Islam. This causes crises of legitimacy and soverignty in Iran, as the Sunnis have a slightly more democratic way of choosing a ruler by a limited form of voting, while the Shi’i faith tends to link more with Iranian history (Savory 131-132), and supports a dynastic line of Ayatollahs. The Iranian populace is generally happy with the arrangement. In 1924, the country was offered a democracy by Shah Reza Khan, but rejected the idea out of fear of secularization (Savory 137). 

The Shah of Iran, an American puppet-leader, was overthrown in the 1970s by Ayatollah Khumayni, who promised to return the nation to a true Islamic state (Habiby 141). Khumayni claimed that “Shah-in-Shah” (King of Kings), a title of the Shah of Iran, was considered an insult to the Islamic people, as that was a title specifically reserved for their God. He was a populist, promising to take Iran out of American and Israeli hands and return it to its former Islamic glory (Habiby 146-147).

Under Khumayni, freedoms were promised to all who did not attempt to undermine the Islamic “Republic”. He criticized the Shah for “granting” freedoms instead of recognizing them, much as the Soviets did. Oil would be sold to everyone but Israel (their Jewish enemies), but not at Iran’s expense. Iran would no longer be the slave of imperialism (Habiby 149). To some extent, these observations were correct. American interests had been taking advantage of Iran.

Industrialization was to proceed unhalted, so long as they were balanced by the moral and ethical values of the Holy Qur’an. But Khumayni’s ultimate opinion was this: “Those who forbid science and knowledge in the belief that they are safeguarding the Islamic religion are really the enemies of that religion… there is no incompatibility between science and knowledge and the foundation of Islamic faith.” (Habiby 150)

In the case of Iran, we see religion clearly dominant, running the government. It is, however, a truly populist movement, fighting in defense of Islamic tradition against American intervention in the area. Unlike the now-defunct Afghanistani Taliban, Iranian law is generally tolerant to those who practice a different faith, so long as they do not attempt to publicly convert others.

The United States and Fundamentalist Christianity. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This means that Congress is prohibited from passing laws either for or against a religious establishment. Jefferson later interpreted in one of his letters to major churches, coining the expression “a wall of seperation between church and state.” However, it does not prohibit religious groups from attempting to pass secularized versions of their religious laws. One such religious figure in American government is Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan was a runner up candidate in the primaries for the Republican party through the late 1980’s and 1990’s. He ran on a platform that was strictly based on a blend of conservative and Christian standpoints, combining pro-life with pro-death penalty, and increased aid to churches with lower taxes (Capps 172). Buchanan was thankfully never elected president, but the one-two punch of conservativism and Fundamentalism has influenced modern politics—especially the Republican party, and to a lesser extent the Democratic party

In the last 10 years, we have seen our political spectrum take a step to the right, with our current President, President George W Bush, even pushing for an office to donate large sums of money to religious charities and asking the opinion of religious leaders and not doctors on important scientific matters such as the use of stem-cell research, which could be a potential source of new medical breakthrough. 

So in the United States, the government is strictly prohibited from controlling religion. That leaves only the opposite. To a minor but significant extent, religion controls the United States. Religious differences were the main forces behind the emigration of Europeans to the New World in the 1500’s; we are descended from those who believed so strongly in their faith that they risked a long and dangerous sea voyage for it. Is it any wonder that Americans allow religion to creep into every aspect of their lives?

Conclusion. In almost every government, there is some sort of power struggle between religion and government. Either a government seeks to repress religion in order to emphasize some abstract governmental theory (China, Russia), or uses it in order to promote its own governmental ideology (Nazi Germany). Or, a religion may be so dominant in a society that a populist revolution occurs, installing a religious leader (Iran). Finally, a religion may use the government in order to push a religious agenda (United States). In each of these situations, the theoretical “wall of seperation between church and state” would be very beneficial to both church and state—neither would seek to usurp power from the other. The United States’ wall is currently the strongest, but even a strong wall of seperation will leak to some degree.


Capps, Walter H. (1990). “The New Religious Right: Piety, Patriotism, and Politics”. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press 

Habiby, Raymond N., and Fariborz Ghavidel. (1981). “Religion and Politics in the Middle East,” Michael Curtis, (Ed.), Khumayni’s Islamic Republic 139-151. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc.  

Lutz, Jessie Gregory. (1988). “Chinese Politics and Christian Missions: The Anti-Christian Movements of 1920-28, Vol. II & III”. Cyriac K Pullapilly, and George H. Williams (Eds.). Notre Dame, IN: Cross Cultural Publications, Inc. 

Savory, Roger M. (1981). “Religion and Politics in the Middle East,” Michael Curtis, (Ed.), The Problem of Soverignty in an Ithna Ashari (“Twelver”) Shi’i State 129:138. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc.  

Schoffeleers, Matthew, and Daniel Meijers. (1978) “Religion, Nationalism, and Economic Action: Critical Questions on Durkheim and Weber”. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Comp. B. V.  

Scholder, Klaus. (1977). “The Churches and the Third Reich, Vol. 1: 1918-1934,” John Bowden (transl.). UK: SCM Press Ltd. 

Scholder, Klaus. (1977). “The Churches and the Third Reich, Vol. 2: 1934 Barmen and Rome,” John Bowden (transl.). UK: SCM Press Ltd.  

Walters, Philip. (1993). “Religious Policy in the Soviet Union,” Sabrina Petra Ramet, (Ed.), A Survey of Soviet Religious Policy 3:30. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. 

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