Politicizing Religion



It is commonly said that what appears to be religious conflict is in fact “politics, not religion.” This view is widespread in the West, especially in foreign policy, international relations, and even human rights circles. There are similar claims that what is happening is “economic, not religious,” or “ethnic, not religious.”

These judgments often stem from a belief that religion itself is not a major factor in human events. Religion is considered an epiphenomenon, something that can be caused but that cannot cause something else. The real factors in social and political phenomena are assumed to be political, economic, ethnic, environmental, social—anything but religious. As Edward Luttwak noted decades ago, analysts who are ready to “interpret economic causality, who are apt to dissect social differentiations more finely, and who will minutely categorize political affiliations, are still in the habit of disregarding the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivations in explaining politics and conflict, and even in reporting their concrete modalities. Equally, the role of religious leaders, religious institutions, and religiously motivated lay figures in conflict resolution has also been disregarded – or treated as a marginal phenomenon hardly worth noting.”[1] 

Of course, it would be equally inaccurate to go to the opposite extreme and assume that religion is always the key factor in human relations, especially in human conflict. We need to acknowledge that religious claims may often be a mask for other motives and interests, especially political and economic ones. In much of the non-Western world, especially in very religious settings, there can be a tendency to overemphasize the role of religion.


This stress that events are not religion but politics can lead to misunderstanding the nature of both religion and politics. It can be akin to saying that a table is not round but red. But tables can be both round and red, and policies and persecutions can be both religious and political.  The Christian Democratic parties of Europe and Latin American claim both religious inspiration and political aspiration. American and Canadian founding documents, and those of many other countries, reference God. Religion and politics are intertwined in many of the countries of Southeast Asia.

Religion nearly always affects politics. Usually not by efforts to create an imagined “theocracy” but by shaping hearts and minds, hopes and dreams. Our ultimate faiths and beliefs influence our views of history, justice, law, mercy, power, human nature, and evil. And, of course, it is impossible to approach politics in a way totally divorced from our views of history, justice, law, mercy, power, human nature, and evil. Many of the people at this conference defend freedom of religion and belief not in spite of their religion, nor divorced from their religion, but precisely because of their religion. Religion can lead to a commitment to human rights.

The key questions are not whether religion and politics will be intertwined, or whether politics will affect religion, or religion affect politics: inevitably they will. The issue is whether these will be done in a good or bad way.


The claim that something is political and not religious is most often used to refer to the political manipulation of religion, something that is all too frequent. But it must be emphasized that religion can be politically manipulated only if it is both present and significant enough to be manipulated. A politician can cynically appeal to religious sentiment in order to seek re-election or vilify an opponent only if the religious sentiment actually exists. The political manipulation of religion assumes and requires the presence of religion---it must at the same time be both political and religious.

Hence, I suggest that instead of describing  something as political, not religious, we describe it as the political manipulation of religion, or the insincere use of religion.

There are many examples of such manipulation. Indeed, most cases of religious persecution or conflict happen when there is something political at stake. Only a few movements or regimes--such as ISIS, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea-- attack people simply because they have a different theology.  

One striking example is the recent imprisonment of the former Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, usually known as Ahok. Although he is a double minority—both Christian and ethnic Chinese—he was an energetic governor and had a 70% approval rating. However, while campaigning for the Governorship in September 2016, he remarked that the Koranic verse al-Maidah 51 was being misused by some clerics to argue that Muslims should not vote for a Christian. Several days later, a video of his remarks, deceptively edited by Buni Yani, a communications lecturer, went viral on the internet. On November 4 and December 2 there were massive, largely peaceful, demonstrations against Ahok, one of them drawing half a million people. He was subsequently arrested and tried for blasphemy against Islam and on May 9, 2017, was sentenced to two years in prison. He also lost the election.

Senior politicians, businessmen, and other elites likely helped fund these massive and expensive demonstrations, which had a plethora of buses, lunch boxes, and neatly printed signs and T-shirts. Apart from concerns about blasphemy, why would they do this? One reason, of course, is simply to win an election. Another is that Ahok has been close to President Jokowi, so this accusation might taint Jokowi in the 2019 Presidential election. For some there was a worry that Ahok might become a Vice-Presidential candidate. In all these cases, the campaign against Ahok could be preparation for playing an “Islam card” in the 2019 national elections.

Even with the narrowest definition of politics, all these are clearly political motives. But this strategy could only work if millions of people were outraged by the specter of blasphemy. Without the active presence of religion, the political strategy could never have worked.


While numerous pious Muslims opposed Ahok, many of those involved in the campaign against him were not notably devout. This lack of deep religious commitment is common in the political manipulation of religion, which is often carried out by those whose religion is weak or shallow, and done despite opposition from religious leaders. For example, in the conflict in Northern Ireland, the major leaders of the Catholic and Protestant communities condemned the aggression and violence, while those who actually carried out the carnage were not particularly pious, and perhaps not even churchgoers. But they still self-identified in a tribal way as “Catholic” and “Protestant.”

In the conflicts in the Balkans, the Serbs were identified with Orthodox Christianity, the Croats with Catholic Christianity, and the Bosnians with Islam: but few attended church or mosque. Similar patterns exist in India, Myanmar and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who has personal experience of the Balkan conflicts, has pointed out that what is most likely to lead to conflict is not robust, believing religion, but rather shallow religion that is used as a political identifier.[2] The problem is usually not strong religion, but weak religion that is a strong source of identity.

The fact that something is political does not mean that it is not religious and it may be better described as the political manipulation or use of religion. Much of this manipulation is done by people who are not especially religious, hence one of the main antidotes to the politicization of religion can be strong, committed religion.

This presentation was given in the seminar on “Politicizing Religion” session at the Fourth Annual Southeast Asia Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Bangkok, August 16-19, 2018

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute and member of the South and Southeast Asia (SSEA) Action Team, and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom

All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.

[1] Edward Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” 8-19 of Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion: The Mission Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 9-10.

[2] Presentation at U.S. State Department, May 11, 2000. On the common co-existence of deep religious commitment, civility and pluralism, see Rodney Stark, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton: Princeton university Press, 2001), especially, chapter 5.

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