Religious Idealism and Tendencies of War

by Luigi Kapaj

A state's tendency towards the use of war as a tool of foreign policy can be directly correlated to the influence of religion within that state. That does not mandate that religious influence is proportional to a policy of warfare across all states. Different religions have different effects upon society and state leaders. The level and nature of a religion's influence can be measured by the change in foreign policy that comes about when a state transitions between a Theocracy, a Semi-Theocracy, and a Seculacracy.

To be clear in this discussion, the distinctions of the nature of theocratic versus secularistic condition of a state government should be demonstrated through examples.

A Theocracy is a state where the religious authority is direct and overt as is the case with Islamic states based on Sharia, Islamic Law, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Another form of Theocracy is one where the ruling authority and religious organization are one in the same as with Tibet, from the 16th century to the mid 20th century, where the Dalai Lama was both the head of state and head of the religion and subordinate authority was completely integrated as well.

A Seculacracy is a state under any form of government ruled distinctly apart from, and independent of, any form of religion. In such states, religions may still have a significant presence, or people may hold forms of idealism in religious like levels, but there is no connection between the governing body and any organization based on belief in the supernatural or divine. Examples include communist states such as the People's Republic of China or The Soviet Union, Western democracies such as modern France or Germany, and most military dictatorships.

A significant distinction, needed to be able to measure the effect of religious influence on a state, is to note the existence of a Semi-Theocracy. A Semi-Theocracy is a state where religious authority has direct influence on a state's government, but lacks total authority. A prime example of a Semi-Theocracy would be any Christian Feudal European state in the Middle Ages. The monarch's ownership of a land and ability to rule people living on that land derived from a divine right and such monarchs were crowned by the religious authority. The centralized religious authority in Rome held sway over trade with non Christian states, as was the case of withholding trade from Scandinavia to force the expansion of Christianity in Northern Europe, and could order a state into wars, as with the Crusades. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church over European states was so great that contemporary political scientists of foreign states regarded Europe as a Confederation ruled by an Emperor in Rome. Diplomatic letters written to the Pope from Asian states addressed the Pope as "Emperor of Europe". This influence, however, had its limits and most other legal authority in medieval European states lied either with the monarch, or with the subordinate feudal lords.

Modern variations of a Semi-Theocracy can develop through democracies in a heavily religious society either through voting patterns based on religious authority or via specific religious demagogues in important positions of power. The latter can also be a product of any form of autocracy where the leadership level holds the greatest sway over a state's policies. A likely example is the foreseeable path being taken by Iraq. The Democracy imposed by the United States is dominated by either religious leaders who have become politicians themselves, or politicians who directly answer to religious leaders. The only thing preventing Iraq from becoming a Democratic Theocracy based on Sharia is the inhomogeneous nature of the Iraqi people divided among differing religious and ethnic sects. Likewise in Afghanistan where at least one of the current elected leaders was a member of the Taliban government who directly oversaw the destruction of Buddhist monuments due to violation of Islamic Law.

A Semi-Theocracy is not as simple a category as a clearly theocratic or secular state, but should include any degree of religious influence that changes the state's pattern of behavior. The United States, long the champion of the separation of Church and State, has always maintained some mild religious overtones, though rarely to a level of any concern to international politics. Under the current regime of the George W. Bush presidency, combined with Republican control of both houses of Congress, the influence of religion in government has increased to mark a noticeable shift in policy, with the influencing religion being Evangelical Christianity.

The transition from a Seculacracy to a Semi-Theocracy in The United States is subtle due to its limited magnitude. Few laws have been rewritten, but patterns of government spending and intolerance towards dissention have the hallmarks or religious influence. The noticeable changes are largely domestic but have had an effect on foreign policy as well. Funding in both health care and scientific research has been altered on a basis of religious doctrine as with a lack of funding for stem cell research and birth control. This directly influences health care policies regarding communicable disease control which the US funds and controls on an international level, especially in underdeveloped nations. The choice to promote abstinence over contraception devices such as condoms is indicative of religious based policy.

Religious ideology in American government has led to a series of policies intolerant to dissenting views. The doctrine of preemptive war adopted by the Bush administration has many opponents both domestically and internationally. Every opponent was directly attacked in some manner, from the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who refuted the administration's pretense for war, being revealed as a CIA agent, to a wave of rhetoric against France, who opposed U.N. resolutions endorsing an invasion of Iraq, including renaming "French fries" as "Freedom fries" in government cafeterias, to calls to abolish or defund the United Nations. Iraq was attacked after being declared as "Evil" by the U.S. government, and despite any actual or claimed reasons to start the invasion over security or economic issues, the nostalgic view of a successful crusade by a Christian country against Baghdad was revealed as playing some policy role through the Freudian slip of President Bush saying, "This Crusade, this war on terrorism."

Though America has never been a pacifistic society, it is rare that the US has been so antagonistic as to instigate invasions of recognized foreign states. The shift from Seculacracy to Semi-Theocracy in the U.S. has been accompanied by a sharp increase in the use of, and threat to use, military force in international relations.

Other states have had different experiences in shifting the level theocratic control over their governments.

Israel, according to interpretations of the Torah as a historical source, experienced a period of Semi-Theocracy starting around 1050 to 920 bce. Prior to that period, The Israeli people were a tribal Theocracy, ruled by a series of judges, struggling for survival. At around 1050 bce, a king was anointed by divine right. This period of Israeli monarchy is characterized by a series of wars of conquest of the Philistines, Canaanites and other surrounding nations. This is in contrast to the Theocratic period where the wars were more often defensive in nature.

While other factors were distinctly at work during the transition, the correspondence between the shift in government and the shift in international warfare is noteworthy and can be compared to a later period. The modern nation-state of Israel is a democracy of a largely homogenous religious group that effectively forms a Semi-Theocracy. Having previously been a nation without a state, this does not allow a clear comparison. What is clear is that in its short history, Israel has fought a multitude of wars with neighboring states and maintained conflicts with the stateless Palestinian people. Many other factors contribute to this level of violence, but Israel itself has often been the aggressor.

What is important to note is that both periods of Semi-Theocracy, Israel had become an aggressor state.

The increasing influence of religion in a state's politics does not always result in an increase in the state's tendency to instigate wars. Some examples prove quite the opposite.

Tibet was a kingdom, secular in nature, prior the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th century. From the early 7th century through the 9th century, Tibet conducted several successful military campaigns against its neighbors, including Tang dynasty China, vastly expanding the size of its territory. At this point in time it remained a Seculacracy, and subsequently suffered periods of instability. In the 16th century, Tibet became a full Theocracy where the head of state was also the head of the religion. Tibet from this point forward was no longer the aggressor in international affairs. Tibet became for a time an arbiter among neighboring states in the region. This time period was not without its violence, but major conflict in this period was either internal or defensive in nature. As a Buddhist Theocracy, Tibet was distinctly less outwardly violent than in its days under secular rule.

An interesting comparison can be made between Iraq and Iran which both went through governmental transitions in 1968 and 1979 respectively. Iraq shifted from a largely secular militant government to a Semi-Theocratic one, while Iran experienced a shift from a Semi-Theocratic Monarchy to a Theocracy. In Iraq, this shift resulted in a change of foreign policy from cautious attempts at military action accompanied by a policy, however ineffectual, of subversion and rhetoric to a policy of instigating attacks against its neighbors Iran and Kuwait as well as aggression towards Kurds and Shiites within its borders which also worsened relations with its neighbors. Iran's international policy since its shift has largely been defensive in nature. Its only major war was instigated by Iraq, and other involvement in conflicts has been limited in scope or entirely restricted to supportive roles, considering accusations of repeated support for terrorist groups, rather than taking up direct military action. Even considering Iran's recent rhetoric and progress in nuclear technology, Iran's Theocracy has been less inclined towards war than Iraq's Semi-Theocracy.

As modeling of theories of international systems are often based on European nation-states, comparing the influence of religious Idealism against the use of war in foreign policy can present an understanding of the modern European system.

The medieval monarchies of Europe were largely Semi-Theocracies. The Pope in Rome asserted greater or lesser influence at times, as with the Spanish Inquisition or the Italian merchant city-states, but played a constant role in the affairs of European states in this period. Even with the rise of Protestant sects of Christianity, monarch states maintained some association with either the Catholic Church or the local Protestant authority.

The Balance of Power system, established after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, marked a reduction in the influence of religion in the European states, but not a total separation. Even during the relative peace in Europe for most of the 19th century, European states still maintained aggressive foreign policies, only redirected their aggression outside of Europe, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Industrialization had two effects on European states significant to this issue. It ultimately reduced the influence of religion in a state, sometimes giving rise to other forms of Idealism. It also increased a state's range and ability to exert military force. Warfare could be conducted farther away and more effectively than by non industrialized states. The latter resulted in a series of aggressive wars of conquest in a sustained effort to build a series of colonies throughout the 17th through 19th centuries.

European states struggled with moving away from Semi-Theocracies. France initially moved away from being a Semi-Theocracy with the French Revolution and execution of King Louis XVI. However, with the rise of Napoleon, Semi-Theocracy was nominally restored as a tool to placate the population.

Perhaps the most peaceful European state was Switzerland which had become a secular Democracy by the late 19th century.

World War II saw the rise of both nationalist and communist forms of Seculacracy which both had initially disastrous consequences in terms of spreading external and internal violence. The Soviet Union, however, quickly settled into becoming less of an aggressor than Russia had been in the early 20th century and earlier. The Nationalists in Europe did not last long enough to form theories on anything more than a single war.

In the modern era, the formation of the European Union poses an interesting situation to political models. It does not fit with the Realist model which predicts constant competition typical of the Balance of Power rather than sustained cooperation. With all the western states being relatively industrialized, and the eastern states getting assistance during their integration, it is hard to use a Liberalism model which would have cooperation form out of interdependence rather than having states pursue joining the E.U. in the hopes of having interdependence form out of the cooperation.

One factor that can be compared is the lack of religious influence in European states. The Semi-Theocratic monarchies of medieval Europe have become the secular democracies of the E.U. The United Kingdom, perhaps the most aggressive of the E.U. states, has its most recent conflicts limited to the scope of its policy to always side with the U.S. Germany is the largest economic power that is not currently engaged in, or threatening, any form of warfare. These states are collectively far more peaceful in their foreign policies than their medieval predecessors.

Many examples of transition between Theocracy, Semi-Theocracy, and Seculacracy have been examined and some patterns have emerged. These patterns are consistent across time periods, regions, and religions involved. Transition towards more or less religion in general does not result in a consistent tendency on the use of war. Rather, a move towards a Semi-Theocratic government from either extreme tends to result in states with more aggressive foreign policies. However, a shift from a Semi-Theocracy to either a Theocracy or a Seculacracy typically results in a government with a less aggressive foreign policy.


© 2006, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on August 30, 2006

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