Religion, the State and Sovereignty
The influence of religion on humankind can be traced back to the first records of history. Religion has served as a pillar of
strength to some and binding chains to others. There are vast amounts of information and anthropological studies revealing
the interaction of religion and humankind. However, for the purposes of this paper, the time periods of study will be
broken up into three sections. Each section will give a general description of how religion affected the institution of the
state and its Sovereignty in a Euro-centric perspective. The first period is the early period, which will encompass from
Christianity and the Roman Empire to the Medieval times (approx. 311 to 1100 A.D.). The second period will include
the Renaissance, the Reformation to the Treaty of Westphalia (1101 to 1648 A.D.). The third and increment of history
will range from 1649 to 1945 A.D.
The date 311 A.D. marks the issuing of the "Edict of Toleration" for Christians. This date is important because it
symbolizes "national" acceptance of Christianity, and planted its roots as a political institution. Later the Roman Empire on
the verge of internal collapse acknowledged the importance of Christianity and used it to hold together the remnants of it
former self. This adoption of Christianity took form and eventually became the Catholic church.
The church became intermingled with politics and became a strong entity. The policies delivered from the church had
more authority than the local rulers and magistrates of the developing feudal system. For example, St. Augustine wrote
about war and what justified its enactment against fellow men. This policy was followed and adhered to for hundreds of
years after St. Augustine wrote it.
Another example, is the use of the Bible as a guideline for establishing governing systems. Scripture portrayed God as
choosing the king of the people. The pope, being God's "representative" was then given the authority to crown the king.
This crowning process gave the pope large influence in the political arena. This ritual continued for a number of centuries.
The Crusades, which occurred around 1100 A.D., played a crucial role in challenging the church's authority. The pope
identifying the spread of Islam as evil requested all of Europe embark on a "Crusade" to defeat the infidels. As the battles
were fought, great treasures were found in the form of books and knowledge. These books were crude translations of old
Greek texts, containing information which would eventually produce the waning of Church authority in the future.
The Renaissance marked the beginning of intellectual re-birth. Writers such as Dante, Machiavelli, Guiarccidini, Vitoria,
etc., all attempting to reform and some even contest church dominance. Dante in his imaginative work "Inferno" writes of
hell which he envision is the pope's final destination. Machiavelli takes a more direct role classifying the actions of a prince
to be above morality and ultimately above the Church. He continues the affront by classifying a human character of "virtu"
as being completely centered around man (humanism). The Raison D' Tat is supreme especially in terms of the church
In the middle of the Renaissance, the Church was dealt a deadly blow from which it would never recover. This assault
came via Martin Luther. His work, "95 Thesis", marked the beginning of the Reformation. This movement split the church
into Catholic and Protestant sects. It marked the beginning of a bloody period which virtually split Europe in half.
Examples of the conflict raged between Protestants and Catholics from the great slaughter of Protestants in Paris 1572
A.D. (7000 dead) to the Thirty Years War. With the Church in disarray, freedom was given to the "state" to begin to
During this period of Renaissance the political identity was going through a tremendous transformation. This
transformation took form in what is called Absolutism. "Princes" began to tolerate less and less manipulation from the
church. The political entity in the form of monarchy began to wean itself from the Church for its legitimacy and looked
toward its own power.
Other writers began to rise and discuss issues of sovereignty and the state. Thomas Hobbes discusses the state and refers
to it as "Leviathan" which is the concurring title of his work. Believing man to be evil, Hobbes fashions his description of
the state as the mechanism to control and harness the capabilities of man. There can be no peace as long as there is not
absolute surrender to reason. The state's interest is supreme, as well as, its authority. These ideas were written in direct
opposition to the church and its history. Hobbes desired a complete refutation of the Church's influence in government.
Hobbes portrays a state as sovereign. The sovereignty of the state is in direct relation to its longevity and basic existence.
State sovereignty must be perpetual and supreme. The authority of this described state would over-shadow the authority
of the church.
Continuing historically, the development of the thirty years war was significant in its unique result. The treaty of Westphelia
was the agreement which not only settled the war, but gave absolute authority to the sovereign of each individual state.
This was accomplished by granting the sovereign the right to choose which religion he/she desired and that in turn
transferred down to the people. Thus, once again the authority of the church was restricted, however this time by the
emergence of an institution called the state.
During this period states begin to develop colonies and exploration of the new world. The discoveries and travel further
challenged church authority. An example of this is the well founded "scientific" fact that the earth was flat. After such
journeys by Columbus and Magellan, the concept of church's monopoly on truth was attacked once again.
The third period in history starts with the age of reason. Its intellectual basis of the time period is science and natural law.
Empiricism plays a fundamental role in church legitimacy. Factual concrete proof of God and his work is not provided by
science. States begin to mature politically as colonial powers. The Church or rather the concept of religion is still strong
but begins a transformation during the Enlightenment. From Religion ideas of morality and natural law arise.
Locke addresses the role of the government of a state. He portrays the ideas of a social contract between the people and
its government. He continued by pointing out that the government has a commitment with the people it must with hold.
Locke's writings also contained concepts concerning of natural rights which are inherent to human beings. This developed
and identified that power now comes from the people. These people from which the government is derived and power
(legitimacy) have rights and will be safe-guarded by the people.
The French and American Revolutions harnessed the ideas which the enlightenment wrote and discussed. The French
Revolution exemplified the early stages of nationalism. Nationalism derives from a grouping of people who share common
cultural and social experiences. >From nationalism the concept of self-determination is derived. Phrases like," We the
People. . ." began to show up in constitutions and declarations, which showed consensus among people with like-minded
The inception of positive law was the last and final blow to the concept of religion. Positive law is fashioned and codified
by man. The law has replaced the concept of morality. The framework which laws create make the state and its sovereign
powers legitimate and legal. States no longer operate in terms of what is just but on whether the legality for the action or
jurisdiction have application.
The evolution of the state and its sovereignty is clear. The Church once being a dominant political factor has been reduced
to a mere whisper of advice. The influence of religion in instituting or in the elective process of choosing a representative
ruler has been severely minimized. Sovereignty and the institution of the State has surpassed predestination and Divine
Right of Kings.
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