This article examines the relationship of Christianity with Secularism through a study of its History and Philosophy. It also analyzes the unique model of Indian Secularism, often called ‘Nehruvian’ Secularism, in light of the history of Secularism and the State. The article does not advance a particular ideological viewpoint
but merely presents the reader with a summary of History with a deep analysis so that they can form their own opinion about the issue.
1. Historical Background
The term ‘Secularism’ was coined by writer George Holyoake in the 19th Century. Its bedrock started taking shape in the 17th Century when the Westphalian state or the ‘nation-state’ as it’s called in common parlance was being conceived of. However leading to the 21st century, different polities around the world have
interpreted , adopted different approaches to secularism. These approaches reflect the diverse cultural, historical, and political contexts of each country.
Strict separation is one approach to secularism. Countries that follow this approach, such as France, restrict religious symbols in public institutions, including schools and government offices. The goal is to create a neutral public space that does not favor any specific religion.
Accommodative secularism is another approach. Countries that follow this approach, such as the United States, maintain a level of distance from religious institutions, but also recognize the importance of religious freedom and acknowledge the contributions of religion to society. In this model, the state allows religious symbols and
practices in public spaces, as long as they do not violate other principles such as equality or harm the rights of others.
The third approach can be called “multiculturalist” and is often the most criticized. Countries that follow this approach, such as Canada and India, embrace a diverse range of religious and cultural identities, aiming to create an inclusive society where different faiths can coexist. This approach involves recognizing and accommodating
the religious practices and needs of various communities, often through policies that promote diversity, interfaith dialogue, and cultural preservation. Further, in the Article, I will put forward the case that this mode of Secularism is flawed due to various reasons and this practice should not be deemed “Secular” at all.
It is important to note that the specific form of secularism practiced in each democracy can vary, and different countries may prioritize different aspects of the secular ideal. However, the underlying motive remains consistent: to maintain a fair and inclusive society where individuals are free to exercise their religious beliefs while ensuring that the state remains neutral and respects the rights and freedoms of all citizens.
The history of the nation-state is important to understand secularism as this polity is said to have brought about a ‘Secular’ state by scholars of political history. The nation-state was the product of the ‘Westphalian Treaty’ that was entered into by European nations in the 17th Century to bring an end to the Christian denominational
wars between the Protestants and the Catholics, to settle disputes between the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of European States and to regulate the power of the Roman Catholic Church over Europe. The Kings of the nations of Europe wanted to divest the political power of the Roman Catholic Church that reigned supreme
over all of Europe, so that they could exercise control over their society and nation, free from its influence. Therefore the nation-state that was formed is said to be this assertion of sovereignty by Christian nations of Europe to be free of the Church. This demand for freedom by the Christian nations of Europe from the Roman Catholic Church and its subsequent fulfillment is what has been deemed as the ‘Secular Sovereignty’ of the Westphalian Nation State by political historians and scientists. The treaty replaced the medieval system of the centralized religious authority of the Church over all of Europe, with a decentralized system of the sovereign, territorial states in Europe known as nation-states.
2 Analysis of the Reformation
Hence, it is a popular view among academics that the Westphalian Nation States conceived Secularism and advanced it. However, I feel that the nation-states formed as a result of the Westphalian Treaty were not secular because the States retained their Christian identity, and critical areas of public life governed by their kings were
still based on Christian edicts and morality drawn from religious scriptures. The ‘Secular Sovereignty’ of these nation-states is said to be based on the sole feature that they were governed by kings with sovereign control over their country, free from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. While this severance deserves credit for
setting in motion the philosophical and civilizational trajectory that led to the complete division of Church from the state, the Westphalian Model itself is in no manner whatsoever secular or irreligious. To the contrary, I believe that it led to the establishment of sovereign Christian theological states. The fact that these states enforced Christian morality has been established, but the fact that the ideation of these sovereign states itself was also shaped by Christian morality and theology is often overlooked. The protestant reformers, who were a party to the treaty, intended the state to be a ‘divine’ order which existed to prevent people from following
immoral path, because Christian theology believes in the ‘original sin doctrine’ which says that everyone is born sinful, in the sense that people are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God and therefore there is a need to have a centralized power structure like the Church to govern people. It is still an important
doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church and was philosophized by St.Augustine in the 3rd Century and has found support even in the modern world by influential conservative Christian philosophers like Edmund Burke. So, if the entire raison d’être of the Westphalian Sovereign State was a deep religious doctrine (original
sin), then how can it even be secular? The word ‘Secular’ (not to be confused with ‘Secularism’) itself has meant disconnection from religion, right from the time it has come into existence. Furthermore, during the formation of the Westphalian State, what was conceived to be the difference between ‘Secular’ and ‘Spiritual’ and how and why they were to be separated was also informed by the Christian theological framework of the ‘theory of two kingdoms’, which teaches that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules in two kingdoms. One is the “spiritual kingdom” also known as the right-hand kingdom made up of true Christians that are holy, obey God and do not need the ‘sword’ which symbolizes the ‘power and might of the god’. The ‘sword’ of God, which deals with justice and retribution is only about and used for the “left-hand kingdom” that operates under divine authority, to promote God’s purposes in society by restraining evil, because in this realm the ‘original sin’ is too hard for people to overcome and the will of god is to be enforced, if necessary even by the threat of force.
According to the protestant reformers, both the Church and the State were part of the Left-Hand Kingdom, which needed the supervision of God and hence they were brought together through the creation of state churches making the Church a branch of the State. This took a variety of forms. In some areas, the State handled administrative affairs for the Church and, to a limited extent, regulated aspects of worship and doctrine, but otherwise left the churches to conduct their own
business in some areas. Pastors were paid civil servants, but the Church had more autonomy in ecclesiastical matters. Where the government and the Church shared legitimate responsibilities—in areas of social welfare and public morality, for example— they worked together; otherwise, they generally stayed out of each other’s way.
This relationship between the Church and the State brought on by the Protestant reformation inverted the pre-existing order that the popes had established. The popes had claimed authority over the State and the right to supervise its work while allowing the states a good degree of autonomy in secular matters; with post-reformation
state churches, the State claimed the right to oversee the churches while allowing them a degree of autonomy in ecclesiastical matters.
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant reformation and the man who devised the theory of two kingdoms, was also one of the key figures that advanced the freedom of conscience, which, in essence, meant spiritual and religious freedom. Spiritual and religious freedom here is not to be confused with religious pluralism, the
spiritual freedom he espoused was only limited to the folds of Christianity. Luther did not address the issue of freedom of conscience in any of his writings, nor did he ever devise a political theory supporting religious pluralism. But his letters and major works leave no doubt that he wanted a tsunami of change in the way Christendom approached religious belief. He makes this clear in his book Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), where he sharply distinguished the aims of the Church and the State, limiting the reach of the government to preserving life and property.
“For over the soul, God can and will let no one rule but Himself, Luther wrote. “Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys the souls”
He rejected the notion of a Christian commonwealth. Luther argued that the State possessed neither the competence nor a mandate from heaven to intrude into spiritual matters. “The soul is not under Caesar’s power,” he wrote. “He can neither teach nor guide it, neither kill it nor make it alive.” This path of Luther and his writings, as he was the most influential Christian philosopher of the early modern period, would ultimately lead to the separation of the Church and the State as he made cogent arguments for non-interference of the State into religious affairs, though that would have to stay for over 200 years before it was first formally set into law by Thomas Jefferson.
The purpose of the foregoing history was to advance the argument that the formation of the ‘Sovereign’ ‘Secular’ Westphalian States of the 17th Century that separated itself from the stranglehold of the mighty Roman Catholic Church was itself formed and based on a doctrine that was birthed by the Roman Catholic Church (original sin) and progressive Christian thinking (Kingdom of Two Gods). Will an entity that comes into existence this way be called Secular? Or would the appropriate term for the entity be Christian? The writings of Martin Luther that also ultimately got the ball rolling for the separation of the Church and the State, as evidenced, were reasoned with Christian morality, scriptures, and theology and initially did not allow religious pluralism but only Christian pluralism. Does this beg the question, that if the formation of Secularism and the doctrine of the ‘Wall of Separation (the metaphorical wall that completely separates religion and the State) was ideated from Christian Theology, then can the doctrine even be irreligious or secular? I sincerely hope I have delineated and analyzed the history and the complicated set of events well enough for the readers to form opinions and decide for themselves.
3. A Comparative Analysis of Nehruvian Secularism
India is the only functional democracy in the world that calls itself Secular while not adhering to the “Wall of Separation” doctrine. The Wall of Separation as discussed refers to a metaphorical wall that completely separates religion and the State. This means that the state makes laws concerning religion and doesn’t interfere with it in any manner whatsoever. India doesn’t follow this doctrine and its state is allowed to have supervision over all religious affairs while having no religious identity itself. This form of Secularism was espoused, popularized, and architected in India by Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru who also happened to be the first Prime Minister of India. I believe that the Indian model of Secularism is completely identical to that of the Westphalian model of the 17th and 18th centuries. When looking at public life, the Indian state similarly enforces religious edicts and morality drawn from religious scriptures that are codified as personal laws under different legislations such as the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) application Act of 2007. Although the Westphalian States were not religiously plural in nature, they were plural within the Christian fold and enforced different Christian edicts. In addition to that, just like the Westphalian States, the Indian state interferes heavily in religious affairs. A parallelism can be seen between the control that the Indian State exercises on temples, its funding of minority religious institutions and the Westphalian States discretion over Churches. When we look at successor Westphalian states such as France and Austria that came into formation around the same time as India in the mid-20th Century, we see that these states followed the ‘wall of separation doctrine’, which completely separates the state from the religion, and therefore are in the true sense of the word ‘Secular’, as they are disconnected from religion in all manners whatsoever. They are separated to the extent that even donning religious attire there is in contravention of the law.
This raises a pertinent question: if the Indian state bears more resemblance to the Christian theological states of the 17th and 18th centuries in terms of religion and is completely antithetical to their very successor states of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and is involved in every religious matter possible just like theological states, then is it even appropriate to call India Secular? There is no doubt that the Indian State allows Freedom of Conscience and equal status to all religions. But does that qualify the Indian State as Secular in light of the etymological roots of the word and the dominant way it’s practiced in almost all parts of the world? If post-colonial states like
India inherited the State from the Westphalian and Western traditions on grounds that they were sovereign, democratic, and secular, then should they not evolve like them and completely separate religion from the State as they did and be Secular in its true meaning of the word as it is dominantly understood today?
This paper was not meant to be a criticism of Christianity or a hostile look at Secularism. It was an earnest look at how the biggest religion in the world has influenced the dominant system of State-Religion relations. After a deep historical analysis of Secularism and the State which this paper did, there is a strong case to be made that it
wasn’t rationality or science that gave us our sophisticated political systems. It was indeed the Bible and Christianity. Hardliner Atheists who see absolutely no utility to religion should definitely delve into the history of the State and Secularism to appreciate it because surprisingly, it is what gave them the freedom of conscience
they enjoy today at the same time religious fundamentalists should delve into the history of State and Secularism to appreciate the flexibility of Christianity and its adherents to appreciate how they gave us our indispensable political system.