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
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
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 develop.
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
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 purposes.
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.