Pope Francis, right, walks alongside the Grand Imam of Egypt's Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, as they arrive at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019. Photo: AFP / Vincenzo Pinto

On July 30, 1956, the US Congress unanimously adopted a law that provided that the words “In God we trust” would be from then onward the national motto of the United States and should appear on all US currency bills. Adopted at the height of the Cold War, this provision was intended to emphasize the chasm between the Christian values adhered to by the United States as opposed to the “godless Communism” represented by the Soviet Union.

The adoption of this motto, which still prevails today, confirmed the United States as a world power whose overall vision of its role would be guided not only by national interests and rational principles but also by its “trust” in a superior being defined as “God.” Thus faith, not to say religion, was acknowledged as being one of the components of a nation that adhered to the separation of church and state.

Among Western societies, the notion that state and church should be two separate entities is relatively new. Historically, the two were interlocked and the reference to faith was part of the national environment.

During World War I, the German army went into battle with “God with us” embossed on soldiers’ belt buckles. And as for monarchs, they were considered to hold their position by “divine right,” and coronations were actually religious ceremonies performed by the church hierarchies. This explains in part why today many European states such as the Scandinavian countries or the UK still feature on their national flag a version of a cross, harking back to their Christian traditions. Conversely, European counties like France with a revolutionary tradition, or of more recent vintage such as Italy or Germany, tend to have national flags featuring a combination of colors rather than pictograms with religious connotations.

The trend to delink state and religion and to consider a person’s faith a private matter is in essence a Western phenomenon. It was predicated on the concept of a state whose political legitimacy would be derived from popular support rather than from a divine source and which, while defending the right of each citizen to practice any religion, would not favor or adopt laws that reflected a particular creed.

While the principle underlying the concept is clear-cut, its implementation could not be divorced from centuries of tradition. Not only do ethical principles derived from faith, be it the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament to the sharia law derived from the Koran, permeate many societies, but many of the metrics that define the way our world operates originate from religious authority.

Thus the current international civil calendar with the year starting on January 1 was originally introduced by Pope Gregorius XIII in 1582, hence its name, the Gregorian Calendar. Initially rejected by the Protestant countries of Europe, which saw it as an inroad by the Church of Rome, it was adopted by Britain and the British Empire in 1752 and, following many others, Japan in 1873 and Turkey in 1919. By that time it had became the international standard calendar. Granted, currently any number of countries including Thailand, Iran, Nepal, and Israel have for domestic purposes their own calendars. However, for all practical purposes the Gregorian Calendar has become the international norm, and with the passing of time has lost any religious connotation.

While the notion that the dictates of faith should not impinge on secular power has been steadily gaining ground among Western industrialized democracies, a reverse movement has developed in the Third World

While the notion that the dictates of faith should not impinge on secular power has been steadily gaining ground among Western industrialized democracies, a reverse movement has developed in the Third World.

In the mid-1950s, as an increasing number of former colonies gained their independence, designing a national flag became one of the prerogatives of statehood. While many of these new states chose color schemes, mostly in the form of stripes, to adorn their new flags, others chose a different route. This applied in essence to countries with a Muslim majority, which chose to feature a Muslim religious symbol on their national flags. The movement to reaffirm their Islamic identity was led by Pakistan, which was created, as distinct from India, purely on religious grounds. Conversely, Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, chose not to feature a religious symbol on its national flag.

For the countries that chose to do so, the featuring of a religious symbol on the national flag was far more than a symbolic gesture. Much of the domestic legislation of the Muslim countries was inspired from sharia, the law derived from the teachings of the Koran. With national legislations based on divine inspiration, the law as such became the reflection of a given faith. Not only did this inevitably create two classes of citizens, namely those who belonged to the dominant faith and those who followed other beliefs, but it also imposed the tenets of a given faith on those who were not part of it.

Conversely when attempts were made to change or amend the law, the ensuing dialogue easily spilled over from the realm of the political to the province of the religious and was liable to spark a maelstrom of passions and conflicting beliefs.

Tunisia is a case in point. Considered one of the most liberal Muslim countries, Tunisia’s constitution provides for equal rights for men and women. However, it was only in 2017 that the government rescinded a directive dating from 1973, inspired by sharia, prohibiting a Muslim woman from marrying a man who was not a Muslim. Likewise, Tunisian inheritance law, as based on sharia, provides that women inherit less than men.

A government proposal issued in November 2018 providing for gender equality in inheritance is currently waiting for parliamentary approval – a process that will prove difficult considering the opposition of Islamic movements both in Tunisia and throughout the Muslim world.

Viewed in a historical perspective, the relationship between faith and state is in essence determined by time, the nature of the faith and the social environment in which it comes about.

Monotheistic religions, with their belief in a single god, have by and large been less tolerant of the non-believers in their midst than the likes of Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism. Time also played a crucial role. The Roman Catholicism of today has little in common with that practiced at the time of the Inquisition. Last but not least, the social environment is paramount.

There are currently throughout the world three theocracies, that is, nations in which the chief of state is also the head of the dominant faith: Iran, the UK, and the Vatican.

Iran bags no debate. The Vatican holds no secular power. This leaves the United Kingdom, in which the sovereign is also the head of the Church of England. Cosmetics aside, this is of no practical consequences and the national traditions of democracy and tolerance are so deep-rooted as to make any imposition of the dictates of one faith on the holders of another a non-starter. The same applies to Western countries like Germany, where the separation of church and state does not preclude the presence of crucifixes on the walls of state schools in Catholic Bavaria.

Likewise in the US, the president-elect swears an oath on the Bible to uphold the constitution, a gesture that leaves unanswered what the protocol would be were he a Jew, a Muslim or an agnostic.

Seen from a global perspective, the determining factor of the relationship between church and state is not so much how each component relates to the other but the social environment in which they exist. Granted, some faiths are more exclusive than others and some are more demanding than others as regards their impositions on their followers. The chasm here is in essence between societies with Islamic traditions and those pertaining to the Judeo-Christian or the Buddhist world.

Here the inroads of “secularism,” the practicing of a faith without necessarily abiding by all its dictates, have followed different paths. Throughout the centuries, Christianity both as espoused by the Church of Rome and by the Reformation has undergone a long but systematic evolutionary process. Conversely, the fact that the Koran, unlike the Bible, is considered the word of God to be taken literarily has anchored Islam in a number of set patterns that encompass all aspects of daily life. In this respect, an Islamic symbol or actually any religious symbol on a national flag  makes for a less inclusive society than one symbolized by a national flag that does not carry a religious connotation.

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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