The Changing Role of Religion in Western States and Societies

On November 1st Sven Speer, Chairman of Open Religious Policy Forum, presented the approach of Open Religious Policy in Washington, DC. The invitation to his speech at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel was followed by 80 representatives of departments, universities, think tank, associations and religious congregations. Claus Gramckow, Representative USA&Canada of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom hosted the event.

Sven Speer’s speech:

Until recently, a great majority of scholars worldwide assumed that the increasing economic and scientific progress would lead to the secularization of societies globally. Nearly every scholar expected that economy, science and state would be more and more separated and independent from religion; and that this would lead to the privatization of religion, its removal from the public sphere and in the most extreme vision, the disappearance of religion as we know it.[1]

In the past, the decline of religion in society was not only assumed, but consciously accelerated by state actions. Revolutionary France in the 1790ies made one of the first of these attempts. The French Republic confiscated church property, dissolved many ecclesiastic orders and congregations, removed iconography from places of worship, destroyed crosses and bells, introduced a non-Christian Cult of Reason and killed reluctant clergy. Antireligious regimes attempted the same in the Mexican Cristero War, the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and during the Soviet rule in the Eastern bloc.

Nevertheless, religion nowadays is more vital than ever before in many parts of the world. Neither scientific, economic or social progress[2] nor oppression has led to the vanishing of religion on a global scale. Vehemently, religion is making a comeback to the political map.

The theory of secularization, understood as the disappearance of religion in a comprehensive way, cannot describe what is going on in the world. But we don’t see a comprehensive comeback of religion either. Religious forces in the world are getting stronger and simultaneously so are the nonreligious ones. More and more people consider themselves atheists, secular humanists or religiously indifferent. Even in the US, the most religiously vital country in the West, fifteen percent of the population are not religious at all. And this fraction of the population continues to grow every year.[3]

Currently, we are not witnessing a growing global secularization trend, but we are also not witnessing a victory of religion over nonbelief. Thus, such general trend has generated an increased level of religious diversity.

„Immigration, much contrary to public opinion, is not the major drive behind religious pluralization.

Immigration, much contrary to public opinion, is not the major drive behind religious pluralization. It is rather the growing free choice of Western citizens themselves what has led to this social phenomenon.[4] The world more and more is becoming very similar to the American society where the experiment of religious freedom has been tested for a longer time than anywhere else in the world, thus every dominant religion is becoming one possible option among many.[5]

This development in the number and variety of religious options is a huge challenge for every liberal state in the world. However; why might this be the case? After all, one would think liberal regimes are best at dealing with diversity because they acknowledge that each individual citizen decides what is best for him or herself. And so in general, liberal regimes are pretty good in accommodating religious diversity. Nonetheless, I truly believe there is room for improvement and here is why.

„I see two major traditions in which liberals tried to develop neutral approaches towards religious policy.

[pullquote_right]Liberals assume that all people are different in the way they wish to live their lives and that the state must respect their right to do so.[/pullquote_right]Liberals assume that all people are different in the way they wish to live their lives and that the state must respect their right to do so. For this right to be put into practice, the state has to be neutral. Therefore liberal regimes are founded on the principle of state neutrality. I see two major traditions in which liberals tried to develop neutral approaches towards religious policy. And by religious policy I mean the relationship between state and religion, understood as a policy field. In the first approach, religious policy rests on a social consensus and on agreeing upon a common ground in society, in the tradition of English philosopher John Locke. The second tradition is one based on the theories of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Neutrality in this approach is not built by consensus but instead by constructing the state as a level above all religious difference.

The Lockeans assume a consensual understanding in society which can then be applied to religious policy. It rests on the idea that certain beliefs are shared by the whole population.[6] The problem with this approach is that the consensus in society is far too small to base comprehensive state policies on it. Even at the time of John Locke himself, the state could not be based upon the consensus of society as a whole. In order to arrive at a larger set of shared beliefs, Locke included only views shared among Protestants to be true for everyone, thereby excluding minorities. He excluded Catholics because of their assumed loyalty to the pope and Atheists because they lacked the fear of punishment in the afterlife and thus couldn’t be trusted.[7] The influential liberal American philosopher John Rawls developed a similar approach. He, too, grounded state policy on what he called ‘overlapping consensus’. He tried to include every belief system in society, whether religious or secular. He failed because he de facto limited the consensus to arguments that were not taken from religious viewpoints.[8] All approaches in religious policy, which are based upon a broad consensus, fail because the consensus is too small to make it the foundation of state policies that would be neutral.[9]

The second liberal approach follows the tradition of Thomas Hobbes. It does not construct the relationship of state and religion on a consensus in society, but completely set apart from religion in society. The state is not only independent from religion; it is superior to religion.[10] Although Hobbes was not in favor of religious freedom at all[11], many liberals, especially in continental Europe and Latin America, followed this tradition. This kind of religious policy can be found in places where the modern state had to struggle against an alliance of throne and altar.[12] In order to break the actual or assumed superiority of the church, liberals used the state itself as an instrument to fight the church, clerics and religion as such.[13] They fostered the provision of state schools, state welfare, etc. in order to reeducate or at least marginalize the religious population.[14] That’s the reason, why the term ‘Kulturkampf’, cultural struggle, was shaped by a liberal from Germany.[15] The problem with this approach in practice is that it only guarantees freedoms for those who conform to the state’s favored tradition. For all others, whom could even be the majority of society, freedom is strongly limited.[16]

Examples for the Hobbesian approach are France and Turkey, where a lot of people assume a strict separation of state and religion. Nevertheless, the French Republic preserves a tamed version of Roman Catholicism by state funding for private religious schools (mainly Catholic), the maintenance for church buildings and a strict observation of religious minorities. The Turkish Republic doesn’t stop at taming religion; it strives to control Islam. The state educates and pays for every imam and every teacher for religion in schools and bans every form of private religious education.

„There is a third way for how a liberal state can deal with a diverse society.

The Lockean and the Hobbesian approach fail to develop neutral state policy. But liberalism is not lost. There is a third way for how a liberal state can deal with a diverse society. This way follows the tradition of John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin. Both warned against the monopolization of state policy by one group or another – even if this is considered to be done ‘for the good of all’.[17]

[pullquote_right]The state has no right to influence its citizens to become adherents of some religious traditions or no religion at all.[/pullquote_right]Berlin measures the freedom of society by the number of choices it allows its members.[18] In order to guarantee many choices, the power of the state has to be limited.[19] That does not mean that the state should be reduced or even abolished. As Mill stated, the critique against public education is not, that there is public education, but that the state is the executive of public education.[20] The state has no right to influence its citizens to become adherents of some religious traditions or no religion at all. But it has the right and, I would say, the duty to guarantee the availability of services to all of its citizens. This implies that the state must provide the framework and the funding for such services.

I use these arguments as a point of departure for the development of what I call ‘open religious policy’. What I mean by ‘open religious policy’ is the relationship between state and religion in which all religions and secular systems have the same access to the public sphere and state funding – while securing the right of choice for the individual citizen. I thereby understand ‘open religious policy’ as unbiased, public, guaranteed, free choice and changeable.

Let me explain these five principles briefly.


When we are serious that every person is a freely thinking and acting being, the state must not shape humans according to the ideas of others.[21] The state has to respect the free choice of its citizens when it comes to religious matters. It must neither privilege nor proselytize individual religions, religion in general or nonbelief. Open religious policy does not homogenize citizens; instead it fosters the practice of tolerance so that the acceptance of diversity is socialized.[22] This process is not easy for the citizens and it will often be a challenge for any society.[23] Nonetheless, citizens have to learn that there must be a difference between legitimate public indignation and illegitimate interference of the state.[24]


While the state must be impartial in the religious sphere, citizens are free to express their belief or nonbelief in public.[25] Religion is a private matter, but at the same time, citizens have the right to show their faith in public life. Neither the public nor the state are reserved primarily for one group of religious or secular beliefs,[26] however, such public sphere must not be a place of state-imposed harmony. Conflicting views must also be allowed to be expressed in public.[27] Different opinions of religious traditions and nonreligious systems can therefore be articulated peacefully as the public visibility of differences is the only way to learn to deal with them.


The state must respect the free choice of each individual citizen. But the same is true for religious and secular congregations. The right to freedom of each individual citizen is unalienable – no individual can permanently relinquish his or her freedom in favor of a congregation. There is no right not to be free.[28] The individual citizen, therefore, always has the right to leave his or her congregation; but has to live with the consequences which come from that decision.

Free choice

The state has to give access to funding for services and initiatives of all groups in society; be they faith-based, secular or indifferent. Any such services, whether organized by the state or groups, are equivalent in what they offer the members of society and therefore equally worthy of funding. Every group has the right to get state funding to provide health care, childcare, care for the elderly, shelter for the homeless and so on according to their belief. Precisely because services of the state cannot be neutral, the state has to make funding available for private initiatives.[29] This, however, does not mean that the state gives up its coordinating function. For example, the state sets the amount of funding allotted for certain services. It cannot decide, however, how and by whom services should be provided. To guarantee the freedom of choice for everyone and to avoid monopolies of individual faiths in the provision of certain services, the state has to provide its own services, which should accommodate all traditions and try to be as neutral as possible.


The details of the relationship of state and religion must not be manifested in constitutions, concordats, court decisions and the like. The main principle of openness has to be guaranteed. Yet, the concrete expression of open religious policy can vary from time to time and from place to place. Even within states, religious policy can differ between regions.[30] It is easier to arrive at compromises on a regional or even local level than on the federal level. In such circumstances, there is great danger for conflicts to be fought over in a very anonymous and therefore aggressive and ruthless way. Open religious policy is therefore always a trial-and-error method of opening religious policy for all kinds of religious and secular traditions in society.[31] Conflicts about religious policy will always be present. We can only hope that through the continued handling of conflicts and increased exposure to diversity, we learn to engage in a more civilized way.

In conclusion

I believe we are not seeing the long assumed secularization of all societies. By the same token we are also not seeing a decline of social nonbelief. However, what we are experiencing is an unparalleled degree of a new global religious diversity which represents a challenge for liberal states all over the world because their neutrality is construed in a way that, again, excludes large parts of the population. One way of dealing with this new diversity movement and the failure of the liberal state to be neutral is for the state be to open to all religious and secular traditions. This kind of relationship between state and religion is what I call ‘open religious policy’.

To further summarize, in my opinion ‘open religious policy’ means

–    the state must be unbiased towards religious and secular ideas;

–    citizens have the right to practice their religious and secular ideas in the private as well as public sphere;

–    the state guarantees the rights of its citizens to leave their congregation;

–    the state has to fund faith-based services in education and welfare besides providing its own and

–    religious policy can be legitimately distinct in different times and places.



[1] José Casanova, ‚Public Religions in the Modern World,‘ Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 19–39.

[2] Callum G. Brown, ‚A Revisionist Approach to Religious Change,‘ in Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis, ed. Steve Bruce, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001, pp. 31–58, pp. 55–56.

[3] Barry A. Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, ‚American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population‘, 2009.

[4] Charles Taylor, ‚A Secular Age,‘ Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2007, p. 12; Olivier Roy, ‚Heilige Einfalt: Über die politischen Gefahren entwurzelter Religionen,‘ Munich: Pantheon, 2011, pp. 21–24.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 12.

[6] Ulrich Willems, ‚Säkularisierung des Politischen oder politikwissenschaftlicher Säkularismus?: Zum disziplinären Perzeptionsmuster des Verhältnisses von Religion und Politik in gegenwärtigen Gesellschaften,‘ in Säkularisierung und Resakralisierung in westlichen Gesellschaften: Ideengeschichtliche und theoretische Perspektiven, eds. Mathias Hildebrandt, Manfred Brocker, Hartmut Behr, Wiesbaden: Westdt. Verl., 2001, pp. 215–240, p. 231.

[7] Veit Bader, ‚Secularism or Democracy? Associational Governance of Religious Diversity,‘ Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2007, p. 310.

[8] Ulrich Willems, ‚Religion als Privatsache?: Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit dem liberalen Prinzip einer strikten Trennung von Politik und Religion,‘ in Politik und Religion, eds. Michael Minkenberg, Ulrich Willems, Wiesbaden: Westdt. Verl., 2003, pp. 88–112, pp. 100–105.

[9] Bader, Secularism or Democracy?, p. 71.

[10] Willems, ‚Säkularisierung des Politischen oder politikwissenschaftlicher Säkularismus?‘, p. 231.

[11] Bader, Secularism or Democracy?, p. 310.

[12] Ahmet T. Kuru, ‚Secularism and State Policies Toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey,‘ New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009, pp. 238–240.

[13] Ralph Raico, ‚Die Partei der Freiheit: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Liberalismus,‘ Stuttgart: Lucius & Lucius, 1999, pp. 31–34.

[14] Stephen V. Monsma, J. Christopher Soper, ‚Introduction,‘ in Equal Treatment of Religion in a Pluralistic Society, eds. Stephen V. Monsma, J. Christopher Soper, Grand Rapids/Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 1–8, pp. 5–7.

[15] Ibid., p. 117.

[16] Ibid., p. 37.

[17]  John Stuart Mill, ‚Über die Freiheit,‘ Stuttgart: Reclam, 2010, pp. 19, 24.

[18] Isaiah Berlin, ‚Freiheit: Vier Versuche,‘ Frankfurt a.M: Fischer, 2006, p. 249.

[19] Berlin, Freiheit, p. 249.

[20] Mill, Über die Freiheit, pp. 151, 153.

[21] Berlin, Freiheit, pp. 254–255.

[22] Willems, ‚Religion als Privatsache?‘, pp. 107–108.

[23] Mill, Über die Freiheit, pp. 16–17.

[24] Ibid., p. 109.

[25] Willems, ‚Religion als Privatsache?‘, p. 108.

[26] Ibid., p. 106.

[27] Mill, Über die Freiheit, pp. 109, 121.

[28] Ibid., p. 147.

[29] Monsma, Soper, ‚Introduction‘, p. 1.

[30] Willems, ‚Religion als Privatsache?‘, pp. 107–108.

[31] Bader, Secularism or Democracy?, p. 92.


Dr. Sven Speer
Dr. Sven Speer ist Vorsitzender des Forums Offene Religionspolitik (FOR) seit dessen Gründung 2011. Als Mitarbeiter und im Rahmen von Vorträgen und Gutachten berät er Regierungsorganisationen, Abgeordnete, Religionsgemeinschaften und Verbände zum Verhältnis von Staat und Religion – u.a. in Berlin, Jerusalem, Beirut, Kairo, Washington D.C., Houston und Salt Lake City. Er ist darüber hinaus Co-Founder von inteero, einer Plattform für Online-Einrichtungsberatung. Speer hat Politikwissenschaft und Geschichte studiert und am Exzellenzcluster ‚Religion und Politik‘, am German Marshall Fund of the United States und am Institut für Migrationsforschung und Interkulturelle Studien zur politischen Regulierung von Religion geforscht.