In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion in Contemporary Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works, Online Resources, and General Overviews
  • Journals

Political Science Religion in Contemporary Political Thought
Joanna Tice-Jen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0207


When political science was being institutionalized as a discipline in the early 20th century, secularism was deep in the process of changing the tenor of political thought. Theories of secularization—and advocacy for it—were at their peak, having gradually risen on the tide of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and subsequent intellectual currents such as humanism, deism, and Darwinism. The dominance of these theories was so great that, by the mid-20th century, the question of religion’s proper role in politics seemed answered and secularization seemed inevitable, relegating the study of religious and political thought to a small niche in the political theory subfield. However, a series of historiographical shifts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries contributed to a current renaissance of scholarship attending to religion and secularism. Due to that reorientation, early 21st century discourse represents a watershed moment in the history of political thought, inaugurating a “post-secular age,” despite 500 years of secularization (“post-secular,” defined as a series of interrelated debates emerging out of the humanities and social sciences in the last thirty years, is discussed further under Originary Post-secular Theories). However, that discourse is better understood as the extension of a long-standing conversation in political thought. This article traces the historiographical developments of that conversation. It discusses the shifting currents of religio-political thinking among the early moderns, the ripening of theories of secularization around the turn of the 20th century, the renaissance of religious themes in contemporary political thought of the early 20th century that respond to secularization, a mid-20th-century recession in attention to the religious and finally, the germination of the “post-secular” discourse and renewed attention to religio-political thought beginning in the late 20th century. In addition, this article outlines some of the thematic questions that this discourse has raised. How do we define religion and fundamentalism, and what is their relationship to morality and ethics? What is the appropriate role for religious belief in the workings of government and the development of civil society? Does “secularism” conceal religious modes of thought that demand the protestantization of all global religions? What possible harms or benefits does the strict separation of church and state do to society, and what are the specific harms or benefits of allowing religious debates to touch politics? Is the individual citizen enriched or corrupted by the influences of secular and religious ideas, respectively? Is the individual even the proper object of analysis, or would it be better to investigate the politics of groups and cultures? And finally, are contemporary political thought and contemporary religiosity necessarily at odds?

Reference Works, Online Resources, and General Overviews

Although religion in political thought is an emergent subfield today that produces a diverse and divergent array of new methodological, topical, and hermeneutic modes of scholarship, a standard literature that provides general overviews of the entire subject is not yet available. Rather than outlining a scholarly consensus or established camps within a stalemated dialogue, citations in this section are meant to illustrate the inchoate nature of this ongoing debate, including questions about whether religio-political thought has a place in contemporary political theory at all. To the greatest degree possible, each text takes a different focus, uses a different vocabulary, and communicates a different thesis. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary nature of the subfield means that many sources are drawn from philosophy, sociology, and religious studies, even as their focus is on the political aspects of their respective fields. Callaway 2016 and Eberle and Cuneo 2015 are both drawn from peer-reviewed and periodically updated online encyclopedias of philosophy, which include helpful and extensive bibliographies. Religion and Politics (Callaway 2016) focuses on the “problem” of religion and politics in philosophical terms, whereas Religion and Political Theory (Eberle and Cuneo 2015) focuses on minority religious groups in democratic states. The Immanent Frame website has rotating interdisciplinary content to keep scholars abreast of the latest news, publications, and debates at the intersection of religion and politics. Calhoun, et al. 2011 is an interdisciplinary and international volume that provides an overview of current scholarly literature on secularization, but does not discuss other aspects of religion in contemporary political theory. Turner 2011 serves as a general introduction or overview to politics and religion in contemporary theory, although it is from a sociological perspective.

  • Calhoun, Craig J., Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds. Rethinking Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Introduction to the concepts of state secularism and secularization from sociological, philosophical, and political science perspectives. Focuses on the definition and genealogy of secularism, its status in the early 21st century, philosophical and political framings, and interactions between secularism and religion in both the West and Asia. Appropriate for both scholars and advanced students.

  • Callaway, Christopher. “Religion and Politics.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Bradley Dowden and James Fieser, 2016.

    Focuses on legal and democratic encounters with the religious “other,” found primarily in the work of philosophers, but also includes accounts of theories emerging from the fields of sociology, political science, education, law, and theology. Topics include separation of church and state, toleration, political liberalism, and deliberative democracy.

  • Eberle, Chris, and Terence Cuneo. “Religion and Political Theory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2015.

    This philosophically oriented entry outlines responses to the “theologico-political problem,” which deals with tolerance and intolerance, the authority of religious laws, and equal standing between religion and secularism. Fails to explore any explicitly post-secular themes, such as the shared roots of religious and secular thought, or political approaches for multicultural societies.

  • The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere. Edited by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins. Social Science Research Council, 2007–.

    An ancillary publication of the Social Science Research Council, this digital forum consists of essays, book reviews, and updates on religion concerning the public sphere, world affairs, American politics, and science. Interdisciplinary, drawing mainly from religious studies, political science, sociology, anthropology, and history scholars interested in rethinking secularism.

  • Turner, Bryan S. Religion and Modern Society: Citizenship, Secularisation, and the State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975660

    Building on modern sociological theories of religion—from Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Mary Douglas, and Pierre Bourdieu—Turner focuses on how modern religious practices relate to themes of individualization, the state, and the market, including secularization, multiculturalism, management of religion in state policy and law, and global revivalism.

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