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Religion and Politics. The Just War Tradition

Throughout history, religion has been a significant part of social and political life that emerged in nearly all societies in one or another form. However, religion was not the only social institution present in all civilizations – apart from religious faith, politics and warfare have been an integrative part of all human societies since the time immemorial. As a result, different religions had to cope with the indisputable reality of war and define their position on warfare. The Just War concept that imposes ethical restrictions upon conflicts developed in Christianity, but also applies, at least partially, to Islam and Hinduism, as all three religions insist that only proper authority may wage war.

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Early Christianity was a pacifist teaching, but its rise from an underground form of worship to the state religion of the Roman Empire changed things in this respect. Since Christianity was now an official ideology of a powerful state, it had to cope with the necessity of using war as a political tool – moreover, it had to justify it. This state of things prompted Christian thinkers to blend their moral imperatives with a Realist political perspective, thus creating the Just War Theory. Throughout the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo laid the basics of the Just War. According to them, Christians could participate in warfare if the war was waged with good intentions, for a just cause, and declared by the proper secular authorities (Rowe 2012). Later on, Thomas Aquinas developed the idea further and added that the use of force should be proportionate and that defending life was a valid casus belli in itself (Rowe 2012). Thus, the Christian idea of Just War paints warfare as a permissible activity for a Christian, but only for the right purpose and with the sanction of proper authorities.

As a religion that guided the establishment of mighty empires through conquest, Islam is rarely associated with pacifism, but it still imposes religious restrictions on military conflicts. It is a common knowledge that Islamic theology divides the world into two parts: the dar al-Islam or household of Islam and the dar al-Harb or abode of war (Rowe 2012). Thus, Islam is not an inherently pacifist religion as Christianity originally was because it shared the Realist perspective recognized the ontological necessity of war since its very emergence. However, Islam does not endorse the unconditional and unlimited use of violence in wartime, nor does it allow starting hostilities on one’s own initiatives. While there is no universally shared concept of the Just War in Islam, one of the most prevalent perspectives is that offensive jihad is “the duty or the community of Muslims as a whole” (Rowe 2012, 212). This means that only the authority that represents the entire umma – the community of Muslims – should have the power to declare war to expand Islam, and this idea of proper authority is similar to the one found in the Christian Just War Theory.

Hinduism, as another significant religion, also has a perspective on just and unjust wars, and it has certain similarities with Christianity and Islam. As one of the social functions of Hinduism was supporting the strict social stratification, it is no wonder that it prescribed different sets of moral principles for different social groups. In Bhagavad Gita, a part of the famous Indian epic, god Khrishna converses with the warrior-prince Arjuna appalled with the violence of fratricidal war and convinces him that is his social duty as a fight (Rowe 2012). Had Arjuna been a peasant or a trader, he would have gone against his social role by even thinking about warfare, but, as a warrior and a noble, it is a just and right thing for him to participate in it. Thus, the Hindu perspective of warfare is similar to the Christian and Muslim ideas on the matter at least in one respect: war can only be right when declared and waged by the proper authorities.

To summarize, the Just War Theory as a whole is a Christian phenomenon, but at least some of its aspects are fully applicable to other religions. Islamic theology generally maintains that the war for the expansion of Islam can only be declared by the leadership of the entire umma, thus agreeing with the Christian point that righteous war requires proper authority. Hindu perspective on the matter also stresses that the war becomes just and right only if started and conducted by the appropriate actors.

Religion as a Universal Concept

Just as the beliefs regarding the supernatural differ across the world, the concept of religions varies as well. The perception of religion as a universal concept, more or less applicable to all cultures, goes back to the Western Christian-based tradition. However, there are also dissenting voices claiming that the Western interpretation of religion is ill-suited for the beliefs permeating other parts of the world. The opponents of Western understanding of religion as a universal concept may claim that this tradition distinguishes clearly between religious and public life, while many others do not. However, history shows that Western Christianity may be as integrated with public and political life as any other religion.

The core principle of the Western understanding of religion that goes all the way back to early Christianity is the distinction between spiritual and public matters. According to this idea, public and religious matters are two separate domains: while religion provides ethical guidance and spiritual satisfaction, it does not aspire to take a leading role in public affairs (Rowe 2012). This understanding of religion as an institution that provides moral principles but remains strictly separate from the secular authority guided the Western perception of beliefs found in other parts of the world.

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One may easily challenge this notion by pointing to the religions that do not limit themselves to mere ethical guidance and play a considerable role in public matters. An obvious example would be Islam that does not feature a sharp distinction between sacred and secular authority inherent in Christianity. For instance, the attempt of the monarchist government in Iran to launch an explicitly secular policy of modernization in the country provoked bitter resistance on the part of many Muslims (Rowe 2012). Attempts to force the religions to the sideline of the public policy backfired dangerously in 1979 in the form of the Islamic revolution that made religious leadership the highest authority in the country (Rowe 2012). Thus, one can easily see that notion of separation between spiritual and public spheres may not apply to religions other than Christianity. As a result, one may assume that the Western Christianity-based perception of religion as a universal concept does not describe other religions accurately.

However, if one pays enough attention, it is easy to note that religion may also play a prominent role in public affairs in Western nations. For instance, simultaneously to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland took an active part in the anti-Communist protests (Rowe 2012). Another example would be Christian churches building support for the Republican Party in the United States (Rowe 2012). It is important to note that these instances of religion playing an active role in public affairs occur not on the time of yore but in the fully modernized societies. It seems that the distinction between public and religious spheres inherent in the Western definition of religion as a universal concept does not describe the reality of Western religious life perfectly either.

As once can see, the universal Western concept of religion is imperfect, but it seems equally applicable too Western and non-Western countries. One of the central features of this interpretation of religion is its distinction between the spiritual matters as domain or religion and the public matters as a secular domain. One may easily find the examples of religion influencing public matters in non-Western countries – for instance, those that follow Islam – and use them to claim that this definition does not apply to non-Christian religions. However, Christianity itself may also play an active role in public and even political life in the fully modernized Western countries. Apparently, the Western definition of religion as a universal concept concentrates more on its abstract features rather than the day-to-day reality of their implementation. The focus on spiritual matters over the public ones merely serves to point to the primary function of religion rather than assume it has no supplementary functions. With this in mind, the Western universal concept of religion seems equally applicable to all parts of the world.


Rowe, Paul S. 2012. Religion and Global Politics. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press.

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