Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS (oxfordre.com/politics). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 10 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

In the previous centuries, religion had been losing its prominent role in society, but its relationship to the modern democratic state is still among the most fundamental questions of political philosophy. Secularism is commonly described with label of “the separation of Church and state,” but the idea of the state disconnectedness from religion is a much more complex a phenomenon than this term suggests. A secular state must “manage” the relationship between religion and state institutions in a way that makes religion both subject to specific disabilities and singling out for special treatment.

Modern secularism has several different faces: Political secularism, economic secularism, educational secularism, ethical secularism, scientific secularism, and religious criticism are all different modes of secularism. Political secularism is the key mode among these, because it is a precondition of the pursuit of the other modes.

Political secularism has three essential elements: politics, religion, and their separation. Consequently, different conceptions of secularism will provide different and rival versions of the core concept, political secularism, depending on how they define politics, religion, and separation.

Secularism can refer to different levels of the state: to its ends (a theocracy is the exact opposite of a secular state in this regard); its institutions (the connectedness/disconnectedness of the state’s institutions with that of the Church); its laws/public policies (the state’s regulation of religion and religious activities); its source of legitimacy (what is the final source of the legitimacy of the state); the justification of its public policies/laws (what justification is given to state laws/public policies); the level of power and jurisdiction (whether the state is the only sovereign on its territory or sovereignty is shared with the Church); and its symbolic dimension (whether the state symbolically supports any religious groups).

The function of political secularism is to prevent at least four different kinds of problems: It must protect the religious freedom of believers on its territory, and religion must be protected from politics, but the state must be also protected from religion. In addition, there is a possible problem on the symbolic level, with the state’s official endorsement of religion.

Political secularism must also satisfy important normative principles. The most important of these are freedom of conscience and the principle of state neutrality. To satisfy these principles/normative requirements, the secular state must manage religion in a way that it keeps a principled distance on the aforementioned levels, but it must also protect and accommodate religion so it does not suffer unfair disadvantages. The upshot is that a secular state will be incompatible with either full religious establishment and the radical separation of Church and state—regimes that satisfy political secularism will take place somewhere between these two poles.

Keywords: secularism, laïcité, separation of Church and state, freedom of religion, religious accommodation, religious establishment

Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial.

Please subscribe or login to access full text content.

If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.

For questions on access or troubleshooting, please check our FAQs, and if you can't find the answer there, please contact us.