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USJI Voice

USJI Voice Vol.36

What Can Politics Do? What Can Religions Do?

David Wessels
Professor, Sophia University

The purpose of these remarks is to look at international politics and U.S.-Japan relations from the perspective of religions. Although often overlooked, the politics-religions nexus plays important roles not only in the United States and Japan, but throughout the world. The study of international relations, in particular, has seen a flourishing of research that references religion in the new millennium, an appropriate agenda for such a perennial and basic dimension of humanity’s quest to live together in peace and mutual understanding. Political figures including Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright have vigorously addressed what politics and religions can do in the face of global and international conditions today. Rather than follow a “play safe” avoidance of discussing religions and politics, we need to address this theme directly.

Attention to religions and politics received a big boost at the time of al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Even before then, journalistic treatment of “fundamentalism” as a dangerous religious extremism associated the enmeshing of religions and politics in the popular mind as a negative, perilous combination. Of course, such simplistic accounts often fed story lines that made understanding the important similarities and relationships between politics and religions difficult for practitioners and specialists alike. Undoubtedly, the 9/11 attacks shook the whole world, especially the United States; the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system just a few years earlier shook Japan. Both events linked perceptions of politics and religions among the general public. Misguided actions by people on both sides of the distinct realms of religions and politics spiked confusion and distrust in a complex world of social and economic changes. Yet the interconnections of the two realms can be constructive, and in any case, are inevitable because both address profound human aspirations for transcendent and communal experiences.

If we go back a few years, the words attributed to Stalin show how the “can do” question has been mistakenly answered throughout history. He has been quoted as disparaging religion in international politics with the quip: “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” The sarcasm points to a reality about resources in international politics; but, of course, it also demonstrates from today’s perspective how Stalin was totally ignorant of spiritual power and the capacities of religions. This is all the more ironic not only because the Pope of Rome came to play a significant role in the downfall of the entire communist political edifice of the twentieth century, but also because Stalin’s Soviet Union exists no more. Furthermore, the resurgence of religions in many regions in recent decades has quashed any notion that they would somehow fade away with the onslaught of modernization and secularization. The vigor of religions and religious institutions has challenged national states and international relations.

The impact of religions on electoral politics is found in the United States, Japan, as well as numerous other countries large and small throughout the world. Many countries have official religions or other forms of entanglements between governments and religions, either directly or via political parties. Jonathan Fox has written extensively on the question of government involvement in religions, providing quantitative evidence of the extensive role of religions in the constitutional, legal, and political practices of states throughout the world. The Pew Research Institute has gone one step further in its numerous surveys of both government restrictions on religions and social hostilities involving religions.

Similarly, political choices impact the lives of religious believers in large and small ways affecting morality, law, communal life, and more. Of course, directly or indirectly, many aspects of international relations are affected by electoral trends and communal identities, including the formation of alliances, the establishment of supranational political and economic institutions, and symbolic actions between and among states. The status of Jerusalem, indeed the whole global problem surrounding the Israelis and Palestinians, is a mixture of politics and religions that remains forever entangled. The role of the United State in international politics is constantly being swayed by this conundrum. Japan, of course, would have a very different set of foreign relations were it not for the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine. Some other examples of the confounding of religions and politics are found in twenty-first century wars in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. There is empirical evidence that religious dimensions to conflicts make them more intractable.

The tragic and intriguing case of the so-called Islamic State (IS) stands out as particularly remarkable. A large group of violent militants drawn from all parts of the world have terrorized people throughout the world in the name of “Islam” and “state.” Mainstream Islamic groups have denounced IS as not being authentically Islamic. It is also ironic that IS chose the modern political nomenclature of “state” to fuse religious and political language for a movement that has not gained traction in the realms of either interstate politics or religions. While their rhetoric fell back on the traditional language of caliphate among their own true believers, their straightforward appeal to both “Islamic” and the modern “state” has failed, even as they threaten people everywhere.

While I must eschew a rigorous discussion of technical terminology in this short essay, the particular case of “civil religion” deserves mention. Analysts are more familiar with this term in the case of the United States, where one can find numerous political symbols and appeals that are more regularly associated with integral religions (Judaeo-Christian identifications). But specialists on Japan sometimes see a similar “nihonkyō,” or Japan-religion, in the sacredness attributed to certain persons, places, and festivities (Shinto-Buddhist syncretisms). Furthermore, depending on how one defines these terms, it is possible to find peculiar quasi-religions or sacralization processes at the heart of political mobilization even in places like North Korea or the People’s Republic of China, although I am sure that they would vigorously deny such an attribute to their political systems. Throughout history, the overlap in practices of rituals, symbols, and authority demonstrates a convergence of politics and religions. Many regions have seen a rise of “public religion” in recent decades, a phenomenon identified by Jóse Casanova. Awareness of how people naturally are drawn to both religions and politics, and how these enable them to discover the meanings and identities that give them capacities for their personal and public lives is crucial for understanding our world.

If one tries to give a short answer to the questions with which we started (what can politics do? what can religions do?), the answer would have to be that in tandem politics and religions provide capacities for human flourishing, but can also be the sources of perverse behaviors. Perhaps the simplest answer is rather the rhetorical question: what can’t they do? The United States government has addressed issues of religious freedom in its foreign policies, but is sometimes insensitive to religions in pursuit of military and economic goals. Japan needs to be more aware of how religions have impacted its own history, its interactions with other countries, and the aspirations of peoples throughout the world. Further reflection on the quasi-religious features of some polities may yield insights into their character that would both help them to understand themselves and suggest new approaches to others on how to deal with them.


David Wessels
David Wessels is Professor in the Faculty of Global Studies, Sophia University, Tokyo, where he has been teaching International Relations since the 1970s. He holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy (Saint Louis University), Master’s degrees in Government (Georgetown University) and Theology (Sophia University), and a doctoral degree in Political Science (Yale University). He served for six years as Chair of the International Political Science Association Research Committee on Religion and Politics, and continues to do research on politics and religions, as well as peace research and international human rights. He is a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus.
Contact at: wessels(at)sophia.ac.jp


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