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To What Extent Is Religious Establishment Problematic?

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A discussion on religion and its establishment is not the type of conversation you would have over dinner or at a social function as it brings about a sense of awkwardness. It makes us cringe and the parties feel like they are rubbing their religion on the faces of the others. In this paper, I will outline the problematic nature of religious establishment in states. What is a religious establishment, therefore? It is a religious institution that a government officially recognizes and supports it as a national institution.

Regulating the relationship between civil and religious authorities and between secular and sacred laws has over the years been done by the constitution. Yet in many states, the relationship between the state and religion continues to be the most difficult issue to resolve. Secularism refers to this separation of religion from the State. However, in this paper, the state and religion are not separated.

Is it possible for a society to have an established religion? I take from David Hume a secular argument that points to the moderating effect of establishment on religious discourse and practice. I examine the claim that the existence of a religious establishment promotes equality among citizens. I claim that although the Church in this case can have valuable effects on the people in a state, it also has proved to be problematic. I then agree with Laborde’s argument about the establishment, that it must have a contextual character; this one applies in circumstances in which the religion in question has historically been the religion of the majority of the society’s inhabitants, and that majority also continues to wish to see it officially recognized. I then examine that the establishment often belittles those who are not of that faith making them second class citizens as claimed by Cécile Laborde. However, this claim fails to distinguish privileging an institution and privileging the people attached to it.


In Cécile Laborde’s discussion of the religious establishment in Liberalism’s Religion and, she nowhere dismisses the possibility that a state might grant a particular religion official recognition while still identifying as a liberal state. She goes on to provide a sketch of such a state, calling it Divinitia and contrasting it with its less religion-friendly state, Secularia (Laborde, 2017). An example of Secularia is in the Twentieth Century, where Laïcité was conceived in France. It represents a strict separation of the church and the state as laid out by the law of separation of the church and the state on 9th December 1905. With this law, French citizens were guaranteed free exercise of religion and it stopped recognizing any religion. This meant that it did stop funding religious organizations and prohibited the placing of religious symbols in public places.

Divinitia accommodates and supports religion in various ways that she spells out, while still on Laborde’s view exemplifying a reasonable liberal conception of justice. As she puts it, ‘there is more permissible variation in state-religion arrangements than many liberals have recognized’. More specifically, she presents the US and the UK as two states that fall somewhere on the spectrum between Secularia and Divinitia considered as ideal types, and by implication accepts the particular form of establishment represented by the Church of England as one such permissible arrangement. However, Laborde is only accepting of an establishment up to a point. She speaks of ‘the wrong of establishment’ and makes it clear that in her eyes only symbolic establishment is permissible, i.e., ceremonial and other such forms of recognition that do not confer any material advantages on the favored religion or its members (Laborde, 2017).

Thomas Jefferson is also a person of interest when it comes to a religious establishment. At the heart of his argument is the belief that the “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain.” He argues that no human authority (civic or religious) should impose its religious views on individuals. Such impositions, according to Jefferson, “are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion,” and they “tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness” among the believers (Facing History and ourselves). Religious beliefs in the United States are more dynamic and widespread than ever before. Immigration constantly brings new and different religious traditions and practices to the United States, even as the Christian traditions to which most Americans adhere continue to adapt to the needs of an ever-changing population. A large population of Americans possesses a belief in God, religion continues to influence American culture, politics, public policy. The United States was among the first countries to avoid the establishment of a state religion. It, therefore, did not endorse any religion and appoint religious leaders.

The study of the beginning and spread of any religion shows that every religion is started in a particular space and time; therefore, the main focus of its teachings is the solution to existing problems. However, with the change of time, there are new challenges and religion has to respond to them for its survival. In this process, it has to adjust its teachings according to changes. With time, a stage comes when religion fails to respond to challenges of its time and finds hardly any space to adjust according to new environments. For example, in the case of Islam, it took nearly two and a half centuries to complete its belief system. Once the process was complete, it became impossible for them to give any place to new ideas and new thinking. It was believed that any change in the structure would weaken its base. Therefore, it persists to retain its old structure without any addition. Concerning these changes, the church often than not adjusts to the situation but if that proves difficult, they tend to be problematic in a societal setting. These are some of the problems that religious establishment causes:

The first problem is a deep constitutional commitment to religion, which is sometimes said to be potentially cumbersome with the pursuit of human rights, especially if the constitution proclaims that human rights are to be limited by overriding religious commitments. There may be tensions between a religious establishment and the civil rights of people of different faiths or no faith. This is especially true if citizens not belonging to the established religion are excluded from certain public offices, are subject to discriminatory rules, are assigned a lower social status. A religious establishment may also limit free speech or other fundamental rights on grounds such as blasphemy (saying something about God that is disrespectful). With the existence of the Church, people will constantly live in fear of making blasphemous comments and therefore limited in expressing their rights and freedoms. For example, Artist Andres Serrano created what he called artwork by submerging a plastic replica of the crucified Jesus Christ in a container of his urine and photographing it as a means, he stated, of exposing the ills of religion. However, this piece of work was considered highly blasphemous and was destroyed in 2011 during protests in France. The name of the work Piss Christ. He was not able to express his art because it was considered blasphemous by Christians. However, all religions will not necessarily impede human rights considering human rights may in some cases be supported by a public religious ethos. Some say religious establishment will guide people on the way how to respect one’s rights and those of others.

Religious establishment points out that there is constitutional recognition of the church. This puts it at the center of tensions between social groups. This recognition only aggravates an already existing situation. By recognizing this religion, it tells one group that the state belongs to them, while the group not recognized understands that the state does not belong to them. With this idea, there will be a great rift between the two groups. For example, in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir threatened that, if the South withdrew, the constitution would then be amended, ‘making Islam the only religion, Sharia the only law and Arabic the only official language’. This alarmed non-Muslims who would have to remain in the north of the country after South Sudan’s independence.

The other problem is with religious establishment some laws will be hard to legislate. The establishment will have to be taken into consideration i.e. if the said law is according to the beliefs and practices of the particular. This makes the legislation process long and tedious. For example, the abortion law in most Christian countries has never reached the table since it is against God’s commandment, ‘thy shall not kill’. It does not consider the circumstance or even the health complications of the mother.

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Religions often make strong claims on people’s allegiance and universal religions stake a claim on all people. This is both a good and bad thing. It is good in the sense that with people allegiant to it, then it is easy to pass laws and implement policies. So if religion is established, that means that it expects allegiance from the people in the state. If the expectations are not met by those that are not of that faith, then they are seen as not being loyal to the state. For example, Islam has traditionally held that all people owe obedience to Allah’s will. It is therefore inevitable that religious communities will sometimes come into conflict with the demands of policies in the society.

Besides, the religious establishment does not support the freedom of religion. In such a state, you are expected to worship a certain way and God. One does not get the freedom to explore other religions and even if you do like I said earlier, you will get left out in the sharing of resources and be of lower status in the society. For example, in Rome, it proves to be tough being an Islam or any other religion considering the Catholic Church runs the place.

In Western countries, culture is very different from that of African and other developing countries. However, in all situations, the religious establishment will cause problems with the culture of the people. The people will have to align their cultures to conform to the beliefs of the religion. For example, Female Genital Mutilation in some African communities, although it is a bad practice, was embraced by those societies. With the missionaries who came to Africa to bring Christianity, they wanted the communities to stop this act because it was not a Christian way. This just a glimpse of how these communities had to conform to their way of living. Another example is that of polygamous marriages in a Christian society which is highly frowned on. Those who had the idea to do so will have to give up and adjust or move to a place where they can be accommodated. In this case, the concept of fundamentalism comes up which is a form of religion especially Islam or Christianity, that upholds their belief in the strict, literal interpretation of the scripture.

Education is also another area that is affected by religious establishments. They tend to involve themselves by ensuring that the books read are not against their beliefs and practices and also building schools and institutions e.g. Catholic schools. Although building schools is a positive thing as it promotes literacy levels, but those who are in the schools and are not of that faith do not have freedom of religion. They also ensure that religious studies are included in the curriculum as much as this might be beneficial, it is also literally forcing a belief down the throat of those who are not of that faith.

Looking at the case in Nigeria, where the Northern region is of the Islamic faith while the Southern is of Christian faith. This causes instability in the country, political, social, and economic life is affected by these religious establishments. There is an unending war between the two regions since both parties believe that theirs is the right religion.

The religious establishment in a state has also caused the violence which results in the death of non-believers of a certain faith. For example, in China, a lot of people have lost their lives because of not abiding by the religion of the majority. Another example is the case of terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab who have made attacks on Christians because they believe that Islam is the right religion and Sharia laws should be implemented in societies.

The economy also receives a mighty blow from a religious establishment in the sense that those who are of the said religion tend to focus more on leading righteous lives and exercising their faith rather than working to build the nation. This causes a lag in the growth and development of the nation. For example, some religions do not allow their women to work. This cuts down on the working population of the society to that of only men. With this situation, the economy will fail since only a percentage of its population contributes to its growth. Besides, some religions believe that depending on money for livelihood is worshipping mammon. They believe that man has become a slave to money and therefore they strive to keep their beliefs as a way of showing their service to God.

Despite the problematic nature of religious establishments, there are also some contributions it brings to the state. It acts as a guide on the morality of the laws that should be implemented and also directs people’s decisions. Man is religious since he has to believe in something at some point in his life. So with religious establishments, they will be able to create relationships with those who share the same belief thus strengthening the societal structure. These are just but a few of the benefits of established religion.


In conclusion, considering both the positive and negative side of things in regards to the religious establishment, I have observed that a state should do without its involvement with the religious establishment. With the separation of the two then they will be able to work in their territories and capabilities without causing conflict and promote growth and development of states. All these problems can be avoided if the state or society practices religious freedom where any establishment is right in its way and does not have to oppress the others for it to succeed. All these problems caused by religious establishments result in the state failing in growth and development.

Laws in a state should support and accommodate all religious establishments and not a specific one. Religious groups should also be educated on the freedom of religion and also on the importance of choice in man’s life. When they get to understand this, then there will be no need to force religion on people. Religious leaders need to be more accepting of changes in the society so that they don’t have to keep their members from development.


  1. Laborde, C., 2017. Liberalism’s Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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