State religion

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A state religion is the endorsement or enforcement of a particular religion by a state.

This can be thought of as two positions; endorsement and enforcement:

  • The former, endorsement, is benign for the most part.[note 1] England, for example, has Christianity (specifically the Church of England with the Queen at its head) as its official state religion, although in practice the country is almost entirely secular.
  • The latter position, that of enforcement, is less benign: it can lead to repression of other religions and of lack of religion. Even today, a number of countries have repressive policies regarding their state religion and severe punishments that may be meted out to those who break them. These are, for the most part, the Islamic fundamentalist states in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some are surprised to learn that in Israel, Orthodox Judaism controls family law, and that the Orthodox rabbinate is state-funded; only Orthodox rabbis may legally marry people in-country.[1][2]

Political rulers have often used state religions to uphold nationalist régimes — note for example Nazi Germany's use of "Positive Christianity"[3] and the development of "State Shinto" in Imperial Japan. A unified religion allegedly promotes social cohesion,[4] regardless of private beliefs or of the actual ideology of ruling classes. There is also the "Religion of the State" as exemplified in fascist Italy (1922-1943), in communist China, and formerly in the USSR.[5]

In addition to giving a religion powers and status, being a state religion can also subject it to state control, with the government able to appoint church officials, set church policy, and even influence theology.[6] (The Russian Orthodox Church[7] in Imperial Russia (1721-1917)[8] provides an instructive example.) State-religion status can also impose duties on a church, such as requiring it to marry or minister to everybody rather than picking and choosing.[6]

Note that the UK, with a state religion, has only 10% or less attending church ceremonies once a week,[9] while the US, without a state religion, has a comparative figure of over 40%.[10]

One should distinguish a state religion or state church from a national church,Wikipedia which is any body that sees itself as connected with or ministering to an entire nation. A state church will usually be a national church, but many national churches have no relation to the state (e.g. Scandinavian Lutheran churches).

Having a state religion (as opposed to an authentic religion of True Believers) may also encourage the phenomenon of genuinely-held public collective beliefs in opposition to genuinely-held private beliefs, as studied by Margaret GilbertWikipedia (1942–). (Compare the dichotomy between Rousseauian general willWikipedia and any right to personal freedom.[11])




Orthodox Judaism (only applies to Jewish population)[edit]





See the main article on this topic: Juche


These countries, among others, have officially enshrined freedom of religion:

Weird borderline cases[edit]

Many states, while not having a state religion, are not precisely secular either. This ranges from mention of "god" in the constitution, e.g. Poland, Germany, Hungary and Canada on the one hand,[note 3] to on the other state-funded religion classes in public schools, e.g. Spain and Belgium[note 4] and the state paying the upkeep of religious infrastructure. Also, these in-between countries can pay the wages of priests and ministers or even collect tithes for the church as in Germany. While "radical" atheists often advocate for full secularism and try to repeal these laws and those prohibiting "blasphemy", religious advocates often defend these statutes with non sequiturs such as: "It's not as bad as Saudi Arabia."

Israel also falls in this category; despite being a Jewish state, its laws are mostly based on secular principles with contentious exceptions — mostly in family law. This issue is as much a political football as prayer in public schools or gay marriage have been in the US. Israel has no civil marriage, but secular and leftist parties want to introduce it, while Likud and religious parties remain opposed. Israel does, however, recognize marriages (including same-sex marriages) that were validly entered abroad.

United Kingdom[edit]


The state religion or Established Church of England is "The Church of England" or "Anglican Church",[19] familiarly known as the "C of E", and was founded by Henry VIII to get around the papal ban on his desires for possible manchild-bearing spouses. Said Henry became officially "of the Church of England in Earth Supreme Head" in 1535. Take that, assorted Bishops of Rome.

Some senior clergy actually have the right, by virtue of their job, to sit in the upper house of the legislature (House of Lords). The bishops of the C of E are also (nominally) selected from a shortlist by the monarch (in fact, by the Prime Minister). (The other methods of gaining entry to the House of Lords — originally gained by virtue of their birth — are, of course, perfectly legitimate.)

The fact that the religion is officially part of the government gives the clergy an influence out of proportion to the active popular support for their denomination, but nobody takes any notice of them, so it doesn't matter. On the other hand, it also gives the government and parliament control over the church, including the appointment of bishops and the approval of liturgy.[20] Even devout Christians might object to (possibly atheist) politicians having a say on these things.

The word antidisestablishmentarianism, once the longest word in the OED, was coined (allegedly by future Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone[21]) to refer to opposition to disestablishing the Church of England.

Note that the Church of England is established in England only and not in the rest of the UK (plus the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands). The Anglicans became disestablished in Ireland in 1871 and in Wales in 1920 due to low take-up by the populations there.[20] Anglicanism has never been established in Scotland (it being a separate kingdom during Henry VIII's time and all). As for the "C of E" in other outposts of The Empire: Canadian Anglicans officially stopped calling themselves "the Church of England in the Dominion of Canada" as early as 1955.


The Church of Scotland formerly had a close relationship with the state and was effectively the established church; the 1921 Declaratory Act changed its status to free it of government control, although people still can't agree on whether the church is truly disestablished.[20][22]

However, certain Christian denominations still have some statutory powers. Council education boards, responsible for the administration of state schools in a council area, must include three religious representatives: a Protestant (in practice Church of Scotland), a Roman Catholic, and a third of any faith. In 2019 some councils stopped allowing these religious representatives to vote, but they still get the chance to speak and influence decisions.[23][24] Church of Scotland court citations can legally be enforced by warrants issued by the secular courts, although in practice church courts only consider ecclesiastical matters and secular officials are not involved.[22] Scotland's four ancient universities still train candidates for ministry in the Church of Scotland, and the Church has a privileged position in prisons and other institutions.[22]


The US specifically doesn't have a state religion, with the establishment clause of the First Amendment saying "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" — commonly referred to as the separation of church and state, although the phrase derives from a letter by Thomas Jefferson and is not found in the law itself. Despite this, many on the Religious Right believe the US was established as a Christian nation, and actively support state-sponsored religion, including using the Ten Commandments as a basis for law and displaying them prominently in public.

Scandinavian Lutheranism[edit]

The Scandinavian and German Lutheran churches have traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with the state, including features such as parliamentary control or oversight of the church and funding via taxation. However in the last century or so, these links have weakened. The Church of Sweden ended its state role in 2000; and the General Synod of the Church of Norway voted for separation of church and state in 2006. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has been independent since 1869, although until 1908 the law required church members to attend at least once a year. It still receives funding from taxation (which you can avoid paying by leaving the church); today Finland has two national churches, the Lutheran and the Finnish Orthodox Church, but they're independent of the state.[25][26]


The German Lutheran church was closely linked to the state, with government figures exerting overall control, until after World War One when the relationship was dismantled.[25] Germany has two national churches, the Evangelical Church in Germany and Catholic Church in Germany, reflecting the division between Catholic and Protestant areas that goes back to the Protestant Reformation. Members are required to pay a church tax collected on top of income tax, although church membership is not compulsory and the churches are independent of state control (the Evangelical Church is a loose grouping of Protestant denominations, while the Catholic is under the control of the Vatican). Today, any religious community can get the government to collect church tax from its members, with part of the money withheld for administrative costs, although some choose to be funded directly by members and avoid paying administration fees.[27][28] Hence Germany has no state church.


The Russian Orthodox Church acts like it's the official state religion, and receives significant support and cooperation from Vladimir Putin and other nationalists, although it has no formal status — freedom of religion in post-Communist Russia has been affirmed by legal cases such as the Bhagavad Gita trial in Russia,Wikipedia in which the Orthodox Church unsuccessfully tried to ban Hare Krishna scriptures.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. Well, as benign as any one religion being in a position of dominance over others can be, anyways. (In practice, it may only mean that the government isn't participating in any religious persecution, while still (intentionally or otherwise) encouraging such persecution. There's a reason why the United States has an Establishment Clause.)
  2. Technically. The High Court, led by Lionel Murphy, a pissed-off atheist, ruled that the government couldn't declare what was and wasn't a religion, which is why it's one of the countries where Scientology is a tax-exempt religion. Murphy suggested that if they didn't want to give Scientology a free ride, they should stop the tax exemption of religion in general.
  3. Although the Charter of Rights and Freedoms mentions God in the preamble, it also guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion. There is no established church.
  4. In both countries, state-funded classes on Christianity, or rather its variants (Catholicism and Protestantism) are about as publicly funded as classes on Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and non-confessional ethics. Classes on other religions than those mentioned may, however, be out of luck, especially those that are highly personal and lack a central dogma, such as Neopaganism.


  3.[dead link]
  4. Furseth, Inger; Repstad, Pål (2006). "Religion, social unity, and conflict". An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives (reprint ed.). Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.. p. 151. ISBN 9780754656586. Retrieved 22 October 2019. "Whereas many sociologists of religion have focused on the role religion plays in creating social integration, religion's contribution to conflict has been perceived to be more problematic. [...] Religion can clearly be an important contributing factor in social cohesion." 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Separating Church and State: The Case for Disestablishment, National Secular Society (UK)
  7. See the Wikipedia article on History of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Russian Empire.
  9. BBC report of Christian charity Tearfund's survey
  11. Compare: Jung, Carl Gustav (1973). Read, Herbert; Fordham, Michael; Adler, Gerhard. eds. Collected Works. Routledge. ISBN 9781317530152. Retrieved 22 October 2019. "Anyone who has once learned to submit absolutely to a collective belief and to renounce his eternal right to freedom and the equally eternal duty of individual responsibility will persist in this attitude, and will be able to march with the same credulity and the same lack of criticism in the reverse direction, if another and manifestly 'better' belief is foisted upon his alleged idealism." 
  12. Bourdeaux, Michael (2003). "Trends in Religious Policy". Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Taylor and Francis. pp. 46–52. ISBN 9781857431377. 
  13. "Russia's De-Facto State Religion". The Christian Post. 24 April 2008. 
  14. "The Russian Orthodox Church: from farce to tragedy?". openDemocracy. 3 May 2012. 
  15. "Backlash of faith shakes atheists". The Guardian. 7 January 2001. "It is only natural there has been a surge in interest in religion over the past decade, given the repression that went before,' Levinson said. 'But we are particularly concerned about the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church - which has become the de facto state religion - to the exclusion of all other convictions." 
  16. "At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church". The New York Times. 24 April 2008. "Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion" 
  17. Dillon, Michael (2001) (in English). Religious Minorities and China. Minority Rights Group International. 
  18. Adappur, Abraham (2000) (in English). Religion and the Cultural Crisis in India and the West. Intercultural Publications. ISBN 9788185574479. Retrieved 14 July 2016. "Forced Conversion under Atheistic Regimes: It might be added that the most modern example of forced "conversions" came not from any theocratic state, but from a professedly atheist government — that of the Soviet Union under the Communists." 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Disestablish and be damned, New Humanist, 16 Nov 2017
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Scots law and the Church of Scotland: the “establishment” question – a roundtable seminar, University of Glasgow School of Law Blog, May 12, 2017
  23. Council ends church officials’ education committee voting rights, National Secular Society, 25 April 2019
  24. Education and the Church, Church of Scotland, accessed 5 Sep 2019
  25. 25.0 25.1 Lutheranism: Organization, Britannica
  26. See the Wikipedia article on Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Evangelical Church in Germany.
  28. German church tax (Kirchensteuer), WW+KN
  29. See the Wikipedia article on Religion in Russia.