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How governments control religion

Brandon Reece Taylorian examines the subtle tool exercised by states to control faith groups.

Although countries across Asia and Africa are worst affected, Western Europe continues to experience limits on religious freedom, especially for new religious movements. 

Austria, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Spain and Portugal all favour certain religions over others or establish registration systems which restrict one or more basic religious activities. 

As a 1998 Human Rights Watch briefing explained, registration systems constitute an efficient way for States to monitor and control religious activity which is why registration is often used as a process of filtration, mainly to determine which religions the government is going to allow to operate within its borders and those it will not tolerate. 

Because registration issues remain a largely underexposed issue and are mired in bureaucracy, altering registration laws is very difficult once they have been instituted. And because registration is such a powerful tool for controlling religious activity, States that seek control are unlikely to give up this tool. 

Offending countries create powerful narrative tools to justify their restriction of religion via registration such as national security or the protection of cultural heritage. Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health was used as a means to justify excessive restriction of religion. 

Such countries have also been known to curtail the international human rights system from investigating abuses of registration laws by suggesting that the recognition of religion is an internal matter which is a sensitive issue for historical and cultural reasons and so should not be a matter of discussion in the international forum.

The traditional form of religious recognition is State religion – when the government is run according to a particular religion’s moral principles and, hence, the prevailing religion holds significant influence over the government and society. In this scenario, the government might actually work with a particular religious institution to propagate its beliefs as it wishes the society to reflect the principles of the official religion. 

A second form of religious recognition is State privilege. This is when the institutions of a government, despite claiming to be secular, continue to favour one religion over others, especially in the form of providing benefits to the favoured religion not granted to others but without officially establishing it as the State religion. 

In countries with deeply religious histories, certain denominations and their institutions continue to possess benefits not granted to other religious groups. For example, many countries which are officially secular in Central and South America such as Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala continue to grant privileges to the Catholic Church that non-Catholic religions do not receive.

If religious groups are not treated equally by the State, an imbalance will forever remain in how society reflects the right of citizens to choose which religion they wish to belong to or if they wish to remain unaffiliated. If there is always a skew in favour of a certain religion, there will never be true religious freedom for all citizens. 

religion signs - judaism, Islam and christianity

So when a country has an established religion, there is an atmosphere that pervades throughout the State which automatically disenfranchises those who do not belong to the established religion. 

The State claiming that it is an Islamic country or a Buddhist country clearly excludes non-Muslims or non-Buddhists at a psychological level even if there are few to no legal consequences for minorities. 

Finally, there exists a classification of countries whose secular status has reached such an extreme that they may be classed as ‘hypersecular’ States. These are countries which profess atheism as part of their State ideology and include Communist countries like China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and, until recently, Laos. 

Countries like these have been known to engage in misrecognition – recognising religions in a way which does not correspond to how the religion self-identifies – and most of these countries’ governments are actively involved in the suppression of all religion no matter what the denomination.

But State recognition of religions is not always a bad thing. It can serve a multitude of purposes. Not only does it create a sense of national and cultural unity among citizens, it defines the fundamental principles of the State in many national constitutions. 

Recognising religions is an important function for a State because it allows the country to distinguish its values and moral principles to reflect the views of the majority. This process was particularly important to post-colonial States that have sought out a sense of national identity separate from their colonial rulers of the past. 

Although there are many ways that recognition is misused to the detriment of religious freedom, registration can be applied so that it does not have a negative impact. Indeed, if standards are instituted to determine what is permissible and impermissible in terms of how countries use their recognition and registration systems, it  can actually be applied to help protect religious freedom and to promote religious diversity.

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Brandon Reece Taylorian is a human rights scholar specialising in freedom of religion or belief, especially state-religion relations and religious recognition. He graduated from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) with a Bachelor’s in Business and Marketing and a Master’s in Religion, Culture and Society. He is currently undertaking his PhD at UCLan and his thesis focuses on registration and recognition issues impacting religious organisations.

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