Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

PART FOUR
Religion and the State

IT SHOULDN'T BE SURPRISING that the contested border area between religion and politics is strewn with land mines or that among the most explosive issues are the very definitions of these terms. After all, ethnocentrism in the form of Western or Euro-American bias has been a major source of intellectual contention and scholarly disagreement in both disciplines.

For example, students of the anthropology of religion still debate whether the term supernatural may be applied to all--or any--religions, whereas after decades of heated debate students of the anthropology of politics are still not in agreement on a definition of state. Some scholars use this term to characterize any society where a few rule and the rest obey, others only in those cases where there is a clear, centralized authority with the power to command obedience. If one takes the latter position, how does one characterize a society in which the wielders of power constitute a clear centralized authority--but only of a group of weaponless clerics. Is such a society a "state"?

Some anthropologists stress other characteristics in defining the state (at least the modern state) and include, as minimal components, a socially stratified political entity with recognized borders acknowledged by other states and some form of hetereogeneity among diverse population groups residing within those borders. Within this framework, "politics" is the process by which power and access to strategic resources are allocated between groups.

Thus, most scholars would agree that one characteristic of the state is that its governing institutions have power. But does "power" imply only the capacity to make others do what you want whether they wish to or not, or does it imply "authority"--the right to do so--as well? Again, power may be easy to perceive when it derives from the end of a gun ("I'll kill you if you don't obey me") or from economic control ("You'll go hungry if you don't obey me"). However, might not power derive also from religion--say, from a shared belief in the ability of a religious practitioner, if crossed, to call down death or destruction?

For some scholars, there is a clear difference between the kinds of power described above. For them, military and economic power is an objective reality; it exists whether or not you believe in it or agree with those who exhibit it. Reli-

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