Rethinking Religion and Sovereignty (Part 2 )

-- Erik Owens


In part 1 of this series (Sightings 9/7/00), John Carlson keenly "sighted" religion's recent encroachment upon "the well-defended premises of political sovereignty." Given the importance of the Westphalian sovereignty scheme in limiting wars of religion since the seventeenth century, Carlson questioned whether the weakening of this scheme heralds a new era of religious violence as the tension between the sacred and the sovereign increases. 

To be sure, adherence to the traditional conception of sovereignty (prohibiting intervention in the "internal affairs" of other sovereign states) has eroded at an accelerating -- some would say alarming -- rate in recent years. Economics and religion are the primary agents of that erosion, but the all-important catalyst is clearly the twentieth-century explosion of advanced technology. The globalization of information and capital markets has fostered an interdependence previously impossible among nations, such that the domestic affairs of foreign nations are now truly everyone's business -- literally and figuratively.

The international community once ignored local laws and policies concerning environmental protection, religious freedom, criminal justice, and monetary policy, but no longer. Countries now often face intense pressure to conform to international standards. Blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers and blue-suited IMF bureaucrats patrol the world's political and economic hotspots with increasing frequency, and international criminal tribunals are currently prosecuting citizens of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia for violations of "international humanitarian law." Whether or not these developments should alarm us, clearly the Westphalian conception of sovereignty is no longer tenable in the present age. 

Rising in its place are several new conceptions of sovereignty that promise a more intimate relationship between the sacred and the sovereign. Negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have begun to discuss "religious sovereignty," wherein religious leaders would administer Jerusalem's holy sites, regardless of which nation's police patrol the streets outside. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently indicated her conviction that national sovereignty is and must be "limited" to allow external intervention when human rights are violated, for "sovereignty carries with it many rights, but killing and torturing innocent people are not among them." And in perhaps the most conspicuous conceptual overhaul of sovereignty, representatives of the European Union's member states now routinely speak of a "pooled sovereignty," which would enable a unified European federation to compete with the United States and Japan on equal terms.

(Not everyone supports these new conceptions of sovereignty, of course.  Last Friday China’s president, Jiang Zemin, insisted that "respect for each other's independence and sovereignty is vital to the maintenance of world peace." Concerned that recent interventions in Kosovo and East Timor could serve as precedents for future interventions in Tibet or Taiwan, Jiang added: "Dialogue and cooperation in the field of human rights must be conducted on the basis of respect for state sovereignty. Without sovereignty, there will be no human rights to speak of.")

The reality of globalization demands a rethinking of the relation between religion and sovereignty. Religion does often provide the context for conflict and violence, but it is no less true that religion also provides the context and motivation for peace and reconciliation. Jimmy Carter has written eloquently about how the religious faiths of Menachem Begin, Anwar el-Sadat, and himself played a critical role in the negotiation of the Camp David Accords in 1978. Religion has also helped nations regenerate their civil society after brutal internal conflicts. For example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a key figure in establishing post-apartheid South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the Interfaith Conciliation Commission in Nicaragua helped broker an agreement whereby the Sandinistas allowed the exiled East Coast Indians to return to their homes.

The ancient Christian tradition of providing sanctuary to those in danger persists today, and has to some extent been codified in international refugee law. Respect for religious beliefs has also provided justification for protecting sacred spaces from defilement, whether these spaces be the holy shrines of Jerusalem or the hunting grounds of Native Americans. Even in the midst of armed conflict, the just war tradition (which has historical roots in Christian theology) demands that the use of force be restrained, an injunction that most military leaders in the UN and NATO profess to take seriously.

Much more could be said about the role of religion in peacemaking, but the fact remains that the world's religions provide bountiful resources to promote peace with justice, regardless of national boundaries. Much has changed in the 350 years since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. Perhaps the failures of seventeenth-century religion justified the creation of a powerful sovereignty scheme, but the successes of twenty-first-century religion may very well render it unnecessary.


Erik Owens is a doctoral student in ethics 
at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This essay was originally published on September 14, 2000 in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Please send all comments and inquiries to Jonathan Moore, managing editor of *Sightings*: Please put the word "Sightings" in the subject line for a prompt response to all correspondence.

S&S Home Page