The Decoupling of Politics and Religion

Here is a poll that shows that the political system is not so tightly coupled with the religion system.

Just 25 percent of Americans say it’s very or extremely important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs, according to the poll. Only 19 percent consider it very or extremely important that a candidate shares their own beliefs, and nearly half say that’s not very important or not important at all. . . .

Jack Kane, an accountant from Key West, Fla., was among the Republican-leaning poll participants who said it wasn’t important to him whether a candidate was deeply religious.

“I’d much rather have a guy run the government and not spend all our money, instead of sounding off on what’s going on in the church or on things like abortion,” said Kane, 65, who describes himself as nonreligious. “Who is Catholic, Jewish, Southern Baptist – I could care less, as long as they’re going to carry the torch of freedom.”

Although that 25% still represents a lot of voters, more people are starting to realize that morality, integrity, trustworthiness, etc., and religion need not be linked. An atheist or a member of some other religion might actually be an ethical, trustworthy person. Politics and religion are not tightly integrated, which means that a person can opt out of religion but still participate in politics. Inclusion in politics does not require inclusion in the religion system. Political communication and religious communication need not be integrated. This is a basic fact of functional differentiation.

I think the best hope for religion as a social system is antinomianism. There’s no reason religion has to be tied to morality. Nirvana has nothing to do with morality. I don’t think the Sermon on the Mount has much to with morality either.


  1. I’ve found this blog really helpful for understanding Luhmann, so thanks for this valuable resource. I’m a religious studies scholar, so I’m always interested in these kinds of points about the religious system in Luhmann. My question is how you are understanding functional differentiation in terms of how human beings fit into the observation of functional differentiation. By referencing a poll, you seem to be saying that human opinions of politics and religion provide the key data for making the observational claim that religion and politics are becoming increasingly decoupled. I think this decoupling is correct in many ways, and I am in agreement that the religion and political systems name two completely separate systems of communication and observation. However, is human opinion really the way to measure this? Especially considering Luhmann’s anti-humanist evacuation of human beings (and therefore human opinions) as having any bearing on other systems. I get that the poll data relates to the religion system’s communication, but does the system’s communication not go way deeper than just the expression of human opinion about religion. Does not the independent nature of the system itself reference concepts, ideas, institutional power, etc. that makes these kinds of claims about decoupling way more complex? Relatedly, I’m also interested in Luhmanian explanations of religious concepts such as sovereignty (rooted in the monotheistic tradition) that have been secularized and become part of the political systems communication. Thinking mainly here of Carl Schmitt’s political theology and the secularization thesis and how to conceive of these kinds of overlap (e.g. theological sovereignty translates into secularized political sovereignty) within the framework of functional differentiation. Again, thanks for sharing your insight.


    1. David,
      That’s a good point about the poll and human opinions. I’d say yes, religious communication and political communication do go much deeper and they aren’t dependent on human opinions. We might also need to consider another social system–the mass media. The topic of secularization or the separation of politics and religion circulates in the mass media. The article I read has circulated through the mass media, of course. [I just submitted this comment by accident. I wasn’t done].

      Everything society knows about itself comes from the mass media. “Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media.” It’s not human opinion per se that is important, but rather the topic of secularization that circulates in the mass media. I need to think more about all this, but don’t have time tonight. I just wanted to briefly respond to your comment–and invite further discussion.


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