Definition: Religious Authority Vs. Secular Authority

Religious Authority and Civil Society

Italy, Lazio, Rome, View of St. Peter's Basilica

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One issue which faces all systems of religious authority is how to structure their relationship with the rest of civil society. Even when the form of government is theocratic and therefore controlled by religious interests, there remain aspects of society which are ostensibly distinct from traditional spheres of direct religious control, and thus some form of working relationship is required.

When society is not governed theocratically, the demands on creating a structured relationship which preserves the legitimate authority of each are even more pressing. How that is managed will depend a great deal upon the way in which religious authority is itself structured.

Charismatic authority figures, for example, will tend to have hostile relations with the larger culture because they are almost by definition revolutionaries. Rationalized authorities, on the other hand, can typically have very cordial work relationships with civil authorities — especially when they, too, are organized along rational/legal lines.

Religious Authority Vs. Secular Authority

Assuming that political and religious authority is invested in different individuals and structured in separate systems, then there must always exist some tension and potential conflict between the two. Such tension can be beneficial, with each challenging the other to become better than they currently are; or it may be detrimental, as when one corrupts the other and makes it worse, or even when the conflict becomes violent.

The first and most common situation in which the two spheres of authority may come into conflict is when one, the other, or even both groups refuse to limit their authority to just those areas otherwise expected of them. One example would be political leaders attempting to assume the authority to appoint bishops, a situation which caused a great deal of conflict in Europe during the Middle Ages. Working in the opposite direction, there have been situations where religious leaders have presumed the authority to have a say in who deserves to be a civil or political leader.

A second common source of conflict between religious and political authorities is an extension of the previous point and occurs when religious leaders either gain a monopoly or are feared to be seeking a monopoly of some vital aspect of civil society. Whereas the prior point involves efforts to assume direct authority over political situations, this involves much more indirect efforts.

An example of this would be religious institutions attempting to assume control over schools or hospitals and thereby establishing a certain amount of civil authority which would otherwise be outside the legitimate sphere of ecclesiastical power. Very often this sort of situation is most likely to occur in a society which has a formal separation of church and state because it is in such societies that the spheres of authority are most sharply distinguished.

A third source of conflict, one which is most likely to result in violence, occurs when religious leaders involve themselves and their communities or both in something which violates the moral principles of the rest of civil society. The likelihood of violence is increased in these circumstances because whenever a religious group is willing to go so far as to take on the rest of society head-to-head, it is usually a matter of fundamental moral principles for them as well. When it comes to conflicts of basic morality, it is very difficult to reach a peaceful compromise — someone has to give in on their principles, and that is never easy.

One example of this conflict would be the conflict between Mormon polygamists and various levels of the American government over the years. Even though the Mormon church has officially abandoned the doctrine of polygamy, many “fundamentalist” Mormons continue with the practice despite continued government pressure, arrests, and so on. At times this conflict has broken out into violence, although that is rarely the case today.

The fourth type of situation in which religious and secular authority can conflict is dependent upon the type of people who come from civil society to fill the ranks of religious leadership. If all of the religious authority figures are from one social class, that can exacerbate class resentments. If all of the religious authority figures are from one ethnic group, that can exacerbate inter-ethnic rivalries and conflict. Much the same is true if religious leaders are predominantly from one political perspective.

Religious Authority Relationships

Religious authority is not something that exists “out there,” independent of humanity. On the contrary, the existence of religious authority is predicated upon a particular kind of relationship between those who are “religious leaders” and the rest of a religious community, considered “religious laity.” It is in this relationship that questions about religious authority, problems with religious conflict, and issues of religious behavior play out.

Because the legitimacy of any authority figure lies in the how well that figure meets the expectations of those over whom authority is supposed to be exercised, the ability of religious leaders to meet the varied expectations of the laity poses what may be the most fundamental problem of religious leadership. Many of the problems and conflicts between religious leaders and religious laity are located in the varied nature of religious authority itself.

Most religions began with the work of a charismatic figure who was necessarily separate and distinct from the rest of the religious community. This figure usually retains a revered status in religion, and as a result, even after a religion is no longer characterized by charismatic authority, the idea that a person with religious authority should also be separate, distinct, and possess special (spiritual) power is retained. This might be expressed in ideals of religious leaders being celibate, of living separately from others, or of eating a special diet.

Over time, charisma becomes “routinized,” to use Max Weber’s term, and charismatic authority becomes transformed into traditional authority. Those who hold positions of religious power do so by virtue of their connections to traditional ideals or beliefs. For example, a person born into a particular family is assumed to be the appropriate person to take over as a shaman in a village once his father dies. Because of this, even after a religion is no longer structured by traditional authority, those who wield religious power are thought to require some connection, defined by tradition, to leaders from the past.

Religious Codification

Eventually, traditional norms become standardized and codified, leading to a transformation into rational or legal systems of authority. In this case, those who have legitimate power in religious communities have it by virtue of things like training or knowledge; allegiance is owed to the office they hold rather than the person as an individual. This is only an idea, however — in reality, such requirements are combined with holdovers from when the religion was structured along the lines of charismatic and traditional authority.

Unfortunately, the requirements don’t always mesh very well together. For example, a tradition that members of the priesthood always be male can conflict with the rational requirement that the priesthood is open to anyone willing and able to meet the educational and psychological qualifications. As another example, the “charismatic” need for a religious leader to be separate from the community can conflict with the rational requirement that an effective and efficient leader be familiar with the problems and needs of the members — in other words, that he not simply be from the people but of the people as well.

The nature of religious authority is not simply because it has typically accumulated so much baggage over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. This complexity means that what the laity need and what the leaders can deliver is not always clear or easy to decipher. Every choice closes some doors, and that leads to conflicts.

Sticking with tradition by restricting the priesthood to men alone, for example, will please those who need their authority figures to be firmly grounded in tradition, but it will alienate the laity who insist that legitimate religious power be exercised in terms of efficient and rational means, regardless of what the traditions of the past were limited to.

The choices made by the leadership do play a role in forming what sorts of expectations that the laity have, but they are not the only influence on those expectations. The wider civil and secular culture also plays an important role. In some ways, the religious leaders will need to resist the pressures created by civil culture and hold on to traditions, but too much resistance will cause many members of the community to withdraw their acceptance of the leader’s legitimacy. This may lead to people drifting away from the church or, in the more extreme cases, to forming a new breakaway church with a new leadership that is acknowledged as legitimate.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Definition: Religious Authority Vs. Secular Authority." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). Definition: Religious Authority Vs. Secular Authority. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Definition: Religious Authority Vs. Secular Authority." Learn Religions. (accessed May 28, 2023).