A courtyard inside the Umayyad Mosque, with walls filled with arches, lit up at night


God and Caesar: A Never-ending Competition

By Jocelyne Cesari

In the fall of 1561, Jean Tanquerel, a Bachelor of Theology, defended at the Sorbonne the following thesis: “The Pope is the only lieutenant of Jesus on Earth and has spiritual and mundane sovereignty which overrules the sovereignty of kingdoms and princes.”1 The Parliament of Paris, with the support of Catherine of Medici, took immediate action to suppress Tanquerel’s thesis. He was coerced into signing a retraction, which was publicly read during a meeting of the Faculty of Theology called for this very purpose. This case illustrates the pivotal juncture when the symbiosis between God and Caesar expressed in Tanquerel’s thesis—characteristic of the political-religious realm for centuries—came into question. This moment was critical because the pope’s long-standing authority over the mundane actions of kings was coming to an end. It took several decades after the Wars of Religion to see a gradual acceptance by the church of the divide between God and Caesar. This bifurcation between the transcendent and the immanent was theologically justified by the passage of the gospel: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), which came to encapsulate the relationship between Christianity, secular government, and society in modern times by asserting the supremacy of the state power over the immanent, or worldly affairs, in contrast to the transcendent or spiritual domain of the church. Eventually, it became the most cited excerpt from the scriptures to explain the “inherent” secular feature of Christianity, in contrast with other religions that did not separate “religion and politics.”

As the Tanquerel affair shows, however, this has not always been the mode of interaction between Christianity and politics. Even today, it is far from reflecting the never-ending interdependence of state, nation, and religion attested in all Western democracies.2 This is even more the case outside the West. With the expansion of the Westphalian system from World War I onward, the division between God and Caesar’s domains has nevertheless been implicitly exported everywhere with the emergence of the nation-state as the sole internationally recognized political unit. Consequently, religiously based claims are seen as aberrant because they are at odds with nation-state sovereignty and have been consistently neglected in studies of international politics, at least until 9/11.

This is an edited version of the introduction to Jocelyne Cesari’s newest book, We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations, published by Cambridge University Press in December 2021. In what Peter J. Katzenstein has called a “far-ranging” book, Cesari argues that both religious and national communities are defined by: belief, behavior, and belonging. By focusing on the ways in which these three B’s intersect, overlap, or clash, over significant historical periods, she identifies the existing patterns of the politicization of religion, and vice versa, in any given context with case studies from Syria, Turkey, India and Russia.

The exportation of the nation-state was associated with the exportation of the immanent/transcendent and secular/religious divides embedded in the Western conception of religion.

Although a great deal of scholarship has been devoted to the building of state institutions outside the West, much less research has addressed the diffusion of the God/Caesar divide, which is foundational to state legitimacy. Therefore, the main question addressed by my book We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations is: What happens outside the West during the building of state institutions, which involves the implicit adoption of the immanent/transcendent divide? The main premise of such an inquiry is that political modernization went hand in hand with religious modernization, both triggered by the adoption of the national framework. More specifically, the exportation of the nation-state was associated with the exportation of the immanent/transcendent and secular/religious divides embedded in the Western conception of religion.

As noted by Fred Halliday, nationalism refers to two distinct entities.3 First, it is a set of theories and ideologies forged from the Enlightenment philosophers onward. Second, it is a series of investigations of specific nation-building practices and identities that can take two opposing forms: a perennial model,4 which asserts the primordial and unique features of a given national group across historical periods; or a modernist model,5 in which nations seen as the product of industrial society and history are the resource by which elites can mobilize support.6 This duality translates into a “schizophrenic” body of literature with theories and political philosophy on the one hand, and on the other hand, historical and sociological investigations of national identities across countries. I choose a less traveled path. I simultaneously analyze the structural conditions of nation-building and the parallel ideational changes of political and religious identities. To do so, I combine historical institutionalism with a conceptual history of national and religious doctrines to explain the politicization of religion. From this perspective, my work is located within the broader scholarship that considers nationalism as the sum of memories, emotions, and values that align the cultural and political identity of people with a certain territory and the institutions that control this territory.7

There is a rich scholarship on the doctrinal changes of religious traditions in modern times, but very few actually link these changes to the rise of the nation and the state. One obvious example is the King James Bible (1606–1611), the English translation of the Bible for the Church of England commissioned to enhance the political legitimacy of the king. In France, it can be objected that the assertion of the king’s political independence vis-à-vis the pope started as early as the reign of Philip the Fair (1268–1314). Nevertheless, the adjustment of Catholicism to the national frame was precipitated and sealed in the Gallican doctrine after the War of Religions and the Westphalian treaty. This transformation led to the ascendency of state power over mundane affairs over the authority of the pope, as exemplified in the Tanquerel episode. In fact, everywhere nationalization led to a change in both religious institutions and doctrines, as well as to the rise of the secular/religious divide that gradually replaced the distinction between sacred and profane.

In modern times, the sacred/profane divide has been displaced by the secular/religious one.

In Durkheim’s theory of religion,8 the sacred represents the unity of a religious group through collective symbols, while in contrast, the profane refers to mundane personal matters. This distinction was central to premodern religious communities, which were also political, in the Aristotelian sense of the term, which means that there was no distinction between religious beliefs, institutions, agents, and the “polis,” or political community. From this perspective, religion was key to the distribution of power, the cohesion of the group and its identification with collective symbols. This conflation of the religious and the political community is evident, for example, in the monotheist messages in which the revelation-based community is also a political community. In Durkheim’s view, this central influence of religion on collective identity was challenged in modern times by science and individualism. I would add that the rise of the nation-state has been the third major factor that has precipitated the disconnection of religion from the collective and political identities. In modern times, the sacred/profane divide has been displaced by the secular/religious one. This shift signifies that the secular nation defines the collective political unity, while religion is perceived primarily as personal beliefs.9 The first unseen consequence of this change has been the emergence of new doctrines and narratives to adjust religious institutions and believers to the successive phases of nation-state building. The second consequence has been the simultaneous exportation of nation-state institutions and the modern conception of religion as belief. As a result, states everywhere have taken over mundane activities and dubbed them political in contrast with “religious” ones, thus opening new modes of interaction between what is religious and what is political. A brief history of the secular/religious distinction may clarify this assertion.

In Latin, saeculum simply meant a fixed period, roughly 100 years or so. In the Romance languages, it evolved into century. After the War of Religions, saeculum in Latin Christendom was contrasted with eternal sacred time.10 It referred to this temporal age of the world, as distinguished from the divinely eternal realm of God. Anything “secular” had to do with earthly affairs rather than with spiritual affairs. As a consequence, places, institutions, persons, and functions were inscribed within the secular or the religious time. The transfer of certain properties and institutions out of church control to that of the state was therefore secularization. For the first time since the establishment of the Catholic Church, the political community could exist outside the divine guidance of the pope and be defined on its own terms. From this moment on, secularization in Western Europe has continuously evolved, not simply at the institutional level but most importantly at the societal and individual levels, resulting in today’s dominant perception that the “this-worldly” is all there is. This distinction between religion and politics led to two major changes: first, the concept of good political order was disconnected from Christian ethics; second, the division of labor between the immanent (secular) and the transcendent (religious) was theologically acknowledged. Of course, the existence of the immanent and transcendent is constitutive of Christianity, but until the modern era the church was in charge of the two axes, or, in Augustine’s terms, the two Cities. After the War of Religions, the church delegated its guidance of the immanent to the political power. As noted by Charles Taylor, these decisive changes constituted the contribution of Latin Christendom to secularization.11

The sacred, however, has not disappeared in secular nations. In fact, both political and religious symbols can nowadays be sacred: flags, national anthems, memorials, places of worship and shrines, rituals, time.

The Western understanding of the secular builds on this separation. It affirms, in effect, that the “lower” immanent, or secular, is autonomous and that the “higher,” or transcendent, order does not exist to regulate the “lower.” Believers are therefore expected to keep the transcendent to themselves and not let belief influence political or social practices in which they are engaged. This separation was accelerated through the Reformation, laying the groundwork for the ascendance of a neutral, self-sufficient secular order, leading to the contemporary situation where belief in God is considered to be one among several viable spiritual options. Simultaneously, the nation became the superior collective identification that took precedence over religious allegiances, which from now on could only be individual. Religion was limited to the domain of personal spirituality, while collective allegiances were primarily oriented toward the nation as a sovereign community of individuals equal in rights. The sacred, however, has not disappeared in secular nations. In fact, both political and religious symbols can nowadays be sacred: flags, national anthems, memorials, places of worship and shrines, rituals, time.

Case in point: In 2018, the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition gathered in a constituent assembly in Syria’s northern Idlib province in order to change the Syrian revolution flag, which would retain the green, red, and black colors adopted in 2012 but replace the red stars with the Shahada, the Islamic testimony of faith (translates: “I believe that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”) This decision caused an uproar among all factions of the Syrian revolution. The general staff of the Free National Army said in a statement:

The Syrian flag is the banner in whose shadow the free Syrian people have united from the first moment that their blessed revolution began, aiming for freedom, justice, equality, and an end to the regime of tyranny and oppression. . . . We do not see any need to make [i.e., the Shahada] into banners and cloth pieces. We do not underestimate its value, and therefore we are eager not to subject it to any abuse by the revolution’s enemies, such as burning, stomping upon, or any other violation.12

Yahya al-Aridi, a representative for the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), and a member of the Druze community in Swayda, described the flag change as “heresy” and wrote in a tweet, “Those who came out of this heresy to change the flag of revolution did more harm to the cause of the Syrians; they constantly provided the excuse to the oppressive regime to accuse Syria’s honorable revolution. They are products of the regime and work for it.”13 Even Islamists were conflicted. The leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Malik Tali, commented via telegram, “What the groups agreed on today is about difference and the origin that everyone is fighting for no god except God. No party should oblige other groups or the general public with a specific color or shape, without advice. . . . This is one of the divisions that should be avoided.”14

I will show that the diffusion of the nation-state outside the West went hand in hand with the adoption of the secular/religious and hence the immanent/transcendent divide. As a consequence, all non-Western traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, have become politicized in modern times. In a nutshell, I contend that the tensions/competitions between God and Caesar that we witness everywhere are inherent to the expansion of the international system. In this respect, history tells us that the boundaries of the secular have continuously shifted across cultures and nations. That is why referring to the ongoing social and political visibility of religion as “postsecularity” is deceiving,15 because it implies the end of “secularism” as if it were a stable and fixed entity across time and locations.

My point is not to shed light on religion as a Western construct. This has been done.16 Nor is it about the challenges brought by the usage of Western Christian categories to study non-Christian religions.17 What remains unexplored are the mutual interactions of religion and nation-state and how these interactions explain the politicization of religion in different national contexts. In other words, the preconceived idea that modernity is based on the separation of religion and politics as distinct categories does prevent us from observing their inherent mutual influence. This is not to say that religion and politics interact only in modern times, but that it is only in modern times that their separation emerges as the only acceptable option. To say it differently, the underlying assumption that religion is or should be apolitical is inherently associated with the political legitimacy of the nation-state. . . .18 Historically, the state hyphenated with the nation is a modern construction that implies concentration and monopoly of the use of violence over a territory aligned with a population (defined by culture, language, or both). This type of political power emerged in Europe and became the international norm of political power with the collapse of empires and the decolonization processes.

It goes without saying that interactions of religion and politics are paramount to any group or community, and of course occurred before such communities encountered the West. Nevertheless, the scholarly consensus is that the technique of governmentality combining nation and state is the product of modern Western history. This does not mean, however, that non-Western parts of the world are simply passive recipients of a foreign model.19 Furthermore, . . . I do not assume that the West is always motivated by the need to reform or westernize the cultures it encounters. In fact, multiple historical accounts illustrate the ambiguity of colonial politics; for example, the resistance of the East India Company to the abolition of sati (or suttee, the practice of burning a widow with the body of her deceased husband).20

My intention is . . . to highlight how state institutions captured social, political, and cultural domains that were previously regulated by religious agents and institutions. In other words, my argument is about the reordering of religious and political legitimacy. . . . The reordering of religious functions implied theological discussions about the legitimacy of the immanent/transcendent polarity among all traditions. I do not assume that there was no differentiation of religion and politics in non-Western countries before their encounters with the West. Aiming as it does to identify indigenous local intellectual reflections, and how they were redefined to consolidate the legitimacy of the nascent national community, my book offers a unique comparative analysis of the interactions of religious and political ideas, institutions, and actors in different national contexts.


  1. “Ecclesia cujus solus Papa Christi Vicarius Monarcha spiritualem et saecularem habens potestatem, omnes Fideles subjectos continens, principes suis praeceptis rebelles regno et dignitatibus privare potest”; Collection judiciorum de novis erroribus, ed. Charles du Plessis d’Argentre (André Caillau, 1728), 301.
  2. Jonathan Fox, An Introduction to Religion and Politics: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2018).
  3. Fred Halliday, Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saki, 2013).
  4. Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, rev. ed. (Krieger, 1965); Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nation and the Politics of Nationalism (Routledge, 1977).
  5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 2006); Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Cornell University Press, 2008).
  6. Halliday, Nation and Religion, p 43; Stein Rokkan, “Dimensions of State Formation and Nation-Building: A Possible Paradigm,” in The Formation of Nation States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly (Princeton University Press, 1988), 575–91.
  7. Roger Friedland, “Money, Sex, and God: The Erotic Logic of Religious Nationalism,” Sociological Theory 20 (2002): 381–424.
  8. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology,
  9. trans. J. W. Swain (Allen & Unwin, 1915).
  10. Jocelyne Cesari, “Unexpected Convergences: Religious Nationalism in Israel and Turkey,” Religions 9 (2018): 1–20.
  11. Justin Beaumont, Klaus Eder, and Eduardo Mendieta, “Reflexive Secularization? Concepts, Processes and Antagonisms of Postsecularity,” European Journal of Social Theory 1 (2018): 251–61.
  12. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
  13. “A Broad Rejection of the Decision to Change the Syrian Revolutionary Flag,” The Syrian Observer, November 14, 2018.
  14. Yahya Alaridi (@yahya_alaridi), Twitter, November 12, 2018, twitter.com/yahya_ alaridi/status/1062004528961204226.
  15. ﺇﺩﻟﺐ ﻓﻲ ﺟﺪﻳﺪﺓ ﺭﺍﻳﺔ ”ﺍﻹﻧﻘﺎﺫ ﺣﻜﻮﻣﺔ“ ﻻﻋﺘﻤﺎﺩ ﺭﺍﻓﻀﺔ ﻓﻌﻞ ﺭﺩﻭﺩ ﻟﻠﻤﺰﻳﺪ [Reactions to the adoption of the “Salvation Government”: A new banner in Idlib], ﺑﻠﺪﻱ ﻋﻨﺐ [Enab baladi], November 12, 2018, www.enabbaladi.net/archives/262697.
  16. Ananda Abeysekara, The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures (Columbia University Press, 2008).
  17. Daniel Dubuisson, Mythologies du XXe siècle (Presses universitaires de Lille, 1993); Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: How Western Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  18. José Faur, The Horizontal Society: Understanding the Covenant and Alphabetic Judaism, 2 vols. (Academic Studies Press, 2008), vol. 2; Joseph Dan, The Christian Kabbalah: Jewish Mystical Books and Their Christian Interpreters (Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, 1998); Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2011).
  19. I use the term state to refer not to any form of political governance, but specifically to the hyphenation of nation and state that emerged from the breakdown of Christendom at the end of the Wars of Religion and was then exported throughout the world via colonialism and trade. There is a tendency especially among political scientists to loosely define as state any type of political power, for example when discussing the “Ottoman state” or the “Moghul state.” Political power is indeed as ancient as humankind, but this does mean that all forms of political power qualify as state.
  20. In my book, I analyze the hybridization that comes from the adaptation of the Western concepts of nation and state in different religious contexts, and their ensuing grafting and pruning.
  21. N. B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).

Jocelyne Cesari has been the T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School since 2018. Her previous publications include: What Is Political Islam? (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019 book award of the International Studies Association), and Islam, Gender, and Democracy in a Comparative Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2017), co-edited with José Casanova.

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