Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns

Faith and Politics in Asia, Past and Present

by John M. Thompson (Volume editor)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 234 Pages


Politics and religion have been major forces throughout history, and they still are as anyone who pays attention to current events can see. Understandably, the relationship between religion and politics calls for careful and ongoing scholarly exploration. At the same time, global centers of economic and military power are shifting from being concentrated in the West (Europe and North America) to areas in Asia, the world’s largest landmass and home to the bulk of the world’s population. Indeed, the twenty-first century is already shaping up to be the «Asian century». Perhaps not surprisingly, just as in the West, so in Asia, societies have been – and are still being – shaped by religious and political forces.
Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns: Faith and Politics in Asia, Past and Present examines the complex and intertwined nature of «politics» and «religion» in diverse cultures within Asia, ranging from China and Japan to Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. By their very nature, the essays included here defy easy generalizations about the nature of religion in various societies, forcing us to rethink, and, one hopes, pushing us beyond staid assumptions. Certainly, these essays challenge prevailing views of national/political boundaries in Asia (and by extension elsewhere), and highlight the fact that the «separation of Church and State», a hallmark of the American political system, has rarely been observed in other places and times.
Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns is suitable for use in a variety of courses on Asian history and politics as well as surveys of Asian culture and international relations and comparative/world religion and philosophy courses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Series Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Map of Asia
  • Chapter One: She skillfully manages the Affairs of State and Sangha: Empress Wu as Chinese Cakravartin
  • Chapter Two: The Creation of Ritual Meat Avoidance by Japanese State Systems
  • Chapter Three: Unarigami, Sacred Feminine Voices in Ryūkyūan Polity
  • Chapter Four: Islam and the State in Contemporary Indonesia
  • Chapter Five: Articulating Religious Identity in the Context of Ayodhya
  • Chapter Six: The Political Geography of Pakistan: Competing Religious and Ethnic Nationalisms
  • Chapter Seven: Some Preliminary Remarks on ‘State Protection’ Buddhism in Khotan in the Late 8th-Early 9th Centuries
  • Chapter Eight: Jackie Chan as Confucian Critic: Contemporary Popular Confucianism in China
  • List of Contributors
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Series Foreword

This important work by leading scholars of Asian and Religious Studies brings together in one volume essays that deepen our understanding of the enduring significance of religion to the life and culture of East Asia. The volume is the first in the series Washington College Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture. The series publishes cutting-edge research that explores the intersection of faith, culture, and public life in the United States and across the world. The series is committed both to contemporary and historical examinations as well as to empirical and theoretical explorations.

← viii | 1 → Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns: The Intertwining of Politics and Religion in Asia

John M. Thompson

Politics and religion have decisively shaped humanity over the course of history, often in dramatic and unexpected ways. Because of the great influence and power these forces wield, the relationship between religion and politics calls for careful and ongoing scholarly exploration. Until fairly recently, however, most discussions have focused on Western societies, particularly in the modern and contemporary eras. Yet it is becoming obvious that global centers of economic and military power are shifting from the so-called “West” (Europe and North America) to areas in Asia, the world’s largest landmass and home to the bulk of the world’s population. Indeed, as commentators and pundits keep reminding us, the 21st century is already shaping up to be the “Asian century.” And perhaps not surprisingly, just as in the West, so in Asia, societies have been – and are still being – shaped by a range of religious and political forces.

This book is a thematic examination of the complex and intertwined nature of “politics” and “religion” in diverse cultures within Asia. It arose out of a panel I organized for the 2009 Southeastern regional conference of the AAR, which I have carefully developed in conjunction with my colleague Joseph Prud’homme, Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College. As our plans took shape, we realized that treating this theme effectively required a discussion that would range across geographical, cultural and historical boundaries; too often discussions of “religion” and “politics” occur only within a modern Western context. By extending the usual parameters of such discussions, our intention was to broaden a conversation that at times is too parochial. More importantly, by providing a fuller context to issues surrounding politics and religion we are calling into question easy assumptions about “church” and “state” derived from modern Western societies. In this way the volume seeks to avoid simplistic and hasty generalizations resulting from examinations that are too bound to specific cultural areas.

A particular strength of this volume is that it includes contributions from an array of scholars in various disciplines (History, Religious Studies, Political Science, International Relations, Geography, etc.), each of whom has a distinct focus and area of expertise. The essays included cover China (both medieval and contemporary), Okinawa, medieval Japan, former Central Asian states such as ← 1 | 2 → Khotan, Pakistan, the vast ‘sub-continent’ of India, as well as contemporary Indonesia. The religious traditions discussed range from Buddhism and Confucianism, to Shinto, Islam, and even Christianity. Thus in its treatment of religion and politics in Asia, this book is self-consciously cross-cultural, multi-faith, and interdisciplinary.

Points of Contention: What is Asia? How can we define “Politics” and “Religion”?

One of the first obstacles that we have faced in putting together this book has been how to define our key terms: Asia, Politics, and Religion. Most discussions of religion and politics (to say nothing of geopolitical entities such as nation-states and continents), both within and outside of academia, tend to assume such points are readily understood but in fact this is not the case. The history of each of these terms is highly contentious, and has often been informed by unacknowledged theological and political assumptions.

Of the three terms, “Asia” is perhaps the most fraught. Critical discussions of what constitutes “Asia” have been particularly acute in recent years. Indeed, the entire first section of the November 2010 volume of The Journal of Asian Studies constitutes a mini-forum discussing the issues and controversies surrounding the concept “Asia,” both at present and in the past.1 Problems with demarcating “Asia” are by no means only the province of specialized academics; even a cursory glance at a typical world map shows that the single largest landmass on earth (clumsily dubbed “Eurasia” in some circles) has been sliced up to create two distinct regions. “Asia” is the vast region east of a line running south from the Ural Mountains down to the Black Sea. The area west of this imaginary line is “Europe.” Thus the artificial, perhaps even arbitrary nature of this major geopolitical division is evident from the very beginning. The complexities, however, only increase the further we go.

As many scholars have pointed out, “Asia” itself is not so much a geographic entity as a conceptual construct. The term “Asia” itself dates back to ancient times, perhaps having its origins in the Assyrian word asu (“east”) or the local name of the plains surrounding the city of Ephesus, one of the true “cross roads of East and West” in the Pre-Modern world.2 Regardless of its specific origin, however, the term “Asia” gained parlance among the Greeks as a designation of the region east of the Mediterranean world, meaning “Asia Minor” (Anatolia) and ultimately the regions encompassed by the Persian Empire and, later on, conquered by Alexander the Great. Over the centuries Europeans extended the ← 2 | 3 → term to the entire landmass as they began making mercantile and colonial forays into South and East Asia in the early modern era. So it is that in origin (and even today) “Asia” is something of a default, “non-European” designation. In this it is more or less synonymous with other terms such as “the East” or “the Orient.” More seriously, as Edward Said and others have made quite clear, such designations by Europeans have risen within the context of drives towards military and economic expansion and exploitation into precisely these very areas.3

Needless to say, the use of the term “Asia” brings with it a host of problems, most noticeably the tendency of such a vague term to mask the vast variety (cultural, political, geographic) within the greater Asian landmass. This background dimension of “Asia” reveals that the term itself is not neutral, and in fact is encoded with racist and Eurocentric assumptions. Ironically, during the early 20th century the idea of some monolithic “Asia” began to be taken up by some of the peoples designated “Asians” (e.g. Japanese intellectuals) as a reaction to European attitudes regarding the alleged “backwardness” and “inscrutability” of “Orientals.” While such rhetorical jiu jitsu is understandable, and perhaps even to be applauded, it too has its problems. For one thing, this “Occidentalist” rhetoric has helped to encourage something of a “Pan-Asianism” that merely reinforces the essentialist assumptions informing the European-coined term “Asia.” Such are the problems that result when we unreflectively mix conceptual and “real world” realities.

Is there another way to understand “Asia”? Taking a somewhat different tack and proceeding in more self-conscious and critical vein, we could draw on the work of Benedict Anderson and speak of “Asia” as an “imagined community,”4 albeit an extremely large one that includes the majority of the current world’s population. As Diana Eck observes, “It is clear that the most powerful mapping of the world and its boundaries is done not by armies, but by the power of the imagination which creates and bears for us a sense of we -- national, religious, cultural, multicultural.”5 However, this still makes “Asia” a rather ungainly term, and more importantly still leaves unquestioned the power of scholars (and politicians) to define the world as they see fit. Despite the myriad problems surrounding the term “Asia,” however, we have stuck with the current geographic demarcation mainly for the sake of convenience. In truth, one of the guiding intentions of the various essays within this book is precisely to call such neat divisions into question.

Similar problems surrounding definitions and freighted histories plague the terms “politics” and “religion.” The most recent edition of the OED defines the former as “The science and art of government; the science of dealing with the form, organization, and administration of a state or part of one, with other states (hence, imperial, national, domestic, municipal, communal, parochial, foreign ← 3 | 4 → politics, etc.). Also the politics, public or social ethics, that branch of moral philosophy dealing with the state of the social organism as a whole.”6 Among other things, a significant feature of this definition is how modern it is (it traces the term’s earliest English use to 1529, precisely at the beginning of the so-called modern era), particularly in its stressing of the notion of a state as a coherent entity and the scientific (presumably meaning objective, based on empirical methods etc.) method of its study.

The OED’s entry on “religion” is far more complicated, listing eight distinct yet interrelated definitions. Among these are “a state of life bound by monastic vows,” “action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this,” and “a particular system of faith and worship.” Of particular interest is definition 5a, which reads, “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.”7 As we can see, there is a greater range of definitions here, some concerning specific, highly ritualized ways of life, and other more recent ones having a decidedly Protestant flavor with their focus on faith and belief. Even here, though, we see some decidedly political dimensions, since these later definitions explicitly include notions of “power,” “control,” and “obedience.”

In and of themselves these definitions of “politics” and “religion” are not necessarily bad. Indeed, they are fairly useful for everyday discussion, perhaps even self-evident to many of us. Yet as specific terms delineating distinct aspects of social and cultural life, both “politics” and “religion” have long and tangled histories; they certainly did not emerge fully formed from the forehead of Zeus (or Indra/Shangdi/Ame-No-Mi-Naka-Nusi-No-Kami et al). For simplicity’s sake, we can say that this distinction arose out the modern Western world and tends to reflect primarily Protestant assumptions about social institutions and the individual as an autonomous agent and the ultimate ontological foundation of humanity. Separating “religion” from “politics” was further bolstered by the critique of religion voiced by many thinkers associated with the European Enlightenment. To a large extent, distinguishing “politics” from “religion” has been at the center of the secularization inherent in modernity, a process promoted by thinkers rejecting Church dominance of social life. The primary intent behind this move was to sever ties between religious and political life, thereby relegating “church” (e.g. “religion”) to the private sphere while leaving “politics” as the dominant concern of public life.8

← 4 | 5 → While distinguishing “religion” from “politics” has been a hallmark of European Modernity, and it continues to be handy (especially for teaching and research purposes) in many respects, it is also misleading (as even the OED definitions of “religion” indicate). For one thing, the politics of the “nation state” has often taken on decidedly religious dimensions, something we can most easily see in the form of what Robert Bellah famously dubbed “civil religion.”9 As Bellah’s analysis makes clear, a nation’s “civil religion” functions as a secular albeit transcendent cult, promoting social unity through shared ideals and values. In such a view, the state becomes something of a “God” in the Absolute sense, demanding ultimate loyalty and obedience from its citizens, as well as periodic sacrifice (perhaps even human sacrifice) in certain situations.10 The rise of this modern ideal went hand in hand with other developments in which political and economic power increasingly was stripped from ecclesiastical authorities and accrued to financial and political elites in predominantly Western (European and American) regions. Some recent theorists even suggest that this modern distinction between “religion” and “politics” has a darker function of further denigrating “religion” by masking the way the “state” has developed a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, enabling the labeling of “non-legitimate” violence as “religiously motivated.”11 Moreover, there are deeper problems surrounding the common use of the modern Western term “nation-state” for all countries, both past and present. As Chuck Fahrer notes in his contribution to this volume, the seemingly innocuous term “nation-state” is by no means a “given,” and can actually hinder our attempts to understand the complexities of cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity.

Ultimately, much of the difficulty arising in scholarly analysis here comes down to problems with the very terms we use. In the introductory chapter of a recent book, the noted scholar of religion Ivan Stenski exams several examples of great political change in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (e.g. the 2009 mass protests in Iran in the wake of the contested election of President Ahmadinejad, the peace marches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, the 1980’s Solidarity movement, the 1989 demonstrations in Tianamen Square), asking if these events are “religious” or “political.” He then observes that these questions cannot be answered, going on to explain why:


VIII, 234
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
history exploration power
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 234 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

John M. Thompson (Volume editor)

John M. Thompson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Christopher Newport University, where he teaches courses in philosophy, religious studies, Asian studies, and the honors program. He earned his BA in philosophy at William and Mary, his Master’s of Theological Studies at Boston University, and did his doctoral work at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, in the cultural and historical study of religion. He is the author of two books as well as numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, and book reviews. Although his primary areas of expertise are Buddhism and East Asian traditions, Thompson has a strong background in Western philosophy and Christian theology. He is keenly interested in the intersection of religion, politics, and violence through history and in cross-cultural interactions both past and present.


Title: Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns