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Political Secularization


POLITICAL SECULARIZATION. The term "secularization" did not convey the same thing to early modern ears that it does to ours. The public today interprets it as a decline of religious influence that is characteristic of modern developed societies. To an early modern observer, it usually meant the curtailing of an exclusively clerical privilege or institution, like the transfer of jurisdiction from religious to secular courts. The Reformation introduced a more unsettling connotation: the confiscation of church property by political authorities. The tendency of the new Catholic religious orders, like the Jesuits, to live in the world rather than apart from it, would also have been viewed as secularization. The possibility of a society in which religious life and thought occupied only a restricted sphere was envisaged before the mid-seventeenth century, but its real impact came later. It grew in importance, not as a result of freethinking or skepticism, but through the subordination of religion to secular political aims. Even at the end of the 1700s, however, politics remained closely entangled with religion in every European state.

The limited and uneven advance of political secularization can be examined as both an intellectual and a practical phenomenon, although these were aspects of a single process. For European intellectuals, secularization was chiefly shaped by the legacy of the ancient pagan classics. Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) was made compatible with Christianity, but this did not prevent his political thought from being discussed in essentially worldly terms by writers from Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) to Henning Arnisaeus (c. 15751636). Italian political thinkers of the Renaissance drew from the Romans a political morality that owed nothing to Christian revelation. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) went so far as to advise the prince to discard Christian morality in dealing with issues of state. In his Discourses, he imagined a political order that seemed entirely classical in derivation. Later in the 1500s, the virtuous principles of the Roman Stoics seemed to offer intellectuals in the Low Countries and France, such as Michel de Montaigne (15331592), a secular moral path out of the thicket of religious disputes. In the end, however, Neostoicism could not provide a stable basis for political action in nations that were torn by sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants. Even Justus Lipsius (15471606), whose Neostoic works were read avidly by learned men of all religious persuasions, finally had to choose a side.

The fervor of the devout continued to be criticized in France by those called politiques or bons français, and in the Netherlands by Arminians, but they were religious moderates rather than secularists. The idea of restricting the influence of religion became more acceptable only amid the turmoil of the 1640s and 1650s, especially in England. The most radical thinker along these lines, Thomas Hobbes (15881679), would be vilified as a materialist. God played no part in the formation of his commonwealth, which rested on fear of a malevolent human nature. The later chapters of his Leviathan espoused a stripped-down version of Christianity, bereft of divine atonement. By contrast, the political ideas of John Locke (16321704) rested on the assumption of a benign God who created a cooperative human nature. As with Hobbes, however, Locke's deity takes no direct part in political affairs. Other radical English thinkers, from Algernon Sidney (16221683) to John Toland (16701722), espoused various degrees of political separation from religion. These Englishmen had counterparts in the Netherlands and Protestant Germany, notably Hugo Grotius (15831645) and Samuel Pufendorf (16321694), who wanted to base political association on legal and ethical principles.

The Enlightenment intensified the trend toward secularized political thought. For many enlightened French thinkers, organized religion and even religious belief itself were seen as potential obstacles to political virtue. This was hinted at by Montesquieu (16891755), roared out by Voltaire (16941778), and accepted as a matter of fact by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121788). Few went so far as to reject religion altogether; Voltaire dreamed that Confucianism might infuse correct political principles, and Rousseau argued for a civic religion consisting of belief in a supreme being and tolerance for all faiths. The enlightened critique of religious influence in politics often boiled down to an assault on "priestcraft." Historical writing, however, struck out in more innovative directions. Voltaire and David Hume (17111776) wrote political histories that made no reference to divine Providence, and Edward Gibbon (17371794) turned the history of Rome into an argument against Christianity. The Neapolitan Giambattista Vico (16681744) envisioned a theory of politics based on secular history, in which religion was an aspect of social dominance.

By the late eighteenth century, many enlightened thinkers regarded the interference of religion in politics as acceptable only insofar as it served the interests of the state. In this respect, they were aligned with broader developments. At first, secularism in practical politics had been associated with republicanism, because in contrast to monarchies, republics were not seen as resting on divine appointment. The Italian republics were characterized by a political culture in which the safety of the civitas seemed to override all other considerations. The coherence of the republican state was often maintained by a shared enmity toward religious authority, whether a local bishop or the Inquisition or the pope himself. At the same time, political ceremony in Florence and Siena, Genoa and Venice, was steeped in religion, from saint's day processions and the public veneration of relics to the burial of civic officers in the splendor of Renaissance churches. God sanctioned republics just as he did kings.

No Italian republic acted against church property, particularly monastic estates, with the audacity of the German Protestant princes or the Protestant rulers of Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, and England. At the same time, the old liturgical texts, which proclaimed the subjection of earthly rulers to the church, were rejected by Protestants. The Catholic reaction was to broach even further the barriers that separated religious from mundane affairs, a trend that can be observed in the spread of the preaching orders and the didactic efforts of the Jesuits. Yet the simultaneous Catholic elevation of the sacred (especially the Eucharist) into a higher, untouchable sphere, may have left believers with the impression that the divine no longer occupied so wide a space in the world.

The religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were important catalysts in the emergence of secularized politics because they demonstrated the political damage that could be done when denominational zeal was allowed to get out of hand. The result was the subordination of religion to the state. This can be observed in the English republic of 1649 and the Dutch republic of 1651, both of which allowed broad religious toleration, but it soon became typical of monarchical governments as well. We can point to certain landmarks in that developmentTsar Alexis's (ruled 16451676) church reforms, the Gallican Articles of 1682 in France, the abandonment of clerical Convocation in England, the self-crowning of Charles XII (ruled 16971718) of Sweden or Frederick I (ruled 17011713) of Prussia, the anticlerical Pedimento of Melchor de Macanaz (16701760) (although the Spanish minister was duly haled before the Inquisition). Secularization in monarchist regimes was marked by ironies. The persecution of Old Believers in Russia became the hallmark of Peter I's otherwise tolerant rulership. The great struggle of Catholic reformers in the eighteenth century was against the Jesuits, those early pioneers of secularism, who were now perceived as interfering too much in affairs of state. The abolition of the order in 1773 was a triumph for enlightened politicians like the Spaniard Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes (17231802).

Yet the rulers of Europe would have shuddered at the thought of a secular constitution. With a few exceptions, like the abandonment of the royal touch by the Hanoverian kings of Britain, they were careful not to discard their own sacred characteristics. Even the dissolute Louis XV (ruled 17151774) touched against scrofula, and reverently bowed down in the street before the passing Eucharist. What historians have called "desacralization" seems to have been caused, in France at least, by disillusionment among members of the elite with a monarchy that held on to the sacred despite its pronounced secular fixations. In other realms, especially Spain and Austria, where rulers did not enjoy the same degree of divinity, secularization was less affected by such contradictions, and could advance under the auspices of a reformist Jansenism. In Russia under Catherine the Great (ruled 17621796), there was a revival of religious ceremonies that enhanced the sacrality of the empress.

French historians have sometimes observed a process of "dechristianization" among the privileged classes of the eighteenth century. Certainly, the spread of social clubs, debating societies, and Masonic lodges throughout Europe tended to foster a political culture that was secular in tone. It may be doubted, however, whether the common people were ever enthusiastic supporters of secularism. While they were often anticlerical, many were equally hostile to the cooption of religion by the state. In defiance of official toleration, furious sectarian riots continued to break out throughout the eighteenth century, for example in Poland in 1724 or in England in 1780. Resentment at Joseph II's (ruled 17651790) dissolution of monasteries helped to fuel conspiracies and uprisings against his policies in Hungary and Belgium.

The fledgling American republic, fraught with sectarian divisions, first established a constitutional separation between the state and any particular church. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy introduced by the French revolutionaries in 1791 adopted a different yet more familiar solution: namely, state control over religious life. Although it was a disaster in the short run, causing widespread popular resistance, it pointed in the direction that most European regimes would follow in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The acceptance of such a degree of subordination by religious bodies has preserved their organizational significance in European society, while at the same time it has hastened the decline of their political influence over believers.

See also Enlightenment ; Gibbon, Edward ; Grotius, Hugo ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Jesuits ; Lipsius, Justus ; Locke, John ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Reformation, Protestant .


Birely, Robert. The Counter-Reformation Prince: Anti-Machiavellianism or Catholic Statecraft in Early Modern Europe. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990. Examines the Catholic response to Machiavelli.

Merrick, Jeffrey W. The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge, La., 1990. Argues for gradual separation of religious values from politics.

Oestreich, Gerhard. Neostoicism and the Early Modern State. Translated by David McLintock. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Traces influence of Justus Lipsius on contemporary politics.

Raeff, Marc. The Well-Ordered Police State: Social and Institutional Change through Law in the Germanies and Russia, 16001800. New Haven, 1983. Elaborates on shift from religiously based moral legislation to secular policing.

Sommerville, C. John. The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith. New York, 1992. Argues for shrinking role of religion in English life.

Paul Monod

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