General information

Course type AMUPIE
Module title Politics and Religion in the Modern World (18-21st centuries)
Language English
Module lecturer Prof. dr hab. Christopher Korten
Lecturer's email
Lecturer position
Faculty Faculty of History
Semester 2024/2025 (summer)
Duration 30
USOS code 18-PaRMW-PIE


Weekly during the Summer Semester

Module aim (aims)

The course “Politics and Religion in the Modern Age” aims at providing students with a broad historical understanding of the role religion played and continues to plays in politics across the globe. It complements the core studies of history, international relations, and diplomacy through an appreciation of this important societal feature. 

The course will mainly be taught in a chronological manner; however, deviations from this will accommodate geographical and topical concerns. It covers a half-dozen or so different types of relationships that form between established religion and the politics of the governing power:

The course has the following objectives:

  1. To introduce the different types of relationships between politics and religion covered in the course
  2. To orient students to understand the key theoretical and methodological distinctions that inform these relationships
  3. To demonstrate how this relationship is one way of assessing the relative health of a given political system
  4. To explore other possible political-religious paradigms
  5. To offer students the opportunity to develop their own views on the various relationships

Pre-requisites in terms of knowledge, skills and social competences (where relevant)

English at the B1 level and basic historical knowledge.


Lecture 1.1. Introduction and overview of the various relationships that will be encountered in the semester


Topic 2. Early Modern Period (16th-18th centuries)


Lecture 2.1. The political motives of the Reformations

            This lecture compares and contrasts the two major religious reformations that took place in the 16th century: the European and English. The European Reformation occurred at a time when few expected it. The initial conflict was theological, between an unknown friar (Martin Luther) and Rome. Part of the reason the split grew to a European wide scale is the political support Luther held locally and within the Holy Roman Empire. As well, the publicity of his case was on an unprecedented scale thanks to the recent invention of the printing press.

            In England, by contrast, there were personal motivations which initiated the rupture with Rome. Henry VIII’s desire to remarry instigated the ‘divorce proceedings’ with Rome. However, there were political consequences for this decision. Enhanced political freedom and confiscation of Church assets, which provided economic relief were balanced by military threats from Catholic countries, most notably Spain.


Topics for presentation:

  1. What was the extent to which political factors determined the split with the Roman Catholic Church?
  2. What were the political consequences in England and Europe following the Reformations?


Consolidated Reading List:

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, London 2013, chapter 4. (suggested reading: chapter 3)

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603, NY 2002, pp. 101-139.


Lecture 2.2. England and Ireland – anti-Catholic (Penal) laws, 16th to 19th century

            Frictions between England and Ireland have a long history. They were punctuated by the English Reformation, when Ireland chose to remain Catholic and united to Rome. Distrust between them festered. Political intrigues grew, as Ireland desired freedom from British tyranny. The focal point of the political conflict was confessional differences. Irish Catholics could never be fully trusted, given their desire to see a united Catholic Europe, which included reconverting England back to Catholicism.

            At several points between the 16th and 20th centuries, the Irish initiate revolution (or rebellion) in order to gain their political independence. Following each defeat, retribution took the form of anti-Catholic policies. Catholics were deprived of owning land, gaining a proper education, serving in parliament and, in general, were considered second-class citizens.


Topics for presentation:

  1. What were the political policies implemented by successive English rulers as punishment for Irish-Catholic recalcitrance?
  2. To what extent did religion play a role in the bias against the Irish?


Consolidated Reading List:

  1. McCord and B. Purdue, British History, 1815-1914, Oxford 2007, pp. 179-181, 310-311, 401-404, 482-483.

Supplemental reading: R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, London 2011.


Lecture 2.3. Confessional politics: France and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)

            Following the European Reformation, France was divided (mainly geographically) in terms of religious loyalty. Most Frenchmen remained loyal to Rome but there was a significant minority who turned Protestant. The political problems which ensued in the second half of the 16th century reveal the problems with a multi-confessional State at this time. The Bartholomew Massacre (1572) was the low ebb, in which scores of leading Protestants were murdered, or nearly so. The reign of Henry IV brings into the focus the need for confessional unity. His conversion in 1593 and subsequent assassination in 1610 bear this out.

            France will also feature prominently in our discussions of the Thirty Years’ War, a military conflict along confessional lines (initially) which embroiled most of Europe.  This would be the last major war fought in such a confessional manner, where Protestant States fought Catholic States. However, during the protracted war France departed from its confessional allies and backed Protestant Sweden. This is significant as it marked the beginning of real politique, in which the needs of the State would gradually take precedence over religion and the dictates of Rome. This would pave the way for Absolutism under the Sun King, Louis XIV.


Topics for presentation:

  1. What are the problems France encounters as a mixed confessional state?
  2. What were the future consequences of France’s decision to back a Protestant power in the Thirty Years’ War over a Catholic one?


Consolidated Reading List:

Yves-Marie Bercé, The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598-1661, London 1996, chapters 1 and 7.

Richard Bonney, The Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, Oxford 2002, pp. 11-34.

Background reading: Geoffrey Parker (ed.), The Thirty Years’ War, 3rd ed., London 2006, chapter 1.


Lecture 2.4 Colonial America: Quakers of Pennsylvania vs. the Puritans of Massachusetts. Comparative study

            This lecture looks at the beginnings of two important Colonial American communities and examines their success in political leadership. As America became more heterogenous, the political issues required flexibility and an ability to adapt. The Puritans were, for the most part, able to separate religion from politics, while the Quakers maintained their uncompromising religious positions. The results were predictable, as the former were eventually forced out of office and remained only a religious sect. Meanwhile, the Puritans gradually integrated with the larger community and endured, ultimately influencing American politics until the present day.


Topics for presentation:

  1. Why was the Puritan community ultimately successful in governing and not the Quakers?
  2. What are the problems inherent in a religious community with strict practices, when it governs a mixed-confessional area?


Reading List:

Daniel Boorstin, Americans: The Colonial Experience, New York 1958, parts 1 and 2.


Topic 3: Modern Era (19th-20th centuries)


Seminar 3.1. Religion and the Politics of Fear: China and Korea and Christianity

This seminar will discuss the great differences between Chinese and Korean political approaches to Christianity, which by the late 18th and into the 19th century had a presence in each area. Christians have always comprised a very small percentage of the Chinese population; slightly larger proportions, though still small, were found in Korea. Nonetheless, their associations of Christianity with Imperialism created an unease among the political elite. These nervous feelings prompted persecutions and forced exiles of foreign missionaries on several occasions.  

Topics for presentation:

  1. How was it that Christianity was associated with political and economic imperialism for Korean and Chinese authorities?
  2. What is the effort of persecution on a religious community?


Reading List:

D.H. Bays and J.H. Grayson, ‘Christianity in East Asia: China, Korea and Japan’, The Cambridge History of Christianity: World Christianities, 1815-1914, eds. S. Gilley and B. Stanley, vol. 8, Cambridge 2008, pp. 493-512.


Lecture 3.2. Napoleon and the French Empire’s attitude toward religion


            With the exception of the Reformations of the 16th century, the French Revolution effected the Catholic Church more than any other movement or organisation to that time. Church properties were confiscated and sold at auction or requisitioned for use by the French government. Valuables of all sorts, including art work, old books and manuscripts, marble from the altars, and gold and silver elements used in the Mass were stolen and monetized. Despite these Draconian policies, religion was valued as a means of ordering society and inculcating obedience to political authority. Stripped of much of its authority, the Church reorganised and survived in more subdued forms.

            Jewry, by contrast, experienced a revival of sorts in many parts of Europe where the French held sway. The anti-semitic policies of their Christian counterparts, and especially the Catholic Church, were swept away, along with the ghettos which housed them. Jews were given equal or near equal social status and political freedoms rarely instanced earlier.


Topics for presentation:

  1. How did France’s religious policy change over time (1780s-1810s)?
  2. What was the fate of Jewry throughout the French Empire?
  3. How can it be said that the French Revolution accelerated the process of secularisation which spread throughout Europe in the 19th century?


Reading List:



Seminar 3.3  Russian Empire and its policy towards religious minorities

            This seminar will examine Russian policy towards religious minorities beginning in 1772 with the first partition of Poland under Catherine II. From this time, Russia witnessed a large infusion of Catholics and Uniates into its empire. This forced Russia to adopt policies to accommodate these new citizens. In general, Polish Catholics were given relative freedom in their ecclesiastical affairs until 1825 and the Decembrist revolt and especially the Warsaw Uprising of 1830/31. Henceforth, the Church was closely monitored, especially the actions and communication of bishops. In 1839, a million or so adherents of the Uniate Church were forced merge with the Orthodox church, in a move that chilled relations with the Pope for a few years.

            These policies will be compared to those adopted towards their Jewish and Islamic counterparts in other parts of the Empire. Geographical location, ie. great distance from S. Petersburg, dictated much of the policy towards Muslim communities, who were generally given great latitude subject to taxation, military participation and political loyalty. In the case of Jewry, many of the poorest Jews had been removed to the Pale under Catherine II and forced to adopt subsistence living. Controls were placed on others more well-to-do in the big cities, such as in education.


Topics for presentation:

  1. How do we reconcile Catherine’s restrictive policies towards the Catholic Church in general but her protection of the Jesuit order in and after 1773?
  2. Compare and contrast the policies of the Empire towards Catholics, Uniates, Jews, and Muslims.
  3. What prompted Nicholas I to crack down on the Catholic Church in Poland after 1831 and how successful was this policy in preventing political disruption?


Reading List:

Dominic Lieven (ed), Imperial Russia, 1689-1917, Cambridge 2006, chapters 8,9,10.

Daniel H. Shubin, A History of Russian Christianity, vol. III, New York 2005, tba.


Seminar 3.4  Ottoman Empire and minority religions

            In this seminar we take up a similar question to that of the previous week, in order to form a comparison with how two of greater Europe’s empires dealt with heterogeneous people groups within their territories. In the case of the Ottomans, they introduced the most liberal policy at the time (along with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth earlier (1569—1791)), granting each approved religious sect or community autonomy in the form of a millet. These peoples were free to worship and conduct their day-to-day existence with little interference by the Sultan, albeit largely in isolation from the predominant Islamic community. Autonomy and good relations were predicated upon observance of the tribute or taxes and military loyalty in the event of war.

            In hindsight, this autonomy, while effective in the short-term, ultimately produced the cracks which destroyed the Empire. Such autonomy created few real ties with Constantinople. And since the language, religion and mentality were often different from their constituents in Europe, loyalty faded and was replaced by the late 19th century with independence movements beginning with Bulgaria and Romania.

Topics for presentation:

  1. Compare Russian and Ottoman policies towards religious minorities. Which general policy is better long-term and why?
  2. Explain what the Millet system.


Reading List:

A Cambridge History of Turkey: The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603-1839, ed. S. N. Faroqhi, vol. 3, Cambridge, chapters 10, 12, 13.


Lecture 3.5 The Catholic Church and Italian Unification

The Church’s interaction with revolutionaries is the focus of this lecture. The Catholic Church acted as a bulwark against revolution and political innovation. The exception to this rule was 1846-1847, when Pius IX appeared to adopt many of the policies championed by revolutionaries. His abrupt change, refusing to go to war against Austria to remove them from northern Italy, resulted in the assassination of his secretary of state and his own exile and temporary loss of power. The papacy remained in power thanks to the generosity of Austria and especially France, until its collapse in 1870.


Topics for presentation:

  1. How did the Church, conservative politically, unwittingly act as a catalyst for political change in the peninsula?
  2. Explain the change in policy of Pius IX between 1846 and 1848.
  3. Characterize the relationship between Church and State between 1871 and 1929.


Reading List:

David I. Kertzer, ‘Religion and Society, 1789-1892’, Italy in the Nineteenth Century 1796-1900, ed. John A. Davis, Oxford 2000, pp. 181-205.

Frank Coppa, ‘Italy: the church and the Risorgimento’, The Cambridge History of Christianity: World Christianities, 1815-1914, eds. S. Gilley and B. Stanley, vol. 8, Cambridge 2008, pp. 233-249.


Seminar 3.6  Prussia/Germany: Bismarck and Kulturkampf (‘Culture war’)

Bismarck’s consolidation of the German empire politically, included a loosening of dependence on the Catholic Church, which he viewed as an obstacle and challenge to his authority. His policies towards the Church, which it saw as persecutory, attempted to strip all authority held in Rome and, by extension, Catholic bishops in his territory. In particular, Bismarck sought control over senior ecclesiastical appointments and his State’s educational curriculum. The resistance to these policies was stronger than even he anticipated, as the Church came out of these period stronger, especially in political terms.


Topics for presentation:

  1. What was Bismarck’s motivation for introducing kulturkampf? How successful was it?
  2. Describe the German Church as a cultural and political force during and after this Cultural War.


Reading List:

David Blackbourn, A History of Germany, 1780-1918, Oxford 1998, pp. 283-301.



Topic 4: 20th century


Seminar 4.1  The secularization of politics: Communist Russia

Secularisation within society had already been gradually gaining momentum throughout the 19th century, especially following the French Revolution. The Bolshevik revolution and the adoption of Communism took this trend to its logical extreme. Religion was eradicated to the extent possible, forcing the Church underground. This seminar will examine the intellectual underpinnings of this political movement, pace Karl Marx. It will also examine how this was achieved in the 1920s and 1930s, and discuss, from the benefit of hindsight, how successful this policy was.


Topics for presentation:

  1. Define Bolshevism and its attitudes and policies towards organised religion?
  2. Identify intellectual underpinnings to Communism.
  3. How did Christianity survive under Communism and what long-term effects did it have on organised religion?




Reading List:

Ronald Suny (ed), The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. 3, The Twentieth Century, Cambridge 2006, chapters tba.


Seminar 4.2  The secularization of politics: Maoist China and Tibet

            For decades, China had claimed Tibet as part of its territory. The chance to take it came in 1950, while the world preoccupied with the Korean War (1950-1953). This seminar looks at Chinese policy towards their Buddhist neighbours, historically a rather peaceful area of the globe. Successive Dalai Lamas adopted policies which tried to address these political tensions. The Tibetan government was abolished in 1959, following an unsuccessful uprising. Today, China governs western and central Tibet as the Tibet Autonomous Region, while in the eastern region, there are ethnic autonomous prefectures. This seminar discusses the thorny issue of historical precedent as a reason or motive for forced occupation.


Topics for presentation:

  1. What were the conditions in 1950 which allowed China to take over much of Tibet?
  2. Describe the successive policies of the Dalai Lamas towards China.
  3. How important are historical relations with a region in legitimising a take over of the region in question? And how far back in time does one have to go before the history is no longer ‘relevant’ to the present political conditions?


Reading List:

Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, Berkeley 1997.


Seminar 4.3  Religion as Political Power: The Middle East and Sharia Law

The Islamic revival of the 20th century by Islamic movements included the full implementation of sharia, reinstatement of hudud (corporal punishments), like stoning. In some cases, this resulted in traditionalist legal reform, while other countries witnessed juridical reinterpretation of sharia advocated by progressive reformers. Today, in many of these regions, though not all, sharia-based criminal laws have been widely replaced by European law. Judicial procedures and legal education in the Muslim world have also been assimilated with European practice.  This seminar discusses the authority of religion within the political sphere and its consequences on minority groups within its sphere.


Topics for presentation:

  1. What political factors contributed to the Islamic revival of the 20th century?
  2. Explain the tension between the standards of the international community on human rights versus the laws towards women and corporal punishment as dictated by Sharia Law.


Reading list

Compulsory reading:

  1. Faroqhi, S. N. (ed.), A Cambridge History of Turkey: The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603-1839, vol. 3, Cambridge, chapters 10, 12, 13.
  2. Kertzer, David I., ‘Religion and Society, 1789-1892’, Italy in the Nineteenth Century 1796-1900, ed. John A. Davis, Oxford 2000, pp. 181-205. Available at: eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost)
  3. McCord, N., and Purdue, B., British History, 1815-1914, Oxford 2007, pp. 179-181, 310-311, 401-404, 482-483. Available at: eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost)
  4. Shubin, Daniel H., A History of Russian Christianity, vol. III, New York 2005. Available at: eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost)
  5. Suny, Ronald (ed), The Cambridge History of Russia, 3, The Twentieth Century, Cambridge 2006.