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Indonesia’s Church-State Relationship: Advantages, Disadvantages, and Comparison with Japan

Written by Zahra Annisa Fitri (81822200028)
for Ritsumeikan University PBL Program's Constitutional Law course 

Historically, many states closely aligned civil authorities with religious philosophy. Nearly all premodern societies' legitimate political power was established on divine origins1. The combination of theocracy and the absolute monarchy was loaded in emperor worship as a characteristic of ancient China, Egypt, and Japan. Religious institutions were considered integral to the state's constitution in the city-states of Greco-Roman in the ancient past. Also, religion is the basis of the classic law system in the Islamic world, with the leader as the sultan and caliph simultaneously.

However, religious conflict was frequently equated with political disruption when spiritual and political rules were closely entangled. While certain minorities might be accepted to a limited extent, execution of religious conformity through the civil authorities' involvement and state force often happened2. Therefore, an ultimatum for religious toleration has been formed to release people from getting prosecuted for religious compliance, so freedom of religion is protected and civil peace is promoted. Until now, considerable gains in religious toleration have been achieved. Latterly, religious freedom was proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966.

There are variations in the relationship between church and state. The most religious one is theocracy. Then there are strong establishmentweak establishmentweak secularismstrong secularism, and the last is atheism as the most secular one.

The relationship between church and state in Indonesia is between weak establishment and weak secularism. Indonesia is a secular state in practice. The constitution assures all people in Indonesia the freedom of worship relative to their own faith. At the same time, six formal religions, namely Islam, Christianity/Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, are formally recognized by the government. Indonesia also acknowledges folk religions as Indonesia is the home of hundreds of indigenous religions. Thus, Indonesian law mandates citizens to have an identity card that recognizes them with one of the six religions, but they are allowed to leave that section blank.

Here is why Indonesia's relationship between church and state can not be claimed as a weak establishment. A weak establishment relationship is defined as a constitution that establishes a specific religion in the way that the state forms a particular relation with the religion but does not formally allow it to exercise any political power. A country that has a weak establishment relationship is England. The Church of England's supreme governor is vested in the British monarch, while some bishops are privileged to sit in the House of Lords3, the Second Chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament, which is not formed through a general election and has a pretty important function in shaping national policy. Other faiths are tolerated there, but a constitutionally established state religion exists.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the one who has the power to make the laws is the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR). Members of the DPR are from political parties and are elected through a general election every five years. Some political parties are based on religion, especially Islam. However, in the latest legislative election, each Islamic party only gained 10% or less of the DPR seats4.

The government of Indonesia also has never created a state-endorsed office of the mufti (a Muslim legal expert entrusted to issue a ruling on religious topics), as Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore have done. Indonesia may have a Muslim clerical body named the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which has a significant role in issuing a fatwa, a regulation based on Islamic law provided by a recognized authority. However, MUI is not a state-owned institution or represents the state. Thus, MUI's fatwa is not a state law with sovereignty that can be imposed on all people. It is only obeyed by the muslim community who feel they have a bond with the MUI itself–which means the legality of the MUI fatwa can not be forced to be obeyed by all muslims in Indonesia. Meanwhile, the fatwa has hardly been recognized within the Indonesian legal system. Even the Religious Courts rarely rely on fatwa in making decisions.

Nevertheless, Indonesia's relationship between church and state can not be claimed as weak secularism. Weak secularism is a constitution that does not establish any specific religion but allows people to express opinions from their religious beliefs in social and political lives. Indonesia recognizes specific religions (the six formal religions and the folks' religions).

A country that has weak secularism relationships is Japan. Under the Japanese Constitution, Japan must take a neutral and non-unifying attitude toward all religions and denominations. Its present constitution replaced the first constitution (Meiji Constitution). It contained a crucial reevaluation of the state Shinto system, escorted by the persecution of other religions beneath the Meiji Constitution, which led to the assurance of human rights manifested in a comprehensive list of fundamental rights and freedoms of the present Constitution, together with a ruling regarding religion strengthened by the banning of financial aid for religion5.

Despite the sameness between Indonesia and Japan in guarantees of freedom of religion from the constitution, some differences show that Indonesia and Japan have different kinds of church-state relationships:

  1. Blasphemy is illegal in Indonesia, whereas Japan has no exceptional religious security in the public sphere against offensive expressions, e.g., the criminalization of blasphemous libel.
  2. Although both Japan and Indonesia allow religious communities to make private schools with syllabi and diplomas admitted by secular law, Japan does not allow Religious Education in public schools and, instead, gives Moral Education. Meanwhile, there is a lesson named Religion and Character Education in public schools in Indonesia, from primary to tertiary education.
  3. Religious symbols in public places are widespread in Indonesia. Indonesian National Standard (SNI) even regulates that the establishment of houses of worship must be planned in residential neighborhoods in urban areas. Headcovering women are also everywhere in Indonesia as almost ninety percent of Indonesian's religion is Islam, which commands the women to wear hijab. Besides, there is a region in Indonesia named Aceh that is allowed by the Indonesian government to implement local regulations of Islamic sharia. Thus, Aceh's law obligates every Muslim to wear Islamic clothing. On the other side, religious symbols are not common in Japan, though there have not been any heated controversies like the headscarf issue in France.
  4. Indonesia gave much power to local authorities to guide and supervise houses of worship. Meanwhile, Japan's public authorities may not limit the independence of religious assemblies.
  5. In Japan, almost forty percent of the citizens claimed they are "convinced atheists"6. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, agnosticism or atheism is not recognized. Therefore, atheists in Indonesia may experience discrimination or difficulty, especially in registering births and marriages and issuing identity cards.

Due to those circumstances, Indonesia's relationship between church and state can be claimed as somewhere between weak establishment and weak secularism. Consequently, some problems can be considered disadvantages:

  1. The Anti-Blasphemy Law in Indonesia is often abused to persecute religious minorities and settle rivalries. It also inherently limits other individuals' freedom of speech.
  2. Religious minorities may face discrimination or difficulty from the bureaucratic regulations, e.g., issuing identification cards as well as birth and marriage certificates.
  3. The image of religion may not remain pure. It may be destructive to other religions and the established religion itself. The dominant religion can get corrupted through entanglement with political power.

On the contrary, there are advantages, too:

  1. As the focus of legislative elections has been shifted from political parties to individual candidates, the politicians can be selected based on capability.
  2. There is a warranty of freedom of religion and the right to worship. Moreover, there is support from the government, e.g., religious education in curricula of public schools and the establishment of houses of worship.
  3. As religion's perspective is still considered in law, it has a positive impact on the psychological state of society in the state because the laws may not conflict with the morals and values of the religions.

In conclusion, religious life is still a part of Indonesian society's history and influences the state. It is different from Japan. Even though Indonesia can not be claimed as a nirvana of peace and religious tolerance, tolerance life in Indonesia has been built quite well and encouraging due to its church-state relationship. However, the relationship implementation still needs improvement, especially to overcome emerging disadvantages.

Word count: 1,378 words


  1. ^ Lilla, M. (2008). The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. New York: Vintage Books.

  2. ^ Ahmed, D. (2017). Religion–State Relations. International IDEA Constitution-Building Primer.

  3. ^ ‘Bishops’. (n.d). UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/site-information/glossary/bishops/

  4. ^ ‘Hasil Lengkap Perolehan Kursi DPR 2019-2024’. (2019). Kompas. https://nasional.kompas.com/read/2019/08/31/11152361/hasil-lengkap-perolehan-kursi-dpr-2019-2024

  5. ^ Kimpara, K. (2015). Religion and the Secular State in Japan. Religion and the secular state, 466-474.

  6. ^ Cosslett, M. (2015). Japan: The Most Religious Atheist Country. https://blog.gaijinpot.com/japan-religious-atheist-country/

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