IMPERIAL CONVERSION: WHEN EMPIRE CO-OPTS RELIGION
Many religions have been significantly changed by the conversion of an empire to that religion, yet imperial conversion has received little attention within religious studies. Consequently, the goal of this study is to better understand imperial conversion by investigating (1) why empires convert, (2) what makes conversion possible, and (3) how the empire enacts conversion. To do so, this study compares three imperial conversions representing different religions, eras, and cultures: Ashoka’s Buddhist conversion of the Maurya Empire, the Christian conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, and Gao Zu’s role in the rise of Daoism in China’s Tang Dynasty. Methodologically, the study is interdisciplinary. First, a historical overview of each conversion explores what factors precipitated conversion as well as how the conversion benefited the empire. Next, sociology is applied to understand what made the conversions possible. Using Emile Durkheim’s concept of the sacred totem and Max Weber’s concept of theodicy, the study examines how the empire promoted pro-imperial values by co-opting symbols that appealed to society’s values concerning sacredness and morality. Finally, cultural anthropologist Talal Asad’s work on power within religion offers a way to understand how the empires enacted the conversion; imperial conversion required a negotiation of power between political and religious authorities. One of the central findings is that imperial conversion is primarily politically motivated, serving a specific goal of the empire. Additionally, the conversion itself, though historically significant, is not as radical as it may seem. Rather than a drastic change in religious devotion, imperial conversion represents a shift: the empire alters policy to better reflect the current values of society and/or to steer societal values in a slightly different direction. Further, imperial conversion is a two-way exchange, meaning that imperial conversion changes the religion as much as, if not more so, as the empire. In addition to the insights about imperial conversion, the study presents new questions about how religion is studied and defined. The concluding section offers recommendations for future study on the boundaries of what constitutes religion, how to describe and better understand religious change, and the interaction between religion and politics.
Sharp, Jordan Robert