This is a guest post by Sarah Imhoff, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.
In a whirlwind day of traveling this week, I’ve been in the United States, Turkey, and Israel. On the train in New Jersey, I noticed one house where American flags sprouted on the porch like rows of overgrown plants fighting for the sun. In Turkey, I got stuck walking on the sidewalk behind this vendor:

Turkish flag vendor
And because of the snail’s pace line for passport control at Ben Gurion airport, I stared at up an enormous wall painting of an Israeli flag for two hours. While there is plenty to say about the comparative politics of patriotism, I thought about social interactions of church and state. As a scholar of religion, I seem to see it everywhere.
These three nations—the US, Turkey, and Israel—have three very different articulations of the relationship between “church” and state. The United States has constitutional commitment to freedom of religious expression, and simultaneously refusal of federal establishment of religion. Turkey has a different sort of separation: its laicite, a style of secularism most frequently associated with France, excludes religious practice and discourse from the space of government. And Israel is a Jewish state. And each of these arrangements turns out to be far more complicated and contested than a single sentence about it can suggest.
As this month’s SCOTUS ruling on Town of Greece v. Galloway. reminded us, there is a long tradition of legislative prayer practice in the United States. Were the people of the town of Greece, NY allowed to start their meetings with a prayer, as long as they didn’t intentionally exclude any religions? The court ruled 5-4 that the town wasn’t violating the constitution with its prayer, but the justices on both sides of the issue offered locally based reasoning in their decisions. The most affecting moment of Elana Kagan’s dissent was her hypothetical story about a Muslim woman coming to the town council to ask for a building permit. Wouldn’t she feel coerced into municipally-sanctioned Christianity when the chaplain opened the meeting and said “Let us pray”? In his opinion holding for Greece, Clarence Thomas explained that he thinks the establishment clause pertains only to the federal government, and so wouldn’t necessarily or automatically apply to states, or a town such as Greece. Both justices, despite their vastly different takes, appealed to local context to explain their legal reasoning about religion.
In Turkey, unlike the United States or the town of Greece, religious expression in government spaces is disallowed. For instance, police, judges, and members of the armed forces aren’t allowed to wear headscarves, even though the country is nearly 99% Muslim. Laicite means individual religious practice and signs are excluded from government representation. Last October in Turkey, four women Members of Parliament began to wear headscarves in Parliament for the first time in nearly 15 years—and even in 1999, Merve Kavakci, the MP who wore the headscarf, was booed out of the chamber. The political changes that allowed the headscarves last year turned heads of those committed to the story of a secular Turkey. Supporters of Turkey’s laicite would have balked at seeing the Town of Greece ruling. They would have seen it as entirely too permissive of the mixing of religious practice and government. But in the central spot of Istanbul tourism, I stood between two historic and iconic religious buildings Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sofia, where I listened to the Friday afternoon call to prayer as it alternated between two loudspeakers.
In Israel, I heard very little. This, too, was a religiously inflected noise: it was Shabbat. Though I was in Tel Aviv, a city not known for its religious piety, most of the neighborhood shops were quiet. Here you might notice that it was a state with many Jews, but you might not know it is a Jewish state. Prayers intermingle with speeches in the Knesset, most recently and powerfully exemplified in MK Ruth Calderon’s first Knesset speech last year—and she is a member of a very progressive political party. The Knesset has 120 members because Jewish tradition holds that the “men of the great assembly” numbered 120. The Knesset routinely legislates about matters of religious practice, contains men and women who dress and behave according to religious norms, and hears religiously based arguments.
National church-state arrangements and the sorts of religion expressed and allowed in legislative bodies clearly structure religious lives in the nation. But the two nations with ostensibly secular governments–the US and Turkey–have much higher percentages of religious believers than Israel, a country with an official religion. So knowing what these political arrangements of religion are at the national level isn’t nearly enough for us to predict what expressions of religion look like in the streets. Today, I wonder, if all politics is local, maybe all religion is too.