To say that Hegel's position on the relationship between religion and state is not easy to categorise would be a vast understatement. Eluding comfortable labels, his ideas on the subject diverge from historically prevalent conceptions, which together are often thought to be exhaustive. On the one hand, Hegel's position contrasts sharply with theocratic doctrines that propose a simple identity of political and religious institutions, or subjugate the former to the latter. Almost equally distant from Hegel's position, however, are liberal and Enlightenment views that urge the complete separation of religion from secular authority and mundane politics.
This tension is characteristic of many of Hegel's writings on the subject, from the earliest to die most mature. On numerous occasions, Hegel voices his vehement opposition to the notion of a radical split between religion and the ‘ethical’ (sittlich) institutions of political power. In an early fragment from 1798 he writes, ‘if the principle of the state is a complete totality, then church and state cannot possibly be unrelated’, and similar sentiments are voiced in many other writings, including Hegel's very last lectures on the Philosophy of Religion from 1831. Yet, at other junctures he contends, rather, that only ‘in despotism church and state are one’. Of all Hegel's extended discussions of the subject, one — in the Remark and Addition to §270 of the Philosophy of Right — lays emphasis on the cleft between church and state; others — in §552 of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Third Edition), the aforementioned 1831 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, and the final sections of the Philosophy of History — seem, on the contrary, to stress the essential and eventual unity of religious and political life. To reconcile such seemingly contradictory views within a coherent position (even a dialectically coherent one) and salvage Hegel's position from the muddle of apparent contradictions and oblique formulations is therefore a challenge.