Confessionalism, in a religious (and particularly Christian) sense, is a belief in the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessionalists believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion.
Confessionalism can become a matter of practical relevance in fields such as Christian education and Christian politics. For example, there is a question over whether Christian schools should attempt to enforce a specific religious doctrine, or whether they should simply teach general "Christian values". Similarly, some Christian political parties have been split over whether non-Christians should be allowed to participate — confessionalists, arguing against it, stress the importance of religious doctrine, while non-confessionalists say that shared values are more important than adherence to exact beliefs.
Historically, the term confessionalism for the first time was used in mid-19th century. Of course the phenomenon of confessionalism and the term “confession”, from which the term confessionalism derived, is much older, referring to once individual belief, then collective belief. Furthermore, the term confession in different languages implies different notions (faith, denomination, croyance, culte, communauté religieuse).
In the 16th and 17th centuries the term confession was only used for the documents of belief (cf. Confessio Augustana) while the religious communities of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists were referred to as “religious parties”, different “religions” or “churches” - not as confessions. In the late 18th century the term confession started to expand to religious bodies sharing a common creed. The first evidence is the Wöllner and Prussian Religious Edict of 1788 (though there might be earlier proofs for the English-speaking world). The international Congress of Vienna in 1815 still didn’t use the term confession to mark different Christian denominations. Labelling Christian groups “confessions” implied a certain degree of civil progress and tolerance, accepting that no party could claim absolute truth. The original intention to pacify conflicts between the denominations in the 19th century turned into its opposite: Confession bore the ground for new conflicts, as for example in the Cologne conflict about mixed marriages in 1837. The Roman Catholic Church refused to consider itself as merely a confession.
However ahistorical the terminology (cf. the latest semantical research of L. Hölscher), historians talk about the Early Modern period as a “confessional age” (first evidence: Ernst Troeltsch, 1906) and with good reasons use the terms of confessionalization and confessionalism.
In the third half or the 19th century the term confessionalism occurred in dictionaries. It referred to internal Protestant conflicts (orthodoxy v. “living” Protestantism), to conflicts between different confessional groups, to everyday resentments and to any exaggerated emphasis of religious identity against competing identities. The Catholic Staatslexikon in 1959 defines Confessionalism as the “endeavour of the confessions to defend their religious doctrine” and their identity, in opposition to indifferentism, but it also meant the “overemphasize of confessional differences, esp. transferring them into the realm of state and society”. In later editions of dictionaries there is no lemma any more since the phenomenon lost its wider impact. Confessionalism exerted a severe impact on European social and political History between 1530 and 1648 and again between 1830 and the 1960s.
Nowadays confessionalism is of minor relevance in European state churches. It rose to importance in the early 19th century and vanished in the 1960s. This is why some scholars talk about this time-period as a "second confessional age", comparing the dimensions of confessionalism with the "first confessional age" (16th to 17th centuries). However, various European free churches still consider confessions important, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church and the Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church both require clergy and congregations to declare a quia subscription to the Book of Concord.
In Lebanon, the concept of confessionalism holds an important political meaning, since political power and governmental bureaucracy are organized according to religious confessions (as it happened in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries before). For example, the National Pact (an unwritten covenant) and later the Taif Agreement provide for a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament.
The idea of confessionalism can generate considerable controversy. Some Christian denominations, particularly newer ones, focus more on the "experience" of Christianity than on its formal doctrines, and are accused by confessionalists of adopting a vague and unfocused form of religion. Others argue that the confessionalist view of religion is too narrow, and that people should be able to seek religion in their own way. Anti-confessionalists generally argue that it is the spirit and values of religion that matter, rather than the rules. Confessionalists generally counter that the "spirit and values" of any given faith cannot be attained without first knowing truth as given in formal dogmas.