Religion in a Changing World: Comparative Studies in Sociology

By Madeleine Cousineau | Go to book overview

PART III
RELIGION, POLITICAL ORDER, AND SOCIAL CHANGE

Beyond the meaning of religion to the individual and the internal dynamics of religious organizations is the fact that religion has a relationship with the larger society. Throughout known history, political leaders have sought to use religion to legitimate their rule. Religious leaders have often been happy to cooperate, since an alliance with powerful people could provide their groups with protection against persecution and with other benefits such as financial support for their activities. Not surprisingly, state religions were the norm for many societies in the past. However, as modern societies have become pluralistic, it has become difficult for political leaders to find any one religion with enough members to use it to gain widespread legitimacy for their government. Instead, some countries have developed civil religion ( Bellah, 1967). This is a nondenominational set of beliefs that links a nation's sense of destiny as a people to a Supreme Being who is not specific to any one religion (or what one of my students called "a generic god"). The United States has such a civil religion, as is manifested, for example, in the phrase "under God" added to the pledge to the flag in the 1950s, the phrase "In God We Trust" on all the currency, the use of the Judeo-Christian Bible in the inauguration of presidents, the rallying call of "For God and Country" that has sent several generations to war, and the sense of sacredness in the temple-like structure of the Lincoln Memorial.

Nevertheless, religious values do not always lend themselves to the preservation of the existing system. Ever-increasing pluralism sets the stage for challenges to religious monopolies and for conflicts between religions, which can be disruptive to the social order. Some religious groups challenge the political-economic system by advocating alternative ways of doing things, such as promoting respect for the natural environment. In other situations churches actually provide leadership in organized efforts to bring about social change.

The chapters in Part III reflect the complexity of the relationship between religion and the large structures of societies. Graeme Lang, Mansoor Moaddel, and

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