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LEGITIMATION is a process in which new situations in society are sought, or current ones sustained, through reference to widely shared values and/or qualities. Law and order, tradition, justice, patriotism, class affiliation, and ethnic identity are common legitimating values; charismatic leadership, the status quo experience of success, and the sting of oppression are common legitimating qualities. Legitimation is a feature of all formal governance but must not be construed exclusively as such. Nongovernmental groups also seek to preserve or alter social arrangements, and their success similarly depends upon their capacity to link goals with common values and qualities, somtimes for and sometimes against the interests of governments. By "social action" we mean efforts by nongovernmental groups to promote or resist social change. It is not our task here to discuss legitimation of and by governments in general or social action promoted by secular, nongovernmental groups, although in both cases religious and parareligious values and qualities are sometimes used as legitimating references. The scope of this article is social action undertaken by religious communities and legitimated by reference to values and qualities preferred within their own traditions. Religiously legitimated social action can refer to actions undertaken by religious hierarchies, denominational agencies, local congregations, groups within congregations, or church members who act through voluntary associations outside their religious institutions.

The fact that social action is promoted by religious groups and is religiously legitimated does not insure its positive worth. Religious social action, as we understand it, injects into a situation new sensitivity to issues and attempts to undercut spurious legitimations of power. Spurious legitimations often have appeared in the interests of nationalism, and the church often has become a legitimating authority for imperial power.

The examination of legitimation is largely a study of ambiguity, of value orientations amenable to a variety of meanings or interpretations. The reasons for this include the variety of situations in which ostensibly the same sanctions are appealed to, the variety of interests that come into play in a single situation, the mixture of good and evil, the conflict among values, and the difficulty of providing a rational, unambiguous formulation of the legitimation claimed.

Social Action

The unique context of social action is the modern community in which diverse groups coexist under the rubrics of freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. Within pluralistic society, government is generally viewed as the one association that holds a monopoly on legitimated coercion. Modern pluralism implies that associations may hold conflicting values. In an open society, where change and conflict are common, dissent is entitled to a hearing and to constitutional protection. In fact, one role of associations (James Madison called them factions) is to guard the state against demonic usurpation of authority by any group; they do so by means of an ongoing dialogue among rival conceptions of what is legitimate. The growth of voluntary associations in modern society has enhanced the importance of public opinion as a factor in social reality. Social action, therefore, is concerned to affect public opinion.

The means for social change are viewed differently by different parties. Some prefer subjective means aimed at modifying larger social realities through the power of transformed persons and the spread of influence from person to person and from persons to social structures. This approach depends upon good character rather than organized planning and action by groups. A second approach, philanthropy, offers assistance to persons and groups whose efforts show signs of positive outcome for the larger society. This approach, important as it sometimes is, aims more at remedying the consequences of social (structural) dysfunction than at criticism and change of social structures. Finally, some believe that meaningful social change must occur at the level of socioeconomic and political structures. It is this approach that we call social action.

Social action is concerned with what H. Richard Niebuhr (1954) calls the macro, meso, and micro levels or dimensions of human experience. It is concerned primarily with the macro and meso levels although changes in these levels affect and are affected by the micro level. Ernst Troeltsch (1968), through his distinction between subjective and objective values, deals with these same conceptions in a somewhat different way. For Troeltsch, subjective values spring from an individual's direct relation to God, one's direct relation to other persons, and one's internal dialogue in the striving for integrity. Here truthfulness, openness, benevolence, and loyalty are characteristic values. Objective values, on the other hand, are the social-ethical claims that inform or guide action in the realm of "history"the structured sphere of group life with its particular roles and rules. Objective values attach to the structures of society, the family (especially in its relation to other spheres), the state, the community, property and production, education, science, art, and "organized" religion.

Moral life, then, comprises both subjective and objective values, and they are of course interrelated. Social action must relate to all these levels. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and current theologians of liberation all agree that there is a clear and direct link between personal spirituality and a person's social praxis.

Values sometimes are widely held and are central for an entire society, while others are held only by a few and are marginal for the society. Marginality, however, is not irrelevance. Radical transforming insights frequently originate at the margins of society, calling into question central values while also expressing a desire for community based on alternative values. This was true of ancient prophecy and is true as well of many modern movements. Most Western monasticism, for example, may be understood as socially marginal, subjective withdrawal from the social community. But, as many have observed, monasticism has often reentered the community at large in objective, world-affirming ways: service, reform, intellectual leadership, and contemplative inspiration. This two-sidedness has existed in the Gandhian ashrams, in the black churches that supported the civil rights movement, in contemporary Latin American base communities, and in many communitarian experiments of the past two centuries. There is a dynamic interaction of values back and forth, between the margins of society and the center.

The Decline of Authority

Legitimation is aligned with authority and is dependent on it. Many would agree, however, with Hannah Arendt's disconsolate view that "authority has vanished from the world." The modern world has an authority crisis, therefore a legitimation crisis (see Arendt, 1958; Habermas, 1975). Since Plato, it has been understood that power rests on authority outside the present situation: nature, God, eternal ideas, custom, or some historical event of great importance. These outside authorities have been referred to by some as elements of "numinous" legitimation (see Sternberger, 1968). In past times of effective authority such as the Roman Empire and the Christian Roman Empire, those authoritative elements have been persuasive, legitimating whole societies. In modern times, they are undercut and we are left in a myopic state of individualistic want-orientation with far-reaching implications for all realms of life from the most public to the most private, including political organization and religion (see Tribe, 1976; Arendt, 1958). The value that most frequently replaces traditional legitimating values is the state. In modern Western states, the problem of authority is complicated by the fact that individualism carries within itself seeds of dissonance; capitalistic individualism and democratic individualism contradict one another in theory and practice (Troeltsch, 1968). The goal of the latter is freedom, whereas that of the former is want-satisfaction. The latter leads toward a broadening recognition of personhood and rights with attendant pluralism and a stress on community; the former leads toward bureaucratization of production and suppression of opportunities for democratic expression of individuality.

The impact of social change is greater in the modern epoch than in former ones. The rapid rate of change in recent generations is unique in history and destabilizes enduring values. Legitimation is more difficult in the context of unprecedented change.

Likewise, the impact of modern pluralism and responses to it have raised other problems for legitimation. In Roman Catholicism, for example, Vatican II has been a watershed, opening the way for a more pluralistic emphasis in the church. At the same time, the Roman church is experiencing strong internal conflict on some key issues such as human sexuality, the roles of women, and the place of popular religious movements within the church. The Vatican is faced with a dilemma about whether to impose traditional monolithic authority upon its increasingly pluralistic and worldwide constituency; the issues of liberation theology and popular religion in Latin America are current cases in point. Protestant evangelicals are experiencing analogous difficulties. They no longer can claim unity of political goals. A progressive wing attacks the conservative political values and programs of right-wing evangelicals.

Nationalism and Civil Religion

When the "constitution of the everyday world" is examined in terms of its "preferred and preeminent modes of being," there are "structures of faith and reason" that express the actual religious commitments of cultures, their orientations toward what is deemed by them to be sacred, "with or without the benefit of a transcendent referent or supervening unity" (George Pickering). Seen in this light, nationalism has become a dominant form of religion in the modern world, preempting a void left by the deterioration of traditional religious values. What appear to be conflicting legitimations often are evidences of rival nationalisms. Nationalism, devotion to nation as an ultimate reality or to one nation to the exclusion of others, must not be confused with civil religion, values transcending a nation by which that nation is both legitimated and judged (see Mead, 1975; Bellah, 1967). Indeed, nationalism and civil religion may often conflict. Nationalism, without any means for self-transcending criticism, is inclined toward the demonic. Its primary interest is unquestioning loyalty. Civil religion, on the other hand, tests present reality by reference to transcending values that represent the ideals and values of a nation.

Carl Schmitt (1932) saw that nationalism is fueled by the fear of an enemy. Hitlerism was promoted as a means for saving Germany from Bolshevism. The lengthening conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in this century may be understood, at least in part, by the same dynamic. But nationalism is ambiguous. Gandhi appealed to national interests, or "home rule," both as a way of overcoming the unwieldiness of deep-seated village sovereignty and as a way of uniting India against British rule. And Martin Luther King, Jr., effectively appealed to the national interest by forcing issues into federal jurisdiction in order to overcome the segregationism that dominated Southern state and local courts. In the sections that follow, the thread of nationalism as a major legitimating value runs through virtually every situation examined.


In 1851, Stephen Crowell, a trustee of Princeton Theological Seminary, in his volume New Themes for the Protestant Clergy (Philadelphia, p. 15), asserted, "The whole socialist movement is one of the greatest events of this age. The works of socialists have exposed this hideous skeleton of selfishnessthey have pursued it with unfaltering hatred; and this constitutes our main obligation to them" (cited in Stackhouse, 1985). This exposure, he argued, calls for a new application of Christian principles to the economic order. The book was published three years after the Communist Manifesto and three years after the appearance of the Christian Socialists sponsored in England by Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley "to socialize Christianity and Christianize socialism."

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Roman Catholic writers had mounted a similar attack. Social action in the following period of well over a century concerned itself not only with a critique of the legitimacy of the industrial system but also with experiments in alternative social groupings. These experiments presupposed new conceptions of legitimacy.

Growth of the idea of social salvation

The search for alternative societies may be traced to the writings of Plato, Thomas More, and Tommaso Campanella, and also to the heretical sects of the Middle Ages and the withdrawing as well as the aggressive sects of the Reformation. Most influential of all have been the monastic communities from which the concept of sainthood emerged. In these efforts, one can see the deliberate formation of nonoppressed, marginal groups in contrast to the oppressed margins in which the labor movements were born as well as the U. S. civil rights movement and grass-roots liberation movements in the Third World.

Of special character and significance were the social actions associated with communitarian movements in the United States and Europe. The fantastic schemes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey are familiar. In the United States these experiments, religious and secular, appeared from New Hampshire to Oregon, from the Rappites and the Owenites to the Shakers and Brook Farm. In the nineteenth century, there were over a hundred known communities of more than one hundred thousand men, women, and children. Writing to Carlyle in 1840, Emerson said, "We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket."

Egalitarianism was a major nerve of these movements. Their conceptions of legitimacy issued in the demand for equality of sex, nationality, and color, the abolition of private property, the abolition of slavery, the humane treatment of domestic animals, and the practice of nonresistance.

Experiments have continued into the present century, for example, the interracial community Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, and the mainly Roman Catholic Focolare ("fireplace") movement. The latter, an international group with four thousand members, emphasizes face-to-face "family" groups stressing unity toward the end of transforming structures of domination through praxis rather than doctrine, and uses mass media for wider communication. Especially significant too are the kibbutsim in Israel, the oldest extant communal experiments among marginal, alternative societies.

In England, the philosophy of individualism may be traced to left-wing Puritanism, with its attack on chartered monopoly and its promotion of the dispersion of power in church and state. Legitimation was found in the alleged congregational polity of primitive Christianity. Here was the birth of the bourgeois revolt against feudalism. Later, the work of Adam Smith gave birth to belief in automatic harmony issuing from a free market. This hope for automatic harmony constituted an eschatological form of legitimation. This eschatology was fueled by the belief in progress, a restatement of the doctrine of providence. Marxism in dialectical fashion, centering attention on economic analysis and on the hope for a classless society, also adopted an optimistic eschatology.

Automatic harmony failed to appear. Smith had not anticipated the advent of large corporations and the coalitions among them, nor had he foreseen greater success in production than in the capacity to expand markets, maintain employment levels, and encourage consumption. This economic system left in its wake a residue of faceless poverty that over a long period has remained undiminished in proportion to the middle class. Legitimation became more difficult to maintain as prebourgeois social solidarity eroded. In this century, as New Deal politics shifted from the older individualism, Roscoe Pound would speak of a return to features of feudalism. The legal system, however, stood in opposition, concerned about order more than justice.

In an environment of individualistic pietism and privatization, the idea of "social salvation" appeared in the United States and Europe. From the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches arose the idea of "a responsible society." The secular articulation of these new religiously conceived ideas helped to legitimate the welfare state.

Meanwhile, the deprivations of Third World peoples were coming into sharper focus and it rapidly became evident that bureaucratization of business and the welfare state was inimical to training for democratic citizenship. For example, the percentage of eligible voters in the United States who participate in presidential elections has diminished by nearly half in this century. As these conflicts became more obvious, the crisis of legitimations became more acute. In this period of attacks upon prevailing legitimations, increasing appeals were made to the teachings of Jesus as a final authority, for example, by Walter Rauschenbusch in the earlier years of this century and later by John Bennett, Walter Muelder, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others (see Stackhouse, 1985).

The movement Christians for Socialism in Europe, North America, and Latin America is more pluralistic in goals and methods. Here there is recognition of the church as an economic and political power sometimes inimical to a socialist reorganization of society. Marxist tools of analysis have been employed, but the major thrust is against inequality among classes, regions, and production sectors. The emergence of new "base communities," especially but not only in Latin America, has provided grass-roots support with a new religious awareness in the face of institutional concentrations of power, ecclesiastical or economic.

This trend has continued, for example in papal encyclicals since the end of the nineteenth century and, in the period since Vatican II, in the official statements issued by councils of bishops in Latin America and the United States. These Protestant and Catholic views in part have rearticulated a century-old religious socialism with its numinous legitimation of freedom in community.

Gandhi's appeal to religion

Mohandas Gandhi was born to a political father and a religious mother. The Gandhis were vaiśya Hindus, though both mother and father, according to Gandhi's reflections, were tolerant and actively interested in persons and ideas outside their own religious tradition. Gandhi's mature religious views, consequently, were grounded in Hindu wisdom but also mingled with non-Hindu, especially Christian wisdom. With this beginning, it is not surprising that, for Gandhi, God is greater than any concept of God, Hindu or Christian. Gandhi interchangeably used terms like truth, life, light, and love to describe God. In his view, one draws close to God by struggling against evil in the world, even at the risk of death. He saw no distinction between religion and politics. Whereas many saw him as a religious figure involved in politics, he saw himself as a political individual trying to be religious.

The motivating vision for Gandhi was Rāma rājya, an ideal state of harmony in which the "welfare of all" (sarvodaya ) would characterize the systemic interconnections of society. There would be "rights alike of prince and pauper," "sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority," and "self-rule." Human relations in Rāma rājya, therefore, will manifest the principle of "noninjury" (ahisā ). Ahisā is more than refraining from hurting by active aggression; it is subtle harmony of all living things; it is love in action. Because truth is beyond human grasp, one is bound to respect the truth claims of others. One may not inflict injury (hisā ) upon others in the name of one's own truth. Truth is larger than any person's or group's comprehension of it; it is always beyond, judging every human truth. One must "hold on to truth" (satyāgraha ) in the latter sense, that is, one must be committed to the truth one knows with humility, knowing that one's commitment is ultimately to the greater, unseen truth (see Chatterjee, 1983).

In the Gandhian movement, we find the three legitimating forces discussed by German sociologist Max Weber: tradition, charisma, and law. Gandhi himself was charismatic; Hindu values were traditional; and Gandhi, an attorney by training, believed in law even when he took exception to it through civil disobedience.

Gandhi met many forms of resistance to his work, even from some who shared his general desires for transformation. His differences with Rabindranath Tagore are well known; both were religious, but Tagore seriously disliked many of Gandhi's methods. Gandhi's conflict with B. R. Ambedkar over how to deal with the issue of untouchability was even more serious. Ambedkar, born an untouchable himself, saw Gandhi's approach as bourgeois, therefore ineffective and even harmful in perpetuating the very oppressions in question. The final irony is that Gandhi's assassin belonged to a Hindu group whose members resented Gandhi's openness to Muslims.

Transformations in recent Buddhism

In Japan since World War II, numerous new religions (voluntary associations) have enjoyed phenomenal growth. From among these we select the lay Buddhist movements Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōseikai for a brief account. Both these new religions trace their heritage to the Buddhist "Nichiren sect" stemming from the thirteenth century.

Literally translated, the name Sōka Gakkai means "the value-creating society." The movement, characterized by family membership, has claimed to have sixteen million on its rolls. Its mushroom growth sprang from the ashes of the second world war. These value preferences, it is claimed, can be traced to Nichiren who seven centuries ago brought Buddhism to the common people and who traced authority to the Lotus Sutra of the fourth century.

The characteristic ideas of this sūtra are that every living being possesses the Buddha in embryo and should, through meditation and discipline, achieve the enlightenment of Buddhahood and also assist others on the bodhisattva path. All are heirs of the Buddha who engage in bodhisattva practice that leads to happiness in this world and the next.

The basic faith issues from worship of the mandala and the repetition of prescribed words of prayer enabling one to get rid of delusion, to achieve merit toward happiness in this world and the next, to enter the state of Buddhahood, and also to contribute to world peace. Happiness consists in material satisfaction (promised to everyone) such as economic prosperity, freedom from bad personal habits and adversity, sound health, peace of mind, and a bubbling over with joya markedly utilitarian, cash-value religion. The search for Buddhahood in Sōka Gakkai is the sign of the one and only true religion; other religions are to be uprooted. Conversion of nonmembers requires "a stern strategy" of pummeling ("breaking and subduing") the unbeliever, which is the highest form of compassion. There is confidence that inner reform (subjective virtue) will move outward to infuse politics, economics, art, and all spheres of life with new value.

Sōka Gakkai has been politically active, at one time establishing a political party and gaining several representatives in the national legislature. Its successful international missionary efforts have generated mass peace rallies. In a volume sponsored by the rapidly growing Youth Division, Peace Is Our Duty (1977), many individual statements recount vividly the brutalities of war and the callousness of former military training. It is not quite clear what the work for peace is apart from rallies; economic questions relating to world peace are not taken into account.

The fundamental motivation (or legitimation) of this "value-creating" movement resides in Buddhahood, though legitimation has been scarcely a pressing matter; the possession of truth suffices. The authoritarian, nationalist ethos and concern for individual happiness are readily evident. But still more evident is the transformation from early Buddhism's escape from history to a dynamic, utilitarian this-worldliness, yet with no social action in the strict sense.

Risshō Kōseikai, possessing six million members, also traces its heritage to Nichiren and earlier Mahāyāna Buddhism. Oriented to the Lotus Sūtra, members of Risshō Kōseikai interpret the way of the bodhisattva as the path of those who, in compassion, strive to achieve salvation for themselves and others "who shed tears of sorrow." All people have the potentiality of attaining Buddhahood; conflict prevails in the world because people have forgotten this potentiality. One aims to be loyal to one's own country, but through religious faith one hopes to be united with other peoples in a spirit transcending national boundaries.

This movement was founded in 1934 by Niwano Nikkyō, who was thoroughly familiar with the Lotus Sūtra, and by a prophetess, Naganuma Myōkō, who from time to time received revelations regarding immediate situations. They tirelessly visited the sick, claimed miraculous healings, and offered pastoral counseling; these elicited personal transformation and public testimonials. In all situations, they emphasized the reading of the sūtra ; later Niwano published numerous articles of commentary on it. As Risshō Kōseikai has grown in size, close interpersonal relations of the early days have been retained in the form of the hōza, small groups in which personal, family, neighborhood, and business problems are discussed with the assistance of leaders who are appointed and trained by the hierarchy.

The general ethos is authoritarian, reflecting the charismatic and administrative leadership of Niwano.

Institutionalized dissent is unknown. Various social activities are encouraged, including community projects and also vigorous assistance to the "boat people" in Southeast Asia. These philanthropic concerns, however, have not led to political-social action, though there is some educational interest in such matters; young members going abroad are studying international affairs and social sciences (and other world religions). Risshō Kōseikai, like Sōka Gakkai, has aroused widespread interest in world peace, stimulated of course by the memory of the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Niwano has vigorously promoted an international thrust, for example, becoming active in the International Association for Religious Freedom and in the World Conference on Religion and Peace. He has served as president of both these organizations with their global constituencies, searching in world religions for common bonds conducive to peace. It should be noted, in addition, that concern for world peace is widely prevalent in Japanese society and not only in these new religions.

Legitimation is provided in general by the Lotus Sūtra and to some extent by modern conceptions of tolerance and interfaith cooperation. One does not, however, discern any tendency to alter the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of Risshō Kōseikai itself. The question of legitimation, though not fully formulated in Risshō Kōseikai, is becoming more important, as is evident in Niwano's personal growth, which is centered in traditional Buddhism but reaches out to Western and Eastern non-Buddhist concepts, including the New Testament and the writings of Gandhi.

It can be seen, from this brief discussion, that social action within the group is still largely undeveloped. To be sure, some new Buddhist groups are interested in philanthropic effort. However, in Risshō Kōseikai as well as in Sōka Gakkai, political participation is not explicitly promoted. We can see how objective values are beginning to engage attention in the Nichiren groups but more in practical, microcosmic, and mesocosmic (e.g., neighborhood) ways than in systematic macrocosmic waysthat is, apart from the peace movements. Yet, in all this a return to this-worldliness is markedly evident.

In recent decades a turn toward this-worldliness is increasingly apparent in Theravāda Buddhism, too, especially in Burma, though not without tensions that render the outlook ambiguous. This turn is taking place at both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic levels. Indeed, the evaluation of the world has become so positive that escape from it in complete detachment is not a primary or immediate goal.

This change of outlook has appeared strikingly in the sphere of objective, institutional values. Winston L. King, in his writings, has delineated these changes of recent decades. In his article "Samsara Re-Valued" (1964), he succinctly defines sasāra, the round of births and deaths, as a synonym for "all that is evil," as compounded in the impermanence, suffering, and insubstantiality of the world, as well as in the "no-souledness of individuatedness of space-time existence," a malady from which one escapes through complete detachment. Yet today practical changes are being sought, for example, emancipation from "economic strangulation." The inspiration for this stance is found in the career of the Buddha himself, who realized during the course of ascetic practices that privation did not conduce to spiritual liberation, or, in other words, that dharma can be better practiced on a full stomach. This emancipation will bring freedom from want, economic well-being for the entire people, an end to exploitation of man by man. In short, what is required is a Buddhist national socialismadumbrated by U Nu, the first premier of independent Burma in 1948 (though his effort was aborted, to be resumed by the revolutionary government). Other changes are also demanded, for example, a new role for the meditating lay person, who should have equality with the monks. Meditation is useful for both this world and nirvāa, maintaining detachment for both worlds. A new meaning for karman makes room for change of the self and for self-reliance. The bodhisattva ideal from Mahāyāna Buddhism is reinterpreted to give sanction for public service in the community, to be sure not without a strong element of nationalism. Detachment can accompany activity in the world toward achieving nirvāa peace in daily life. For the understanding and enhancement of daily existence, the study of the sciences is encouraged, something traditionally found in the teachings of Buddha.

In these ways, sasāra is being revalued. Legitimation for this way of life is claimed by appeal to the intentions of the true Lord Buddha for the sake of otherworldliness within this world. Since thousands of lives lie ahead of us, there need be no hurry about striving for the achievement of nirvāa. King (1964) describes this paradox as having one's cake and eating it, too. With an absolutely straight face, the defender can say that these developments provide a new hope for transformation in this world in preparation for the next, while at the same time maintaining the rule of dharma against false consciousness and greed. In all this, one can detect influences from the West and from Marxism.

The civil rights movement in the United States

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States is significant for our present purposes because the movement claimed legitimations that were largely, though not entirely, religious in a traditional sense. The movement was a religiously legitimated mass social-action movement. Black church networks provided the talent, energy, and institutional connections that were determinative for the wisdom, strength, and durative power of the movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr., added a charismatic presence to the movement and became its focal personality and symbolic leader. As one whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been Baptist ministers, whose father and grandfather had been civil rights leaders in Atlanta, and as one who had himself earned a doctorate in systematic theology, King was well prepared in many respects to lead a social-action movement legitimated by religious values and based in churches. Within the black church tradition, King knew the symbolism, the characteristic networking, and the style of male-oriented, charismatic leadership. He also knew the ins and outs of the liberal Protestant social theology that echoed in many Northern churches and seminaries. He could preach extemporaneously from his thorough familiarity with the ideas of Walter Rauschenbusch, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Nelson Wieman, and the Boston University personalist theologians, as well as the rich theological heritage of the black church.

From his church tradition and theological education, King emphasized community ("beloved community," he called it), faith in a personal God who struggles in history side by side with those who suffer and work for justice, an eschatological vision of liberation, and a doctrine of human personality rooted in God as personal. With these he interpreted the significance of being free and fully human on the one hand, and the destruction of human personality by racism on the other. The means of social transformation and liberation had to be in accord with the goal of the beloved community. For King only nonviolence, rooted in Christian love and influenced by the example of Gandhi's nonviolent satyāgraha campaigns in South Africa and India, could produce change and create "beloved community." For King, these values were grounded in a willingness to suffer and a belief that unmerited suffering can be redemptive. These legitimating values were the heart of the movement.

In spite of religious values at the center of the movement, many in the churches did not follow King's lead. In his famous 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" King lamented the failure of churches, especially white church leaders, to support the movement. Even before 1966, there was tension within the movement when King and his supporters were challenged by a group of younger black leaders who wished to move ahead faster and with greater militancy. In 1966, this challenge within the movement became public and serious when the cry of "black power," supported by Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick, struck a resonant note among civil rights workers and created a legitimation crisis in the movement, a crisis that was not resolved at the time of King's murder and is not yet resolved in liberation struggles around the world. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the revolutionary struggle against poverty in Latin America are current examples of the same crisis over which values will legitimate and guide social transformation.

The civil rights movement also precipitated an old tension in American life between the legitimating ideals of the Constitution and federal courts on the one hand, and persistent attempts of regions to resist federal domination on the other. On both sides of the conflict, people felt they were in a moral struggle. One of King's most repeated aphorisms was "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends ultimately toward justice." On the other hand, some supporters of Jim Crow also believed their struggle was a moral one. It was part of King's genius to understand their feelings and the history from which such feelings come into being. This moral element, despite its ambiguity, helps to explain the depth of feeling, commitment, and sacrifice that characterized the movement on all sides but especially among the inner ranks of the nonviolent workers.

We find again Weber's three kinds of legitimationtradition, charisma, and law. The black church and liberal theology were traditional elements; the black minister model of leadership was charismatic, and King was its consummate manifestation; and civil rights work in the South before 1955, especially the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), focused very often on legal redress and on respect for the courts and bringing pressure to bear on them. Most interpretation of this movement overemphasizes the role of charisma, mistakenly following Weber's thesis that charisma is the chief legitimating force that produces social change. Such a view distorts the role of King even as it intends to elevate his importance, and it also undervalues the importance of indigenous leadership in southern black church communities (see Morris, 1984).

Theologies of liberation

Since 1960, theologies of liberation have emerged from theologians identified with the experiences of oppressed groups, groups that have been pushed to the margins of society by economic and political systems. From this new perspective, earlier traditional theologies too often have been unwitting expressions of privileged interests that serve to further the oppression of groups such as women, the chronically poor, and black people. This section will concentrate primarily on Latin American theologies of liberation. Feminist theologies, black theologies, and liberation theologies from Africa and Asia also offer much to this conversation as they challenge traditional legitimating values.

One thing is common to Latin American theologies of liberationthe view that theology is never ideologically neutral, that no theology is Christian if it is aligned ideologically with privileged groups and against the welfare of already oppressed groups. Theology, these theologians believe, must serve as an element of liberation rather than oppression.

In most liberation theologies, scripture is placed side by side with the suffering of the poor. The God of scripture is one who liberates, who is on the side of the poor against their oppressors. In the faces of the poor one meets God in history; the liberation of the poor in history is the work of God. Liberation praxis is the way of meeting and serving God in history; it is the way of discipleship.

In light of the strong emphasis on scripture as a primary legitimating authority for many liberation theologians, it is important to note that some feminist theologians believe that scripture is so thoroughly accommodated to past cultures of oppression which produced it, that it cannot legitimate liberation; legitimations for liberation, especially the liberation of women, must be sought elsewhere. It is at this point that certain feminist theologians suggest such alternative sources as goddess traditions to legitimate theology and social praxis. Among black theologians also, there is debate about the role of scripture as a legitimating source. In the black churches of the United States, there is no doubt that scripture has been central; some, however, believe it would be better to draw more of African culture as a central source of liberating praxis. But in Latin American theologies of liberation, scripture is fundamental.

There are areas of ambiguity in these theologies. For instance, if God favors the oppressed, how is the concept of the church as God's people to be reconciled with the historical reality of the church in which there are both oppressed and oppressors? This has been a central question for liberation leaders such as Oscar Romero, Helder Camara, and Camilo Torres. If social transformation is legitimated by appeal to God's preference for the poor and oppressed, does that introduce partisan divisions into the body of the church? On the other hand, appeal is made to an image of the church as a harmonious whole, as one body in Christ, undisturbed by historical injustices. History has shown, however, how the church denies and rationalizes the bitter conditions of the poor and oppressed in order, with a clear conscience, to sustain the ideal of wholeness as a credible legitimating ideal. One can see these ambiguities in current discussions surrounding the Vatican instruction on liberation theology and the Vatican's silencing of the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff.

In the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), which includes among its members many of the Latin American theologians of liberation, there has been disagreement about the order of importance of legitimating principles. Oppression, and therefore liberation, are viewed by some as matters of class, by others as matters of race, and by still others as matters of culture. These differences, serious as they are, should not divert attention from the wide agreement among these theologians about liberation as the essence of the gospel: liberation from sin, of course, but also liberation in history from the oppressions of history.

The social form of theology of liberation in Latin America is the base community movement. Concerns are largely practicalwork, food, health care, freedom from political oppression and terror, and empowerment for political participation. Liberation thought stresses the primacy of social transformation at the macro level, but is also keenly aware of the interconnectedness of the personal with the sociohistorical, the micro with the macro level. Objective virtue is valued above subjective virtue, although the connections between them are clearly seen and appreciated (see Gutiérrez, 1984). Marginality is a key feature of the liberation movements. The poor are the central subjects of this historical process and theology. The phrase "the irruption of the poor" points to that process by which the poor in the margins of society are speaking, organizing, and acting for themselves in a new way.

The Weberian elements are visible in the liberation movement in Latin America. Scripture and the church, the two great elements of Catholic authority, continue to be affirmed even when reinterpreted; they are traditional elements. There are charismatic leaders, heroes, and martyrs in the movementHelder Camara, Camilo Torres, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rutillo Grande, and Oscar Romero among others; but there is no one person who marks this movement as King marked the civil rights movement in the United States or Gandhi marked the work in India. This is a more diffuse, more people-oriented movement in which democratic organization and participation transcend the role of charisma. The result is a different kind of people empowerment. The element of law can be seen in the ongoing role of church authority; it can be seen also in the desire to transform society, if possible, by lawful means.

Concluding remarks

In the so-called secular, modern world of the past century and a half, the role of religious legitimation has been highly ambiguous. Progressive secularization has driven religion to the margins of contemporary culture. Some have lamented this while others have welcomed "a world come of age." This article has noted several major movements of social transformation whose primary legitimating values are religious.

The social-reform movements represent a focus on world affirmation or social salvation. In the case of Gandhian applications of Hindu values and new Buddhist socialism, world affirmation is a reversal of traditional world negation or contempt for the world. In the case of Latin American liberation movements, world affirmation is the reclaiming of a prophetic tradition that until recently was recessive in the Latin American church. In the civil rights movement, prophetic world affirmation was a continuation of the black church's traditional emphasis on historical liberation. However, scholars of black religions maintain that, from the United States Civil War until the civil rights movement, the prophetic edge of black church theology, so common in the antebellum period, was in recession. In spite of these recent examples of religiously legitimated social action, the barriers to such change remain substantial. Bureaucratization of military, governmental, and economic powers increases the difficulty of effective social action. The global extent of these problems is only now becoming fully apparent. In addition, religious groups generally are divided about social action.

What characterizes the present situation is a movement, by no means universal, toward world affirmation in the religious legitimation of social action. This is not a recent turn, parallel with the birth of the so-called postmodern era, but rather a slowly spreading phenomenon with roots in the nineteenth century. It represents an extension of the modern emphasis on the world, with a peculiar twist that world affirmation in these movements is religious, not secular (see Cox, 1984). This change is occurring in Eastern and Western religious traditions. Even pietistic religious groups have taken an interest in social transformation. Cases in point are the recent emergence in the United States of the "moral majority" as well as socially minded evangelical theology (see Mott, 1982). Especially interesting is the recent legitimation of "democratic capitalism" with religious sanctions and, at the same time and by the same writers, a sharp criticism of recent statements on the economy issued by the Catholic bishops of the United States.

The growth of prophetic, world-affirming religiousness is one manifestation, a notable one, of the search for moral meaning in a modern world (see Tipton, 1982). It is not the only one, however; modernism is pluralistic and the search for moral meaning is drawn in many directions, especially by the lure of nationalism. It would seem, however, judging from the vitality of world-affirming religious movements during the past 150 years, that religious legitimation of social action is destined to play a continuing role in the struggles for social transformation in both East and West. It is worth noting, in this connection, the Catholic church's historic transition toward world affirmation in the events of Vatican II (see Gaudium et Spes, documents of the Consejo Episcopal Latino-americano conferences at Medellín, 1968, and Puebla, 1979, and the declarations of the Conference of United States Bishops on Nuclear Weapons and the American Economy.) Secularization has contributed to that expansion by helping to clarify the conflict of rival legitimations inherent in it. The future of social action legitimated by traditional religious values, when pitted against powerful rival religions or rival structures of faith and reason such as nationalism, remains to be seen.

See Also

Authority; Religious Communities, article on Religion, Community, and Society; Utopia.


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James Luther Adams (1987)

Thomas Mikelson (1987)

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