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REVOLUTION . Throughout the course of history, religion has functioned as a source of social solidarity, and this fact is undoubtedly related to the very essence of religion, which provides a set of basic values for the regulation of human life on earth and guidance in the search for meaning and salvation. Since in all traditional societies both nature and society were regarded as part of the same cosmic universe controlled by gods or spirits, a religious legitimation of the social order developed as a matter of course.

The integrative role of religion has been known for a very long time. The eighteenth-century rationalist Voltaire assured his noble pupil, Frederick the Great, that a "wise and courageous prince, with money, troops, and laws, can perfectly well govern men without the aid of religion," but most rulers of humankind and the sages counseling them have preferred not to take any chances on the firmness and sway of political authority. In his Discourses (1517) Machiavelli called religion "the most necessary and assured support of any civil society," and he exhorted princes and heads of republics "to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united." The duration of empires, argued the French conservative Joseph de Maistre, writing after the French Revolution, "has always been proportionate to the influence that the religious principle has acquired in the political system." The emphasis on the importance to society of a sense of shared values endeared de Maistre to his fellow countryman, the sociologist Émile Durkheim, probably the best-known modern spokesman for the view that the primary function of religion is the preservation of social unity.

But religion has often also functioned as an agent of revolutionary mobilization. Religion involves transcendent moral standards that define an ideal against which human performance can be measured. Hence those who are dissatisfiedpolitically, economically, socially, or spirituallymay find in religion strong support for their attack upon the status quo. Religion can be a powerful agent pushing the thoughts of leaders beyond tradition; it may become the spiritual dynamic of revolution that Georges Sorel called the "social myth." As the judicious Richard Hooker observed in the sixteenth century, during a period of great religious and social upheaval, when the minds of leaders are once "persuaded that it is the will of God to have those things done which they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, never suffering them to take rest till they have brought their speculations into practice." Religion can provide individual with the zeal of true believers who know that they are right and who act with fortitude since they carry out God's will and count on God's helping hand.

While some religious ideas, such as the conception of sacred kingship to be found in many premodern societies, have reinforced a pattern of political subservience and quietism, most religious views of rulership have not had such unequivocal political consequences. The ancient Chinese doctrine of the mandate of Heaven, for example, legitimized the rule of the emperor, the Son of Heaven, who traced his title to deified ancestors upon whom Heaven, the supreme deity, had conferred the right to rule. And yet, the mandate of Heaven was not seen as granted in perpetuity or unconditionally. Heaven demanded righteousness and good government and deposed rulers who abused their exalted office. Hence, just as the concept had apparently come into being to justify the seizure of power by the Zhou dynasty (around 1028 bce), which claimed a divine mandate for overthrowing the Shang, so the mandate of Heaven could later be invoked by new aspirants to the supreme rulership. Indeed, in Chinese a revolution is called ge ming "breaking of the mandate."

The Christian ideas of divine providence and of the divine origin and sanction of rulership also have had diverse results: They have helped shore up and sanctify political authority, but they also have been used to justify rebellion. In the deterministic worldview of Augustine of Hippo, nothing could exist without divine approval. Divine providence has arranged things in such a way that every evil in the world is directed to some good. God appoints rulers according to the merits of the people, and in view of his omnipotence and justice tyrants must be considered God's retribution for the perversity of the people. Both just kings and cruel tyrants reign by God's providence; none may be resisted.

This gospel of submissiveness, a justification for a theologian desirous of obtaining secular support for the suppression of heresy or for a Martin Luther in need of assistance from the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, was a burdensome handicap for Christians eager to fight the pretensions of absolute temporal power. Hence, in the later sixteenth century, in particular, the doctrine of divine providence was reinterpreted so as to make possible certain political actions. Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin, conceded that nothing can exist without divine approval and that God uses the evil deeds of sinners to punish other sinners. But, he asked, why could it not be God's will that tyrants be punished by the people rather than people by tyrants? During the Puritan Revolution (English Civil War) the Christian humanist John Milton rejected the suggestion that God had put the English nation in slavery to Charles Stuart and that only God, therefore, could be relied upon to release it. If God can be said to give a people into slavery whenever a tyrant prevails over a people, he asked, why ought God not as well be said to set them free whenever people prevail over a tyrant?

But this kind of politically useful theological reasoning did not originate with either Beza or Milton. Around 1110, Hugh of Fleury had taught in his De regia potestate that God punishes bad princes by the insubordination of their people, and the same idea is found in Eastern Christendom. The Kievan chronicler considered a revolt of the citizens against their prince an act of God's will, punishing the prince for his misconduct. More recently a pastoral letter issued in 1967 by "Sixteen Bishops of the Third World" declared that "Christians and their pastors should know how to recognize the hand of the Almighty in those events that from time to time put down the mighty from their thrones and raise up the humble." Needless to say, the impressment of God for the cause of rebellion is today no monopoly of the political left. After the military coup of 1964 in Brazil, a group of Brazilian archbishops and bishops thanked God for having listened to their prayers for deliverance from the communist peril. Divine providence, they said, had made itself felt in a tangible manner.

Other contradictory consequences of the doctrine of divine providence must be noted. The acceptance of the omnipotent role of the deity can lead to fatalism and inaction, but it can also spur people to mighty effort because of the conviction that God is on their side. Thus the early Jewish apocalyptic writers counseled complete reliance upon God's direct intervention, which would redeem Israel, whereas the later Zealots, engaged in eschatological war against Rome, believed that God would usher in the new age of freedom and justice only if pious Jewish warriors actively participated in the realization of the divine plan. Here strong faith in the certainty of divine assistance acted to inspire superior exertion and fortitude and gave the struggle against Rome the character of a holy war. Revolutionary action merged with messianic utopianism and led to an utter disregard of Rome's overwhelming might, a realistic appraisal of which would have discouraged any hope of success.

The fact that most religious doctrines are protean in character and are open to different readings does not mean that the doctrinal content of a religion is entirely irrelevant to politics. Though all religions have both quietistic and revolutionary potentials, the relative proportions of these differing political implications vary. Considering the phenomenon of revolutionary millenarianism, for example, we see that certain religious traditions are more conducive to expectations of a coming age of bliss than others. The cyclical view of history in Hinduism and Buddhism, providing as it does for perpetual flux and endless repetition of the cosmic drama, appears to discourage millenarian ideas, just as the linear theory of history and the expectation of a final salvation of humanity in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide inspiration for the millenarian dream of eternal terrestrial redemption.

The leadership of religious organizations or movements is often of considerable importance in determining that group's political posture. A charismatic leader of a millenarian movement is a potent agent of radical change. As the bearer of chiliastic prophecy, he is not just a champion of felt needs or a catalyst but also a cause of the movement he is heading. The millenarian prophet's ambitious and challenging vision of what the world ought to be increases expectations and dissatisfactions, which can lead to a revolutionary situation. The limited success of conscientização, the attempted "raising of the consciousness" of the subservient peasant population of South America by various radical groups, shows that this enterprise encounters serious difficulties when entrusted to persons of ordinary and secular cast.

In sum, religion can be both a prop for the established institutions of society and a revolutionary force, since it includes elements for integration as well as for radical change. Religion can defuse social conflict by devaluing earthly concerns and emphasizing happiness in the world beyond, but its promise of divine intervention in human affairs can also strengthen the hope that a better life is possible here on earth. Hence many times different groups within one religion will line up on opposite sides of the barricades. God's will, when seen through the lenses of human desires and interests, can be, and in fact usually is, read in several different ways.

Whether religion discourages or promotes revolution depends on variables such as the relationship of the religious institution to the state or the presence or absence of a forceful leader. All religions known to us can assume both roles, though the intellectual and organizational traditions they hold will incline some more in one direction than in the other. Situational factors, such as the relative chances for success of a revolt, will also be important. In all there are four ways in which religion can assume a revolutionary posture:

  1. Millenarian revolts occur (a) when situations of distress or disorientation develop, and the causes are not clearly perceived or appear insoluble by ordinary and available remedies; (b) when a society or group is deeply attached to religious ways of thinking about the world and when the religion of that society attaches importance to millenarian ideas; and (c) when an individual or group of individuals obsessed with salvationist fantasies succeeds in establishing charismatic leadership over a social movement.
  2. Militant religious nationalism arises among colonized people in situations of awakening national consciousness. Religion supplies a sense of national identity; it becomes a symbol of self-assertion against the colonial regime, which is usually indifferent, if not hostile, to the native creed.
  3. The leaders of religious bodies with a developed ecclesiastical organization support a revolutionary upheaval because they are sympathetic to the aims of this revolution, or because they are protecting the interests of the religious institution. These interests can be temporal or spiritual or both. They can involve the defense of worldly possessions or the protection of the mission of the religious institution as the channel of divine grace to humanity.
  4. Individual theologians or laymen support a revolutionary movement to give a concrete social and political meaning to the transcendent elements of their faith, as in the Christian "theology of revolution." Such religious revolutionaries often work in concert with secular revolutionary movements and many lose their identity in them.

Just as in earlier times religion was often used to support the status quo, religion has, in many parts of the world today, become the handmaiden of revolution. The cross of Christianity, the crescent of Islam, and even the peaceful prayer wheel of Buddhism have been enlisted to shore up revolutionary movements and regimes, which are often identified with liberation, modernization, and progress, although, as especially in the case of Islamic revolutionary movements, the radical and far-reaching change instigated by revolution can entail fighting modernization and restoring the old ways. Whether this new positive relationship of religion and revolution will indeed promote human liberty and happiness is, of course, a question nobody can as yet answer. Religion has its part in this celebration of heroic ruthlessness and violence. It continues to inspire killing in Northern Ireland as much as on the Indian subcontinent and in the Philippines, demonstrating once again that religious zeal can be a powerful force for love but also an important force for hatred and cruelty. The various theologies of revolution make people slight the cruelties and the hatreds that commonly accompany revolutionary upheavals. What the theologizing of revolution cannot do is to establish the progressive character of such revolts. That judgment is reserved to future generations, who will have the opportunity to live with the consequences.


The classic study of the integrative role of religion remains Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York, 1915). On the phenomenon of revolutionary millenarianism, see Magic and the Millennium (New York, 1973) by Bryan R. Wilson and Millennial Dreams in Action, edited by Sylvia L. Thrupp (1962; reprint, New York, 1970), especially the essay by Norman Cohn, "Medieval Millenarianism: Its Bearing on the Study of Millenarian Movements." For the political manifestations of Christianity, consult Ernst Troeltsch's The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, 2 vols. (1911; reprint, London, 1931), and for the important sixteenth century, see John William Allen's A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, 3d ed. (London, 1951). For a fuller treatment of the subject of this essay and further bibliography, see my own work, Religion and Revolution (Oxford, 1974).

New Sources

Elbaum, Max. Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che. New York, 2002.

Ellul, Jacques. Anarchy and Christianity. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1991.

Holloway, John. Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London, 2002.

Olsen, Gerald Wayne, ed. Religion and Revolution in Early-Industrial England: The Halévy Crisis and Its Critics. Lanham, Md., 1990.

Vaage, Lief, ed. Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Christian Readings of the Bible in Latin America. Harrisburg, Pa., 1997.

Guenter Lewy (1987)

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