Bruce: Religion and Social Protest

Bruce argues that religion can be a force for both progressive and regressive social change. Progressive usually means making society better by taking on more modern views, while regressive means making society better by re-kindling traditional values.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Our example of progressive social change given by Bruce, is Martin Luther King Jr’s Civil Rights Movement. The purpose of this movement was to end the discrimination against against black people in America. Now MLK was a reverend’s son, and then he became one himself, but the significance of it is that his religion influenced his form of protest. He approached social change in a peaceful manner.

The influence of religion is further shown by the role the church played within the movement. It became a safe place for the black  community – or anyone, to be frank – to express political dissent (a view that goes against the generally accepted political view). Due to the common belief that the Church is meant to be an unbiased, fair institution, it became a place where most negotiations took place. It was also extremely successful at gaining support from across America through successful campaigning.

The Civil Rights Movement did successfully end the segregation and persucution towards black people in America. Bruce believes that this is because their campaig was based upon the universal America belief that “all men are born equal before God” And because we all love it, here is that famous speech…


Chicago protest 2006

On the other hand, there is the New Christan Right which is an example of regressive social change. The New Christian Right are a politically and morally conservative Protestant fundamentalist movement that seeks to take America ” back to God” and away from godless, spineless leaders [that] have brought our nation floundering to the brink of death.”They believed that:

  • Creationism should be taught in schools rather than evolution
  • Instead of sex education, kids should be taught abstinence before marriage
  • They were very ANTI-CHOICE!

If you haven’t guessed already, they were not very successful and this was mainly because they did not connect with mainstream beliefs. America is all about the freedom of choice…


Marxism, religion and change

Marxists recognise that ideas, including religious ideas can have a relative autonomy. This means that the ideas can be partly independent of the economic base of society. In other words, society can be saying one thing but religion can be saying something completely different. This brings about the concept of religion having a dual character.

Engels argues that religion can prevent change by disguising inequality – refer to Marxist theory of religion. On the other hand he argues that religion can challenge the status quo and encourage social change.

Bloch argues religion can be an expression of the principle of hope. Their religion gives the streams of a better future – a form of Utopia. And others can deceive us in may help us try and picture a better world and this combined with good organisation and leadership can lead to social change. A huge example of this is Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement also Leymah Gbowee and her success at ending the civil war in Liberia

Liberation theology

This Archbishop was killed because he opposed the unrest in Latin America

This is a movement by the Catholic Church in Latin America with a strong commitment to the poor and opposition to military dictatorships

The emphasis in liberation theology is Praxis – practical action guided by theory. Liberation theology led to social change as it is created based communities, the church was a protective shield and educated the poor.

Neo-Marxist interpretation

Maduro – religion can be revolutionary force that brings about change

Löwy – questions Marxist view that religion always legitimates social inequality.

Gramsci: religion and hegemony

Gramsci was a sociologist during the Fascist regime in Italy. He argues that the ruling class maintain power in society through hegemony. Hegemony is the ideological domination of ideas in society. Once established he argues that the ruling class maintain power by relying on popular consent.

Although, Gramsci argues that hegemony can never be guaranteed as a working class can develop an alternative vision of society – a counter hegemony. For example the revolution in Libya would be an example of counter hegemony because members of the society no longer agree with the ideas of their government. Gramsci argues that the dual nature of religion has the ability to help workers through the ruling class hegemony in their society. He sees clergymen as organic intellectuals – educators, organisers and leaders I can help workers see through their situation and create working-class organisations such as trade unions. All these help build a counter hegemony and threaten ruling class domination.

NOTE: Most of his theories came to being while he was put in prison by the Mussolini – could Gramsci have had a political bias?

Weber: religion is a force for change

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In the 17th-century, there were Calvinists in Europe and Weber argues that Calvinists are as a religion help it to develop capitalism in society. The Calvinists believed in predestination. This is the belief that God has already decided who is going to heaven or hell  and there’s nothing that can be done to change His mind. They also believed in divine transcendence, which is the belief that God is so above and beyond this world that there is no way for human to understand what God is thinking or what God has decided. The combination of these two led to a salvation panic. Therefore the Calvinists began to work very hard in a bid to get in God’s good books – even if this goes against the belief that nothing can be done to change God’s mind.

Now you’re probably thinking: how is having a job going to get you into heaven? Well, the Calvinists were very this worldly. They believed that the reason they were put on earth was not only to spread the word of God but to become hard workers. This led to the Calvinists accumulating a lot of wealth, however the Calvinists never spent it, on luxury things at least, because they were ascetic. Yes, they saw this bountiful wealth as a sign from God that He was pleased of them but they did not believe in indulging in luxury worldly things, so instead of spending it – they invested! This investment led to more money being made and therefore more investment which led to more money and more investment and as the spirit of capitalism – basically money is being made for money sake. Therefore Weber shows that religion can be a force for change – religion kickstarted capitalism!


  • However, Weber does not solely pin this on religion as he does recognise that certain economic circumstances must be right, such as factors of production need to be in sufficient amounts for capitalism to take place.
  • Kacitsky argues that Weber overestimates the role of ideas and underestimates economic factors. She believes that capitalism preceded Calvinists.
  • Tawney on the other hand believes that technological changes will cause capitalism and that the bourgeoisie used Calvinism in order to legitimise their economic gain.

Hinduism and Confucianism
Now there are questions as to why Europe develops capitalism first even though there were more economically developed countries elsewhere such as China and India. To put it simply, according to Weber the characteristics of their religion prevented capitalism developing. You see, in China the adopted religion was Confucianism which was good in some ways for capitalism but bad in other ways. Confucianists did have a this worldly orientation which meant they worked hard and gained a lot of wealth but they were not ascetic and this led to them spending a lot of their wealth on luxury goods rather than investing it, the investment part is key for capitalism. On the other hand in India, the adopted religion was Hinduism and they were very ascetic but they had an otherworldly orientation which meant they did not believe in working at all so they did not gain much wealth. Hence why the Calvinists are very special because they not only had the right characteristics in their religion for capitalism but they also had the right cultural factors. Some even argue that the Calvinists were the first capitalists because they were outlawed and are used businesses and jobs as a way of rebuilding themselves as community.

Religion as a Conservative Force

We can say that religion is a conservative force in two ways:

  • Religion upholds traditional beliefs and values: religions each have their own traditional views on certain moral issues e.g. Catholic’s strong views on divorce and abortion.
  • Religion functions to maintain the status quo: religion keeps things as they are.

Theories on religion as a conservative force:

Structural, modernist theories argue that religion reinforces social solidarity.

  • Functionalists would say this is done through value consensus which prevents society from collapsing.
  • Marxists and Feminists would say religion creates social solidarity by maintaining social control of the powerful and preventing the less powerful from gaining power.