On right and left

Craig Calhoun considers the role religion has played in social movements.



Craig Calhoun considers the role religion has played in social movements.


Many people think about religion and politics as though they’re completely different spheres, and they particularly have the idea that the progressives, or the left, are not religious. This hasn’t been true at any part of the modern era. It’s not that all of the progressives are religious, or not that nobody on the right is religious, but it is the case that there are important parts of many social movements that are shaped by religion.

The very idea of a social movement is heavily indebted to the movements of the era of the Protestant Reformation. And these were movements not only over religious doctrine, but over basic issues in social life, over equality, over justice. Some core ideas, like salvation, have shaped secular thinking in social movements. The anti-slavery movement was very deeply a religious movement, for John Wesley, but also for many of the emancipated slaves.

The civil rights movement with Martin Luther King – the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King – is another example of this engagement. It’s not true that this has gone away. It’s still the case that if you look at something like the movements of humanitarian support for refugees and migrants in the world, you find religious people disproportionately represented. Christians, absolutely; but also Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and others, that people with a strong sense of a higher good are particularly likely to become active in movements designed to ensure goods beyond the merely material.