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date: 04 June 2020

Summary and Keywords

Despite the predictions of Marxists and secularization theorists alike, the relationship between religion and government legitimacy is mixed. Religion, in its various forms, can serve to promote regimes of virtually any type—democratic or otherwise—and can just as easily undermine such regimes. Observers hoping for a one-size-fits-all account of the link between religion and legitimacy will surely be disappointed; the reality is far more complicated. Religion, encompassing a nearly infinite variety of beliefs, behaviors, and actors, exercises a diverse set of influences on its political context. For regimes, this diversity can be either helpful or dangerous. Religion is neither inherently pro-status quo nor revolutionary; it can be either one depending on the context. Likewise, religion is neither necessarily pro- nor anti-democratic. Political and theological conditions influence the ways in which religion interacts with politics, and in particular, the role it plays in building or undermining legitimacy.

Twenty-first-century research highlights the Janus-faced relationship between religion and political legitimacy. In some settings, religion has been the foundation of non-democratic rule. In others, it has been a crucial catalyst for unseating dictators in favor of democratic alternatives. Theological differences can only explain part of this variation. The same religious tradition may serve as a defense of authoritarianism in one instance but a spark for democracy in another. Political factors play a key role in explaining why religion sometimes supports the status quo but in other instances may fuel revolutionary fervor.

Keywords: religion and politics, democracy, political behavior, identity politics, regime change, comparative politics, politics and religion

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