Religion and Social Change

Learning Outcomes

  • Give examples of religion as an agent of social change

Religion and Social Change

Religion has historically been an impetus for social change. The translation of sacred texts into everyday, non-scholarly language empowered people to shape their religions. The United States is no stranger to religion as an agent of social change. In fact, some of the first colonial settlers in what would become the United States were acting on religious convictions when they crossed the Atlantic and made their way to the New World.

Disagreements between religious groups and instances of religious persecution have led to wars and genocides—the very same European settlers that came to the New World looking for religious freedom persecuted Native Americans, forced conversions and family separation, and used religion to justify the practice of human slavery.

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology began as a movement within the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America. Liberation theology combines Christian principles with political activism; it is the synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic principles, emphasizing liberation for oppressed peoples. It uses the church to promote social change via the political arena, and it is most often seen in attempts to reduce or eliminate social injustice, discrimination, and poverty. One of the founding members of the movement, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino (a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest) said true liberation has the following dimensions:

  • It addresses the elimination of the immediate causes of poverty and injustice with the goal of political and social liberation, 
  • It involves the the emancipation of the poor, the marginalized, or the oppressed and the removal of obstacles limiting their ability to develop with dignity 
  • It involves liberation from selfishness and sin as well as a re-establishment of a relationship with God and with other people. 

Civil wars and political unrest in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people, including priests. One of these priests was the Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed in 1980 by a Salvadoran death squad, shortly after he asked the soldiers to stop killing each other. Romero was canonized in 2018 by Pope Francis.[1].

Although begun as a moral reaction against the poverty caused by social injustice in that part of the world, today liberation theology is an international movement that encompasses many churches and denominations, such as Jewish liberation or Black liberation philosophy. Liberation theologians discuss theology from the point of view of the poor and the oppressed, and some interpret the scriptures as a call to action against poverty and injustice. In Europe and North America, feminist theology has emerged from liberation theology as a movement to bring social justice to women.

Liberation theology influences Pope Francis’ philosophy from the Vatican today, as demonstrated by his pointed critiques of economic exploitation. In Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he said, “Today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” [2]

REligious Leaders and the Rainbow of Gay PRide

What happens when a religious leader officiates a gay marriage against denomination policies? What about when that same minister defends the action in part by coming out and making her own lesbian relationship known to the church?

In the case of the Reverend Amy DeLong, it meant a church trial. Some leaders in her denomination assert that homosexuality is incompatible with their faith, while others feel this type of discrimination has no place in a modern church (Barrick 2011).

As the LBGTQ+ community increasingly advocates for, and earns, basic civil rights, how will religious communities respond? Many religious groups have traditionally discounted LBGTQ+ sexualities as “wrong.” However, these organizations have moved closer to respecting human rights by, for example, increasingly recognizing females as an equal gender. The Episcopal Church, a Christian sect comprising about 2.3 million people in the United States, has been far more welcoming to LGBTQ people. Progressing from a supportive proclamation in 1976, the Episcopal Church in the USA declared in 2015 that its clergy could preside over and sanction same-sex marriages (HRC 2019). The decision was not without its detractors, and as recently as 2020 an Episcopal bishop (a senior leader) in upstate New York was dismissed for prohibiting same-sex marriages in his diocese. (NBC, 2020). Lutheran and Anglican denominations also support the blessing of same-sex marriages, though they do not necessarily offer them the full recognition of opposite-sex marriages.

Pope Francis, current head of the Catholic Church, has said that homosexual tendencies “are not a sin” and famously queried, “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis was also the first pope to use the word “gay” in 2013. He also said no parent should throw a homosexual son or daughter out of their home [3]. This has resulted in a renewed conversation about homosexuality among the world’s Catholics, and among other religious denominations.

American Jewish denominations generally recognize and support the blessing of same-sex marriages, and Jewish rabbis have been supporters of LGBTQ rights from the Civil Rights era. In other religions, such as Hinduism, which does not have a governing body common to other religions, LGBTQ people are generally welcomed, and the decision to perform same-sex marriages is at the discretion of individual priests.

Link to Learning

Visit the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a research institute examining U.S. and world religious trends, to learn more about religion and how it’s practiced.

Watch It

Watch this TEDTalk about Megan Phelps-Roper’s experience growing up in the controversial Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and how and why she decided to leave the religious group. The WBC describes itself as “Primitive Baptist” that follows the five points of Calvinism, but it has been classified as a hate group, known for holding extreme views and for loudly picketing against homosexuality, Jews, the military, and other groups. 

Try It


liberation theology:
the use of a church to promote social change via the political arena

  1. "Archbishop Oscar Romero," Liberation Theologies Online Library and Reference Center.
  2. Stephenson, Wen. 2015. "How Pope Francis Came to Embrace..." The Nation.
  3. San Martin, Ines. 2019. "Pope Says Homosexual Tendencies..."