THE religionization of politics has emerged at a time that the world's dominant powers have arguably never been so ill equipped to cope with the trend. The United States is constitutionally secular. The Soviet Union is ideologically atheist. Both have so far largely ignored the policy implications of religion in politics. US intelligence sources concede that no government body regularly monitors global religious trends. Nor is any US policymaking body - eight years after Iran's Islamic revolution - now consistently examining the religious dimension in foreign policy.
Yet US and foreign analysts warn that the trend needs urgent attention. ``For many years, people didn't take religion seriously, certainly not as a political force,'' said Ehud Sprinzak of Jerusalem's Hebrew University. ``This kind of attitude no longer has a place in modern thinking. Religion today is as powerful or as potentially powerful as it was in the Middle Ages, particularly in the third world.''
``It's incredibly naive to think that you can conduct successful policy or intelligence-gathering without anyone to make sense of the religious dimension,'' said sociologist Anson Shupe, co-editor of ``Prophetic Religions and Politics.''
In developing policy, analysts have identified common threads among disparate movements that should be considered:
One of three factors - political repression, economic inequality, or social upheaval - has usually reached crisis proportions in all areas where religion has become a political force. Ethnic or military disputes are a fourth common factor.
``We know now that when social systems fail, people often turn to fundamentalism. They return to a way they have always known, but not practiced or seen as a political option,'' said Mr. Sprinzak.
Societies that are politically secular or where modernization is heavily emphasized, particularly in the third world, are most prone to religion in politics.
``Take any one of the world faiths in which this process is occurring. There was once a social order that made sense. What they perceive to have happened is that those traditional world views were overthrown or eroded by the secularization process,'' commented University of Virginia sociologist Jeffrey Hadden.
The strongest early movements grew up around religions - such as Roman Catholicism in Christianity and the Shia of Islam - in which clergymen directly intercede between man and God, and thus have tangible temporal power over their flocks. These faiths appear more susceptible to mobilization.
Specialists in several nations suggest that a whole new policy approach - by the superpowers and countries with politicized religious movements - is needed. Different regional flash points require varying solutions, but analysts suggest a number of steps to cope with religiously inspired opposition or violence:
First, differentiate between fundamentalists or activists who demand change and extremists who use violence, a distinction rarely understood. ``Talk to fundamentalists and address their problems; at the same time try to cut popular support for the extremists,'' Sprinzak advised. ``Even the craziest religious fundamentalists may have reasonable grievances. Remove the grievance and they automatically lose support.''
Tahsin Bashir, an Egyptian analyst and former diplomat, added that governments ``must attend to the problems of newly urbanized, disinherited youth in the third world. Don't allow the religious groups to answer their needs. Develop a creative and concrete program to show that this is not the only alternative.''
Several specialists suggested that external military force or internal repression are not long-term ``cures.'' ``The Egyptian government started fundamentalism by arresting and torturing people, giving them a reason for anger. Some were guilty, but most were not. Jihad and other movements were born in [former Presidents] Nasser's and Sadat's prisons,'' said Cairo columnist Fahmi Huwaidi.
Second, learn to recognize the signs and try to prevent movements from festering, thus preempting evolution from dissent to violence. ``Extremist movements take a long time to develop. they are not born extremist and they do not resort immediately to violence,'' Sprinzak said. ``The question is to be able to identify movements before they mature.''
Third, deemphasize modernization's imitative aspects, and respect religious forces and cultural authenticity. ``The modern world has never done the three things most religious groups in the third world are crying out for,'' said Dr. Ashis Nandy of India's Center for the Study of Developing Societies. ``They've never received proper recognition. They've never been allowed full dignity. And they've never been granted equality. Those things would go a long way toward coexistence.''
Fourth, improve education on religion. ``We need more public awareness of different religious traditions,'' said Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox. ``Very few people are aware that the same Supreme Court decision that ruled out prayer in the schools also explicitly invited teaching about religion.''
Fifth, do not approach policymaking from the angle of fear. Many analysts believe that, despite their current potency and future potential, politicized religions will eventually settle down, as have other cyclical movements. Others contend they will run their course and possibly even eventually burn out for several reasons.
The utopian idealism that fundamentalist movements evoke is likely to wear off with time and exposure to hard realities. Nationalism and ethnicity are still strong alternative sources of identity. And doctrinal differences and clashes over tactics and local issues, which are growing among rival factions, are also likely to further fragment movements.
Khushwant Singh, a leading Sikh historian, commented: ``Wherever there are three Sikhs, there are four political groups.'' In a similar vein, Dr. Muhammad Shalaan, a psychiatrist at Al Azhar University, Cairo, said: ``Fundamentalists [in Egypt] differ so much among each other. They boycott each other in prayer and become so picky over doctrinal detail, group politics, and personalities.''
Over time, the xenophobia evident in so many groups, which has led to tension and confrontations with both superpowers, is also likely to fade, if for no other reason than that today's ``global village'' makes isolation economically unfeasible.
Analysts offered a variety of opinions about the end product of religion in politics. Much, they cautioned, will depend on the way the trend is handled, both in individual nations and as a common phenomenon. But most agreed that, as a result of religion's growing influence in politics, the political themes and ways of life that have dominated the 20th century are rapidly - perhaps irrevocably - changing.