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By Robin WrightSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 1987

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.

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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.''