THE political activism of diverse and disparate religions, an increasingly influential factor worldwide, is taking shape as a broad and enduring phenomenon in the late 20th century. The emergence of religion in politics is a coincidental trend, and far from cohesive. Among various movements - such as resurgent Islam, liberation theology, fundamentalist Judaism, and Sikh activism - there are more differences than similarities in flash points, tactics, and goals.
Yet the trend is evolving in similar ways and over some similar issues that suggest common themes with long-term consequences, according to a cross section of sociologists, political analysts, regional specialists, clergymen, and psychologists interviewed. Among the similarities:
Many of the movements, which generally grew up around intellectuals, theologians, or activist cells on the fringe of politics, are now moving into the mainstream, even though they remain in the minority.
``By the 1980s, it had begun to look as though a revival of religion, one with important implications for political life, was under way everywhere,'' said Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox in his book ``Religion in the Secular City.''
``Today,'' he added in an interview, ``it's a tidal movement, and it's not going to go away.''
Even in the United States, religion has penetrated into mainstream politics. The evangelical vote is now part of presidential campaign lingo. And for the first time, both parties have clergymen - Republican Pat Robertson and Democrat Jesse Jackson - who are major contenders for the presidency.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood became the largest legal opposition party in last April's legislative elections. In Brazil, 34 evangelical congressmen are campaigning to prevent the new constitution from listing Roman Catholicism as the state religion.
Many movements, initially prominent mainly because of their opposition activities, are gaining greater legitimacy by diversifying roles and institutionalizing their movements, often in constructive ways.
With US funding, a Polish church group is planning a $10 million agricultural project to help private farms update machinery and finance water and sewage projects in villages. Islamic groups in Egypt now provide social services, such as good-quality education, at little or no cost to families.
Catholic ``base communities'' in Nicaragua provide self-help economic projects as well as Bible study, while US evangelicals have reportedly established 19 schools serving 13,000 children in El Salvador.
As religious groups further entrench their roles in the political and social system, several are in the process of ensuring they will be long-term players. Specialists interviewed almost unanimously agreed that religion will be an increasingly important force in politics well into the next century.
Religious movements are increasingly bold in challenging both left- and right-wing regimes as well as democracies. In Tibet, Buddhist monks led protests in September against Chinese communist rule. The protests disintegrated into the province's worst rioting since a 1959 nationalist uprising.
In the Philippines and Haiti, the Catholic clergy played major roles in the February 1986 overthrows of two notorious right-wing dictators. Under the latest Central American peace plan, the Salvadorean government's talks with rebels are held under church auspices. In Nicaragua, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo heads the National Reconciliation Commission that will oversee compliance with the plan.
Both superpowers have been cowed by Islamic mujahideen (holy warriors) who are ready to die to rid their lands of outside influence. The US withdrew its Marines and special envoys in 1984 under pressure from Lebanese Shia. For eight years, Soviet troops have been bogged down in Afghanistan in a seemingly unwinnable war against predominantly Sunni zealots.
The result is that religious components, which do not neatly fit either rightist or leftist labels, have added a volatile new dimension to the modern political spectrum.
Though the US and Soviet Union both have politicized religious movements, the trend is most vibrant in the developing world - the more than 100 nations ranging from thriving newly industrialized states to impoverished countries, most of which have been independent only since World War II.
As elsewhere, religious activism in the third world has been played out in different ways and on diverse issues. But among young or underdeveloped nations, it also serves a similar need to establish an independent identity, a factor that will be examined further in this series. Activism is now even widespread in unlikely places, and it is often not limited to a single faith.
In Asia, Singaporean politics has recently been stirred by leftist Catholic, fundamentalist, Protestant, and Islamic groups. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have been at the forefront of demonstrations since July to protest a peace treaty orchestrated by India. Indonesia is reportedly now expressing concern about a political overspill from Malaysia's Islamic resurgence.
In Africa, Angola's Marxist regime is being challenged by a fledgling Christian revival. In historically Catholic Latin America, evangelical Protestant groups, whose message and motive are staunchly anticommunist, now claim 20 percent of Honduras's population and a wide following among Nicaragua's contra rebels.
Though each movement is still most active in local issues, many are also challenging the era's dominant political and economic themes, including the current emphasis on a bipolar world carved up between superpowers, and on modernization - combining secularism and science - as the most effective channels to human progress.
INDEED, the conflict between modernity and morality is a particularly prevalent common denominator, analysts say. ``Modern scholarship tends to see zealotry as a retrogression into primitivism,'' said Dr. Ashis Nandy, a social theorist at New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies. ``On close look it turns out to be a byproduct of modernity.''
That does not mean that the devout of any faith, including Iran's ranking mullahs, are anti-modern. It instead signifies a challenge to the status quo and to the current era's priorities.
Many religious activists ``hold that the underlying malaise of today's world stems from its loss of faith. They complain that secularity, fed by mindless gadgetry and tasteless urban hypertrophy, has made our lives trivial and vacuous and our world a wilderness of hollow men, lacking depth of transcendence,'' Mr. Cox explained.
In the US, for example, the revival emerged against the backdrop of the '60s counterculture, a period marked by student rebellions, increased drug use, soaring divorce rates, and campaigns to legalize abortion. The sense of national might and right was also shattered by the Vietnam war. ``In this climate of perceived moral collapse, a new politicized fundamentalism arose to meet the national challenge,'' said Wade Clark Roof, a University of Massachusetts sociologist, in his book ``Prophetic Religions and Politics.''
In the third world, modernizing has also become synonymous with Westernizing, or imitation that ignores or challenges ancient cultures. Technological or scientific advancement became subtly interwoven with acceptance of foreign codes of conduct and morality, both with a secular veneer.
In Iran, the Shah was toppled in part because of his attempts to mold Persia, one of the oldest civilizations, into a third-world version of a Western industrialized nation, from the way people dressed to the type of development planned. Ayatollah Khomeini referred to it as ``Westoxication.''
Asked in 1986 by Time magazine what the US did best, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda said, ``You have developed your science and technology in an admirable way, but I am not sure that you use these wonderful achievements in this ... field in the interest of man, as God wants us to do.''
Brown University sociologist Paget Henry commented: ``Religion contributes a powerful antidote to the assault of Westernization and modernization on peripheral societies.''
Religion's emergence as a powerful political force has thus generally grown out of social and political uncertainty when governments or societies have failed to provide acceptable or workable solutions. In several areas where religion is a growing force, the political climate is ripe for transition.
DURING the transition, religion can play three roles. First, the continuum of various faiths, which have survived centuries and outlived hundreds of political dynasties, provides ideals by which to determine goals. Second, religions offer alternatives, either for action or for systems of government.
Third, religion can offer physical or psychological sanctuary, particularly where legitimate opposition is banned. In one-party states or dictatorships, the church, mosque, temple, and synagogue often become the last refuge for those seeking a better secular life.
All major monotheistic religions preach equality and justice, making them natural allies in opposing tyranny. They also usually have the resources, facilities, and infrastructure with which to organize. Religions, untainted by failure in the modern era, have thus supplied a context through which to pursue and, in some cases, fight for alternative ways of life.
In tracing the trend, another striking feature is the similarity in the evolution and timing. In most cases, the seeds for religion's larger role in politics were sown in the 1960s.
In the 1970s, the movements picked up steam, but began to fragment over tactics and goals. Comparatively moderate fundamentalists began to be supplanted by extremists, or religious activists joined forces with revolutionary movements. Both were evident in an explosion of militancy, particularly in the third world, at the decade's end.
While politicized religions remain minority movements in all regions, their numbers often belie their impact. For, in the 1980s, they have become among the most energetic and dynamic players in world politics.
Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
25 years of religion in politics - a sampling of key events
1962-65 Vatican II. Bishops are granted greater autonomy from central Vatican authority to provide local leadership on social and economic issues.
1967 Arab-Israeli war, turning point for Islam and Judaism.
1968 Colombia: Conference of Latin bishops calls for profound change to end poverty.
Fall 1968 Northern Ireland: Serious Catholic-Protestant disturbances begin.
1971 Peru: Book by the Rev. Gustavo Guti'errez establishes Liberation Theology movement.
Late 1960s Brazil and Panama: First Catholic `base communities' start, focusing on physical and spiritual self-help.
1973 Arab-Israeli war , fought in name of Islam rather than pan-Arabism.
1974 Israel: Start of Gush Emunim, driving force behind Israeli settlements in occupied areas.
March 1979 Egypt and Israel: Camp David Treaty, which led to increased Jewish fundamentalism.
June 1979 Poland: First visit by a Pope to a Marxist state.
Feb. 1979 Iran: Islamic revolution.
July 1979 Nicaragua: Catholic activists play role in overthrow of Somoza regime.
Nov. 1979 Saudi Arabia: Islamic fundamentalists seize Grand Mosque at Mecca.
Nov. 1979-81 Iran: US hostage crisis.
Dec. 1979 Afghanistan: Soviets invade, are bogged down by Sunni zealots.
March 1980 El Salvador: Archbishop Oscar Romero assassinated after denouncing military rulers.
Oct. 1981 Egypt: Sadat assassinated by Muslim extremists.
Sept. 1981 India: First Sikh hijacking.
April 1982 Israel: Sinai returned to Egypt. Jews protest.
June 1984 India: Army invades Sikhs' Golden Temple. Indira Gandhi later assassinated by Sikhs.
July 1982 Lebanon: First American kidnapped by Shiite extremists.
July 1984 Israel: Extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane elected to parliament.
April 1984 Israel: Plot by Jewish extremists to blow up Arab buses revealed.
1985 India: Sikhs accused of exploding plane over Atlantic.
Feb. 7, 1986 Haiti: Duvalier overthrow aided by Catholic activists.
Feb. 25, 1986 Philippines: Marcos overthrow aided by Catholic activists.
Oct. 1986 South Africa: Dutch Reformed Church backs off view that apartheid is sanctioned by Bible.
March 1987 Nigeria: Christian-Muslim clashes.
April 1987 Egypt: In elections, Muslim Brotherhood becomes nation's largest legal opposition.
July 1987 Saudi Arabia: Shiite-Sunni clashes in Mecca.
August 1987 Tunisia: Four tourist hotels attacked by Islamic extremists.
Sept. 1987 China: Tibetan monks rise up.