Religion's Revolutionary Role

The struggle in Myanmar between the military government and its opponents has been going on for decades. But it was the striking image of Buddhist monks demanding political justice that finally got Myanmar front page attention around the world, reports CBS News correspondent Kelly Wallace.

"They make us stop and pay attention, and that is a symbol of their moral authority but it also visually stops us in our tracks," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University.

The open participation of clergy in political movements still proves to be one of the most powerful catalysts for change.

"They bring their visible moral authority but they also bring the organizations they represent," said Ammerman. "They are connected into whole big bunches of people that they are able to speak to directly."

Here in the United States, the clergy has been involved in political movements since the earliest days of the American Revolution. In New England's churches, many pastors stoked a growing discontent with the crown. A Presbyterian minister, John Witherspoon was among the first to sign the Declaration of Independence.

"Thomas Jefferson in 1774 proclaimed a day of fasting, a day of abstinence to enlist the clergy and the people to the side of the revolution," said CBS News analyst Father Tomas Williams.

Later, clergy became prominent voices for the abolition of slavery.

But the political profile of American clergy reached new heights during the civil rights movement. A Baptist minister led the epic fight for equality, marching arm in arm with Jewish rabbis and Catholic nuns. Meanwhile a Muslim imam issued an uncompromising call for action, "by any means necessary."

"For most Muslims, there are political actors and religious actors, but very rarely do you get one person who represents both, and Malcolm represents both, said Hussein Rashid of Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow, referring to Malcolm X.

Despite the rise of powerful evangelical leaders, polls show Americans nowadays are opposed to involvement of clergy in politics. According to a Pew Research Poll, two thirds said clergy should not discuss issues from the pulpit.

"In part because so many ministers have become so very partisan, that their objectivity, perhaps rightly, is called into question," said Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University.

It's too early to tell if Myanmar's monks will effect lasting change. But their protests have emboldened others, just as a message from St. Paul rallied Christians living under Roman rule.

"If God is with us," Paul wrote, "who can be against us?"

"There is a sort of moral dimension to the arguments, and it's not so much one group seeking its rights from another group," said Balmer. "There is a larger conversation implied, at least when the clergy becomes involved in these movements."

Although recent surveys find Americans have reservations about clergy leading political movements, 83 percent in one poll say that priests, rabbis and ministers have as much right as anyone else to participate in the political process.