The politics of religious freedom

Received wisdom from across the political spectrum suggests that securing religious freedom results in peaceful co-existence and ensures individual and associational flourishing vis-à-vis the state. Meanwhile, a deficit of religious freedom is seen as a driving force behind—if not the proximate cause of—insecurity and violence. The logic of these assumptions is currently being used to justify a wide range of well-funded public and private interventions in many parts of the world.

But what is religious freedom, and why are we talking about it now?

Guest edited by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan in conjunction with a joint research project, this ongoing discussion considers the multiple histories and genealogies of religious freedom—and the multiple contexts in which those histories and genealogies are salient today.

April 16th, 2012

Paradoxes of “religious freedom” in Egypt

posted by Tamir Moustafa and Asifa Quraishi-Landes

The place of religion in the political order is arguably the most contentious issue in post-Mubarak Egypt. With Islamist-oriented parties controlling over 70 percent of seats in the new People’s Assembly and the constitution-writing process about to begin, liberals and leftists are apprehensive about the implications for Egyptian law and society, including the rights of Egypt’s millions of Coptic Christians.

Read Paradoxes of “religious freedom” in Egypt.
April 12th, 2012

Freeing religion at the birth of South Sudan

posted by Noah Salomon

If you had the opportunity to start from scratch, without the burden of a permanent constitution or an entrenched legal system, if you were, in other words, a founding father/mother of a new-born nation, what relationship would you forge between religion and state?

Read Freeing religion at the birth of South Sudan.
April 11th, 2012

The power of pluralist thinking

posted by Courtney Bender

It is hard to remember, but religious pluralism meant something quite different fifty years ago. We have, I would argue, so shifted our collective understanding of religious pluralism, and this transformation has been so naturalized, that we have little common conception that this shift even happened and much less sense of its consequences.

Read The power of pluralist thinking.
April 9th, 2012

The problem with the history of toleration

posted by Evan Haefeli

The problem with the history of toleration is not that no one is studying it. There is now a rapidly growing number of books and articles approaching the topic from a number of angles and in several different countries. The problem is that we assume that all of those studying toleration are studying the same thing. Though in fact we are describing a diversity of arrangements, dynamics, and possibilities taking place in different societies at different times, we still write and think as if there were a single proper form of toleration to which all others should adhere, or an ideal like “religious freedom” to which all should aspire.

Read The problem with the history of toleration.
April 6th, 2012

Christian genealogies of religious freedom

posted by Robert Yelle

As a historian of religion, much of my recent work has focused on tracing the genealogy of what we call religious freedom in developments internal to European Christianity. My goal has not been to frame a normative theory of what limit ought to be placed on the freedom of religion—whatever this word is taken to mean—in any contemporary jurisdiction nor (apart from the effect of British colonialism on India) to trace the very different histories of the modernization of cultural traditions in other parts of the world, as these traditions have been shaped by the complex forces of economic development, nationalism, and technologization.

Read Christian genealogies of religious freedom.
April 3rd, 2012

What is religious freedom supposed to free?

posted by Webb Keane

What is religious freedom supposed to free? That is, what is the operant understanding of “religion” behind the claims of religious freedom such that religion requires its own forms, practices, and concepts of freedom under the law? Is there something about religion that gives freedom of religion either a privileged or a peculiarly worrisome character different in kind from artistic, political, or sexual freedom? And to this list, why not add occupational, associational, or, say, economic freedoms?

Read What is religious freedom supposed to free?.
March 27th, 2012

Religious freedom between truth and tactic

posted by Samuel Moyn

In the last issue of First Things, a self-described coalition of “Catholics and Evangelicals together” defends religious freedom. The coalition includes a number of notable Americans, like Charles Colson and George Weigel, with endorsements from the archbishops of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, along with many others. According to the statement, the situation is unexpectedly urgent. After the fall of the Soviet Union, “throughout the world, a new era of religious freedom seemed at hand.” But, now it is blatantly clear that the scourge of intolerance—especially secularist intolerance—persists.

Read Religious freedom between truth and tactic.
March 7th, 2012

The world that Smith made

posted by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

There is much that could be said about the history of the Catholic Church and its dedication to the defense of religious freedom. What interests me about the formation of a new Ad Hoc Committee on religious freedom at this time is the company that the bishops are keeping today—and why the bishops’ bellicose language accusing the Obama administration of mounting a war on religious liberty seems to make sense to such a disparate and varied group. Beyond the obvious self-interest, there is a genuine urgency to the bishops’ appeal, one that is legible to a surprising number of Americans.

Read The world that Smith made.
March 6th, 2012

Hosanna-Tabor in the religious freedom Panopticon

posted by Peter Danchin

Michel Foucault famously describes Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a “cruel, ingenious cage” to be understood not as a “dream building … [but as] the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form … a figure of political technology.” For Foucault, panopticism is “the general principle of a new ‘political anatomy’ whose object and end are not relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline: [t]he celebrated, transparent circular cage, with its high towers powerful and knowing.” In reading the Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC recognizing a “ministerial exception” to antidiscrimination law—a case hailed almost immediately as a victory for religious freedom—it is for me the specter of the Panopticon that haunts every page.

Read Hosanna-Tabor in the religious freedom Panopticon.
March 5th, 2012

Religious freedom, minority rights, and geopolitics

posted by Saba Mahmood

Conventional wisdom has it that religious liberty is a universally valid principle, enshrined in national constitutions and international charters and treaties, whose proper implementation continues to be thwarted by intransigent forces in society such as illiberal governments, religious fundamentalists, and traditional norms. Insomuch as the Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, are supposed to be afflicted with the ills of fundamentalism and illiberal governments, then the salvific promise of religious liberty looms large. In this brief post I would like to question this way of thinking through a consideration of the career of religious liberty in the modern Middle East.

Read Religious freedom, minority rights, and geopolitics.
March 1st, 2012

Believing in religious freedom

posted by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It is a story of the triumph of international law over those who fail to adhere to global norms and standards. It is a story of secular tolerance versus violent religion. And today especially, it is a story of the need for the U.S. government and its friends to “convince” others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing their politics and societies.

Read Believing in religious freedom.