Skip to main content

Politics of Religious Freedom

In a remarkably short period of time, the realization of religious freedom has achieved broad consensus as an indispensable condition for peace. Faced with widespread reports of religious persecution, public and private actors around the world have responded with laws and policies designed to promote freedom of religion. But what precisely is being promoted? What are the cultural and epistemological assumptions underlying this response, and what forms of politics are enabled in the process?
The fruits of the three-year Politics of Religious Freedom research project, the contributions to this volume unsettle the assumption—ubiquitous in policy circles—that religious freedom is a singular achievement, an easily understood state of affairs, and that the problem lies in its incomplete accomplishment. Taking a global perspective, the more than two dozen contributors delineate the different conceptions of religious freedom predominant in the world today, as well as their histories and social and political contexts. Together, the contributions make clear that the reasons for persecution are more varied and complex than is widely acknowledged, and that the indiscriminate promotion of a single legal and cultural tool meant to address conflict across a wide variety of cultures can have the perverse effect of exacerbating the problems that plague the communities cited as falling short.

344 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: Comparative Politics, Political and Social Theory

Religion: Religion and Society


"The principle of religious freedom, central to the liberal politics of the modern world, is increasingly becoming an object of critical reflection. This collection, edited by four distinguished scholars, is a welcome contribution to this important topic. I have learnt something from each of these thoughtful essays. Everyone interested in recent debates on secularism will benefit from reading them."

Talal Asad, Graduate Center, City University of New York

"This extraordinary volume brings together the leading scholars of the idea and practice of  'religious freedom' today, in conversation with each other and with their critics. Beyond any simple for/against dichotomy, the contributors show how the admirable resonance of 'religious freedom' masks a more troubling reality, both at the historical origins of the concept and in its contemporary strategic deployments. Among the book’s many contributions is its sustained and careful examination of the mutual entanglement of 'religion,' in its modern semantic range, and law, and the implication of both in national and global politics, from early modernity forward. The Politics of Religious Freedom is a definitive collection of the best critical work on the subject."

Robert Orsi, Northwestern University

“The contributors repeatedly make the point [that], rather than a single, stable principle of universal application, religious freedom is polyvalent and reflects the historical conditions of its composition. . . . Highly recommended.”


“A book which is deeply satisfying both for quality of writing and for quality of scholarship, one which I look forward to using extensively in my work and in the construction of syllabi."

Jessica L. Radin, University of Toronto | Middle East Law and Governance

"Taken individually, these essays are erudite, consistently interesting, and well written. Taken collectively, they are a tour de force for deepening our knowledge and understanding of a concept many or most of us have simply taken for granted in our intellectual lives.”

Daniel Liechty, Illinois State University | Religion

"Hurd argues that the pursuit of freedom of religion as a policy goal has worked to produce, reaffirm, and/or reify various forms of difference, both between Euro-American nations and the recipients of their cultural imperialism, and between legally specified religious (and non-religious) 'communities' throughout the world. . . . this edited volume brings together anthropologists, historians, lawyers, political scientists, and scholars of religion to discuss (and 'unsettle') the assumption 'that religious freedom is easily recognized and understood, and that the only problem lies in its incomplete realization'. The collection is divided into four parts, each of which is prefaced by one of the four editors . . . These introductions usefully contextualize the thematic links between the essays in each section, each of which contains an example of the 'crazy quilt of local solutions' by which conflicts over religion are managed."

Religious Studies Review

Table of Contents


Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter G. Danchin

PART 1. Religion

Preface Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

Chapter 1. Imagining the Hebrew Republic: Christian Genealogies of Religious Freedom
Robert Yelle

Chapter 2. On the Freedom of the Concepts of Religion and Belief
Yvonne Sherwood

Chapter 3. Believing in Religious Freedom
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Chapter 4. What Is Religious Freedom Supposed to Free?
Webb Keane

Chapter 5. The Power of Pluralist Thinking
Courtney Bender

Chapter 6. Refl ections on the Politics of Religious Freedom, with Attention to Hawaii
Greg Johnson

Chapter 7. Traditional, African, Religious, Freedom?
Rosalind I. J. Hackett

PART 2. History

Preface Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Chapter 8. The Problem with the History of Toleration
Evan Haefeli

Chapter 9. Religious Minorities and Citizenship in the Long Nineteenth Century: Some Contexts of Jewish Emancipation
David Sorkin

Chapter 10. Varieties of Religious Freedom and Governance: A Practical Perspective
Robert W. Hefner

Chapter 11. Religious Freedom between Truth and Tactic
Samuel Moyn

Chapter 12. Religious Freedom, Minority Rights, and Geopolitics
Saba Mahmood

Chapter 13. Ceylon/Sri Lanka: The Politics of Religious Freedom and the End of Empire
Benjamin Schonthal

Chapter 14. Liberty as Recognition
Nandini Chatterjee

PART 3. Law and Politics

Preface Peter G. Danchin

Chapter 15. Postapartheid Treatment of Religious Freedom in South Africa
Waheeda Amien

Chapter 16. Religious Freedom in Postrevolutionary Tunisia
Nadia Marzouki

Chapter 17. Beyond Establishment
Lori G. Beaman

Chapter 18. The Bishops, the Sisters, and Religious Freedom
Elizabeth A. Castelli

Chapter 19. The World That Smith Made
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

Chapter 20. Religious Freedom in the Panopticon of Enlightenment Rationality
Peter G. Danchin

Chapter 21. Everson’s Children
Ann Pellegrini

PART 4. Freedom

Preface Saba Mahmood

Chapter 22. Protecting Freedom of Religion in the Secular Age
Cécile Laborde

Chapter 23. Freeing Religion at the Birth of South Sudan
Noah Salomon

Chapter 24. Is Religion Free?
Michael Lambek

Chapter 25. Religious Freedom and the Bind of Suspicion in Contemporary Secularity
Hussein Ali Agrama

Chapter 26. Religious Repression and Religious Freedom: An Analysis of Their Contradictions in (Post- )Soviet Contexts
Mathijs Pelkmans

Chapter 27. Religious Freedom’s Oxymoronic Edge
Wendy Brown



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press