Politics of Religious Freedom

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Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, Peter G. Danchin
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , July
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Politics of Religious Freedom makes two separate arguments. The first one is partly correct, but not very original. The second is conspiratorial and dangerous. They can be summarized this way: One, the concept of religion employed by most advocates of religious freedom in the West is a modern Protestant concept of religion, which does not fit with the reality of religious life for most people, in most places, at most times. This concept of religion presupposes autonomous individuals with free will and it privileges private belief over other expressions of religion. Two, this concept goes hand in hand with a Western drive to impose neoliberal economic ideals and practices, both in the religious sector and in other spheres. Both of these arguments can be found in the editors’ introduction and in their prefaces to each of the book’s main parts. The arguments can also be found in some, but certainly not all, of the individual chapters.

Let us start with the first claim. It is obviously true that the concept of “religion” as it is employed in contemporary politics is mostly a modern concept that lacks dimensions cherished by scholars of religion. It is a concept that is the result of the differentiation of religion from other spheres: the result of reification or objectification, we might say. A central aim of the book is to show that religion in real life is embedded in and inseparable from other domains, like politics and the economy. Thus, the book also wants to direct attention away from “the utopian space of religious freedom,” as Sullivan puts it in her preface to part 1 (16). The embeddedness of religion, and the difficulties entailed in all attempts at disentangling religion from, say, politics or the economy, have been discussed for decades by historians of religion. Indeed, this subject was debated by intellectuals in Europe and in Asia 100 and 150 years ago. In my opinion, this conceptual history, which is entangled in the history of the academic disciplines that study religion, is the first thing that any serious university course about religion should teach students.

But this awareness cannot be taken for granted outside academia, like in courtrooms, or the offices of the US State Department. The editors are right that the concept of religion, when employed for political and legal purposes, will determine how rights are conceptualized and operationalized. When appreciation of the complexity of the concept of religion is brought into empirical research, it can generate important perspectives on the politics of religion. Sullivan, one of the editors, did exactly this in her book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton University Press, 2007). I have attempted a similar approach, for example when analyzing how conflicting concepts of religion among members of the Indian Constituent Assembly shaped thinking about women’s rights in the founding of the Indian Republic in the late 1940s (Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 22 (1): 71-85, 2012).

Still, in my opinion, the first argument is only partly correct, because if we look closely at how religion has worked in historical and cultural contexts far away from the modern West, we may in fact discover any number of situations in which religious life actually is about private belief, and the religious subject is an autonomous individual capable of choosing between various religious messages, theologies, practices, and identities. For instance, anybody who has studied South Asian religions will have come across such examples. At times, this reality has resulted in intense competition between religious leaders for followers. Religious identities have been compartmentalized into stiff, ascribed caste identities on the one hand, and flexible, voluntary, achieved religious identities on the other—in the same individual. Often, competition and choice would cross the boundaries that modern observers tend to see as given: Hindus choosing Muslim holy men as their saints without leaving caste identity, or vice versa. It is surprising that among so many chapters, by so many competent scholars, nobody really tests the book’s basic assumption that the autonomous, volitional religious subject is a product of the modern Western imagination. It is simply not true. It would be unfair if I did not add here that I come to this issue from a particular perspective, having recently published a book that tries to demonstrate how religion has in fact been a matter of choice and competition in a number of non-Western and “premodern” settings (Faithonomics—Religion and the Free Market, Hurst & Co. and Oxford University Press, 2016).

Now let us look at the second and far more disturbing argument. In their introduction, the editors claim that there are “significant and not yet fully explored connections among religious freedom advocacy, economic liberalization, and the ‘free market’ model of religious growth” (10). This idea is also clearly formulated in chapter 3, written by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, one of the editors, in which she debunks religious freedom advocacy as “projects” that privilege free, believing subjects, and foreclose on various other forms of being religious. She writes that “religious freedom advocacy both presupposes and produces the neoliberal religious subject of the religious economies model…” (51).

This resentment of that fuzzy thing called “neoliberalism” seems to be a righteous indignation that has appeal in many academic circles these days. It would not surprise me if the arguments in this book appeal both to scholars and to students who want to be on the right side of certain political debates. It has appeal because it claims to expose the rhetoric of political power. By attacking the philosophical foundations of religious freedom, one can flaunt a presumably sophisticated understanding of the history of ideas in the West, while at the same time attacking the US State Department and evangelical missionaries, both of whom bully people in vulnerable non-Western societies. It is not difficult to see how this kind of argument can give a sense of satisfaction.

This book is certainly not the first to attack the economic theory of religion because it simplifies human complexity, assuming that human beings are rational, voluntary actors who are able to choose how to relate to religion in a conscious way. The problem is that we have yet to see a critique of the religious economies model that is more than a display of ignorance. The editors and some, but certainly not all, of the contributors advance a conspiratorial theory of neoliberal “anthropology”: they see this idea of religious choice, with its assumptions about freedom and reason, as a scheme designed by Western governments, working in collusion with evangelical Christians, to dominate the world. If the book were able to show with empirical data that this scheme is real, the findings would have been important, but most of the chapters that go deep into particular cases make less sensational conclusions. For instance, in chapter 7, Rosalind I.J. Hackett provides a broad overview of the ways in which traditional African religions are often treated as “religious freedom misfits”. They are difficult to categorize and they are disliked by many local governments, as well as by Christian and Muslim missionaries. Hackett notes, however, that the US State Department International Religious Freedom report makes reference to the real difficulties in categorizing traditional religions, and she steers clear of accusing them of complicity in a plan of colonization.

Indeed, several chapters either explicitly disagree, or simply ignore, the fundamental theses that the book as a whole advances. For example, in chapter 14 Nandini Chatterjee explores how modern Indian discourses about religious freedom evolved into demands for state support of those religions, and in her conclusion she says she does “not entirely agree” with the idea that modern religious freedom claims produce a belief-centric understanding of religion. Robert W. Hefner makes clear early in chapter 10 that he personally endorses debates that promote religious freedom. When he tries to disentangle simplified philosophical genealogies of religious freedom from the sociology of the varieties of religious governance, he emphasizes that this important academic exercise does not imply a denunciation of modern proponents of religious freedom. I could point to several more chapters that show a degree of unease, or even a lack of interest in the central theses of the editors.

The book’s argument could be dangerous because the editors make it seem like the big problem in today’s world is all the myopic and imperialistic freedom of religion work going on in various corners of the world. A far graver problem is the various ways in which the religious lives of groups and individuals are restrained or oppressed by states across the globe, as has been shown in recent research by scholars like Jonathan Fox (Politial Secularism, Religion and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data, Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Roger Finke and Brian J. Grim (The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First century, Cambridge University Press, 2010). Perhaps I am overstating the importance of academic debates when I use the word “dangerous,” but I cannot help thinking about how the arguments in this book may be read into political debates. For instance, when the editors in their introduction claim that what are often seen as problems of religious freedom in Pakistan are really economic and political problems, I believe they trivialize the way in which sectors of Pakistani society and politics have undergone a process of Islamization that has negative effects on the lives of some minorities, and has proved dangerous to individuals who speak out against religious bigotry. This is not to say that politics and the economy has nothing to do with it, and it is certainly not to say that religion can be neatly separated from all other sectors of society.

If the editors and authors had placed their debates about religious freedom in the wider context of human rights, the dangers I talk about might have been easier to spot. Imagine a project similar to this one: for instance, one on the political rights set out in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration. It would be possible, though not very original, to make a similar book that traced the history of the Western conception of political participation and universal suffrage. Obviously, the idea about the right to vote in elections presupposes a modern idea of autonomous, rational individuals who are able to choose between various political positions and parties. Or we could take other basic human rights, one by one, and see how they too hypothesize a similar kind of subject, and we might draw the same conclusion with regard to human rights in general as the editors of this book do with regard to the right to freedom of belief in particular. The problem is that we would then make it quite clear that we side with people, movements, and states that do not deserve our support. In their introduction, the editors raise their concern over the growth of organizations, projects, and publications about religious freedom. They say that their project does not take a position for or against religious freedom, but their basic assumption is that we need to understand “the complex social and legal life of this concept” (141). In fact, the book does take a stand against work on religious freedom as it is conceptualized and practiced in much of the world today.

The book is the result of a three-year research program funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, and it has 27 chapters divided into four sections loosely organized according to topics. Given more space, it would have been a pleasure to review in detail some of the excellent individual chapters. Many of them are in fact a delight to read and illuminate issues more or less related to the core arguments in interesting ways. It is unfortunate that they are placed within the problematic theoretical and political framework provided by this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Torkel Brekke is Deputy Director and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway.

Date of Review: 
June 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is professor in and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She is also an affiliated professor of law at Indiana University Bloomington Maurer School of Law.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor in the Departments of Political Science and (by courtesy) Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

Saba Mahmood is professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Peter G. Danchin is professor of law and director of the International and Comparative Law Program at the University of Maryland School of Law.



Atalia Omer

This is a highly effective review and critique of the overarching arguments of the book's editors. The reviewer is careful to highlight that some of the individual contributors do not share the approach of the editors. The problematic aspects of the editors' approach are correctly illuminated and exposed as reductive and potentially dangerous.

Joseph Blankholm

This review is interesting inasmuch as it represents the other side of a deep cleavage in the academic study of religion (and really, in economic anthropology and other related fields, as well). It does not really do justice to the erudition of the volume's editors and its many contributors who agree with the arguments they offer, so I would hope that readers of this review and the volume it describes will recognize that a much larger debate underlies their disagreement. For a rigorous intellectual history of autonomy in the west, those interested might look to Jerome B. Schneewind's The Invention of Autonomy (1998). Those interested in the limits of homo economicus as a universal description of homo sapiens would do well to read the late 1950s/early 1960s debates among Bohannon, Burling, Cancian, Cook, Dalton, and LeClair. Saba Mahmood's side-hug embrace of Milbank/Aristotle as an alternative to autonomy-dependent western feminism would be a great place to start if one wanted to see just how deep this faultline is. Thanks to Professor Brekke for spurring a fascinating conversation.

Diane Winston

Thought provoking review. I'd like to see a response from the editors.

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