Research Spotlight: Rethinking Religious Freedom

March 12, 2015

"I like to study things everyone agrees on." This is how Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science, explains her initial attraction to studying the international politics of religious freedom, a cause that has inspired and united politicians, religious leaders, lawyers, and human rights activists across the political spectrum, in the U.S. and abroad.

Hurd’s four-year collaborative research project "Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Norms and Local Practices," funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, challenges the assumption that there is a single and stable conception of religious freedom, enshrined in international law, UN protocols, and national constitutions. Instead, it studies the multiple historical trajectories, concepts, and practices organized under the rubric of religious freedom. The project is global in scope – Hurd and her co-investigators staged workshops for the project on five continents over the course of three years. The goal was to find ways to talk about religious freedom beyond the American context and in collaboration with local scholars, advocates, and jurists. "You literally can’t stage a conversation like this [about religious freedom] without an interdisciplinary platform like the Buffett Institute," she says.

Hurd and her collaborators, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Saba Mahmood, and Peter Danchin did not set out to develop or prescribe an alternative to religious freedom. There is no "one size fits all" solution for managing the politics of religiously diverse societies. Instead, Hurd says, they have sought to understand the different conceptions of religious freedom at play in the world today, their different social and political contexts, and their varied histories.

These efforts are now bearing fruit, and in 2015 the University of Chicago will publish Politics of Religious Freedom, a collection of essays that emerged from an edited set of blog posts on The Immanent Frame. Together, the essays collected in that series, the PRF volume, and other project publications including a special issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly and a symposium on “Re-thinking Religious Freedom” in the Journal of Law and Religion, unsettle the assumption that is so ubiquitous in many academic and policy circles that religious freedom is a singular achievement, an easily understood state of affairs, and that the problem lies in its incomplete realization. Instead, the project team has asked, what happens when religious freedom is imagined through the lexicon of liberal rights as a set of discrete freedoms claimed by individuals or groups from an assumedly neutral state? What claims can and cannot be made regarding religion, personhood, and freedom? What modes of religiosity, notions of religious difference (or non-difference), and idioms of social order are rendered unintelligible or incoherent?

The team also will publish legal case commentaries on the politics of religious freedom in India, Egypt, the U.K., Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, and the United States in the Maryland Journal of International Law. The cases, which will be freely available on the project website in 2015, are intended for scholars across disciplines seeking to think and teach about the law and politics of social and religious diversity in diverse contexts. The PRF project supported dissertation fieldwork by Northwestern graduate students Mona Oraby (Political Science) and Nazli Ozkan (Anthropology).

Hurd is also publishing her own book on the subject, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion with Princeton University Press in 2015. It explores the gap between "governed religion" and "lived religion": the difference between religion as defined by law and what actually happens in people’s everyday religious lives. Rather than emancipating societies from persecution and discrimination, she argues, the legalization of freedom of religion, government engagement with faith communities, and legal protections for religious minorities generate social tensions by making religious difference a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it.

The Politics of Religious Freedom project brought together academics, human rights and civil society representatives, and policy makers from around the world. Hurd and the PRF team held a series of workshops in Cape Town, Evanston, Cairo, Princeton, Chiangmai, and Venice. In the international workshops it became obvious that "religious freedom" doesn’t mean the same thing in Thailand or South Africa as it does in the United States or Egypt. As Hurd stated in a recent interview with Religion News, "To define religious freedom requires knowing what religion is… It arguably can no longer convincingly underwrite legal action or international public policy. We need new words."

The Politics of Religious Freedom Project: Research & Publications

Project Website:

The Immanent Frame Blog:

Symposium in Journal of Law & Religion:

"Politics of Religious Freedom" from the University of Chicago Press:

Law, Religion