Happy Easter and Historicizing Religious Freedom

Happy Easter to everyone! (and happy Passover as well!)

Before anything else, I want to thank Marc for inviting me to guest blog for the month. I have been a follower of this blog since its founding and found it especially useful for keeping up with the latest news/events and scholarship involving religious freedom.

What I will blog about for the rest of the month would be snippets of arguments and claims that I make in my ongoing dissertation, as well as float some ideas about law and religion in general. Hopefully some or any of these could jumpstart an interesting conversation. At the very least, I aim to give my own take on some issues which I feel are obscured by the politics and culture wars necessarily involved when it comes to issues of what I would call public religion.

Public religion, in the sense that it is a kind of religion deployed for public purposes – as a matter of identity and social practice, is making a comeback as news and events plus the incredible volume of academic and popular writing on the subject suggests. (As an aside, I was involved in the organization of a graduate student conference with the theme Religion and Civilization in International History where we heard fascinating papers on the subject) When it comes to law and religion, at least from the American side of things, most of the writing on the subject however, tend to coalesce around stories on various Supreme Court cases involving the Religion Clauses. But the story of American religious freedom has an external dimension as well, in terms of its centuries-old tradition of promoting democracy, human rights and religious freedom abroad. (I believe this is in fact partly a subject of ongoing investigation and research at the Politics of Religious Freedom project). In fact, it has done so through law in many instances, drawing on prevailing domestic ideas and motivations at particular times. Many people are not familiar with the extent of American involvement in the protection of religious freedom abroad, and this is the story that my dissertation, The Law on Religious Liberty and the Rise of American Power, seeks to tell.

I don’t intend to give a summary of the dissertation but what I want to start my blogging stint with is what I think are the normative implications of historicizing religious freedom in this way. What does such a historical reframing achieve? One implication I can think of at the moment is that it does support in part the frequent contention that Western notions of religious freedom which found their way to contemporary legal structures and institutions are incompatible with non-Western conceptions of this principle. It supports the part where Western ideas did indeed inform religious freedom as we understand it and as we enforce it today, e.g. this post by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd over at Immanent Frame which closely studies Talal Asad’s recent contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, is one version of this claim, but not the part necessarily about its incompatibility. It might not be obvious but much is at stake when it comes to deciding how to interpret the history of religious freedom. When courts and government actors act in accordance with a single overarching narrative, there are practical consequences. And so assuming such a history, even if we  concede that the story of international religious freedom is about imperial tendencies and asymmetric exercises of power, can religious freedom nevertheless be saved?

More on that and other things in the next post.

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