The Religious Freedom Project (RFP) is engaging major new questions not often broached in contemporary debates
over the meaning and value of religious freedom. What is the relationship between religious freedom, other
fundamental freedoms, and societal flourishing? What economic and political benefits accrue to societies that
afford full and free expression to the religious impulses that are deeply embedded in the human experience?
Can religious freedom contribute to the consolidation and longevity of democracy, to economic growth and
reductions in poverty, or to the equality of women?
To address these questions with empirical data and rigorous scholarship the RFP has commissioned some of America’s leading scholars. They comprise two working groups (listed below) and together form an interdisciplinary research team under Director Thomas Farr and Associate Director Timothy Shah.
Additionally, the RFP is taking an in-depth look at Christian communities that are facing persecution. Key questions include: How are such communities responding to persecution? How effective are their strategies? What lessons can other religious minorities learn from these groups about how best to resist, or even to survive, religious persecution?
The RFP's Economic Working Group focuses on the impact of religious freedom on economic freedom, political economy, and development. Our scholars are economists, development specialists, political scientists, and students of Islam with relevant expertise on economic issues. They have a broad regional focus, analyzing issues in the West, the Middle East and North Africa, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The group analyzes the importance of religious freedom for entrepreneurship, poverty alleviation, property rights, the dignity and equality of women in the workforce, family structure and stability, and social mobility in India.
The RFP's Political Working Group focuses on the impact of religious freedom on political freedom and democracy. Our scholars are experts in areas of political science, sociology, law, diplomacy, and philosophy. Their analysis is both qualitative and quantitative, and covers political developments around the globe. The group examines the importance of religious freedom for reforming semi-authoritarian regimes; the relationship between the freedom to proselytize and democratization; religious freedom in the politics of Muslim-majority countries;and the role of religious freedom in geo-political competitiveness.
In collaboration with the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame, the RFP is engaging in a three-year global research project called Under Caesar’s Sword. The project investigates how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated. A team of 14 of the world’s leading scholars on regional religions will study some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries including China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, and India.
The Religious Freedom Project is undertaking a two-year research initiative to explore Christianity’s contributions to the construction and diffusion of freedom in its political, religious, and economic dimensions. Through groundbreaking research by an international team of scholars as well as through a cycle of public symposia and conferences, “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” will examine ways in which Christian thinkers and communities have generated new concepts and practices of freedom in interaction with other religious traditions and secular ideas and institutions. Religious Freedom Project Associate Director and Scholar in Residence Timothy Shah is the Project Leader. Allen Hertzke, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, will Co-Chair the initiative’s distinguished Steering Committee alongside Timothy Shah.
The initiative is made possible through the generous support of the Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs (RIHA) program administered by the Historical Society, with additional support from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Witherspoon Institute.
An adequate understanding of the contemporary significance of religious freedom requires a grasp of its history and institutionalization over time. While the idea of religious freedom grows out of the Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions, it became a major social and political issue during and after the Reformation. Over the past two centuries, the idea of religious liberty has advanced against fierce opposition, both religious and secular, and has found diverse forms of political expression. Understanding the persistence of discrimination against and persecution of religious communities in the contemporary world -- and countering it effectively -- requires a deeper understanding of history. The project will bring together leading scholars to examine the evolution of the idea of religious liberty, its institutionalization, and contemporary relevance.
Recent decades have seen an explosion of academic interest in the anthropological, philosophical, psychological, and biological basis of religious experience as a human universal. Scholars across the natural and social sciences have deepened their exploration of religion as it intersects with questions of individual and collective identity, ethics, and action. The project will institute a standing seminar series to bring leading scholars to present their findings and explore their implications for the idea of religious freedom. The seminars will generate an extended conversation among scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and inform the core research carried out across the project's four other thematic areas.
Recent empirical research suggests a positive correlation between levels of religious freedom across countries and measures of economic, social, and political development. It appears that citizens' capacity to act on the basis of core beliefs has positive effects on civic and political life, including economic development and the onset and consolidation of democracy. Drawing on this research, the project will explore the conditions under which religious freedom serves other ends. What dimensions of religious freedom -- belief, practice, and political engagement -- have positive effects? When and how do they do so? The project will address these questions through ongoing research to be presented through events and publications.
Policy debates about how to combat religious extremism, terrorism, and violence have typically pitted supporters of military and police force against advocates of economic and social development. A vital policy tool -- the advancement of religious freedom -- has been neglected. This thematic area will explore the causal mechanisms linking religious freedom and violence. Is the suppression of religious freedom linked to religiously-motivated violence or terrorism? Do restrictions on religious liberty undermine moderates or reformers who might otherwise oppose extremism? Can the advancement of religious freedom catalyze the kinds of political theologies that support democratic governance and counter religious extremism and terrorism? The project will ask these and other questions of diverse societies around the world.
While the role of religion can be strikingly different on both sides of the Atlantic, American and European societies face similar challenges to religious liberty. The U.S. model of high levels of religious practice, denominational competition, and non-establishment contrasts with European models of low religious participation and either state churches (as in the U.K.) or the state-state-enforced privatization of religion (as in France). Different historical legacies and religious and political constellations have shaped responses to trends including the growth of Islam and the emergence of same-sex marriage as a contested issue, with implications for the rights of both religious minorities and majorities. The project will address a thicket of controversial legal and ethical issues not adequately addressed on either side of the Atlantic.