Christianity & Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
In 2012 and 2013 the Religious Freedom Project undertook 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” examined 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 was the project leader. Allen Hertzke, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, co-chaired the initiative’s distinguished Steering Committee alongside Timothy Shah.
The initiative was 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. In 2014, the RFP and the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights launched a follow-on project to Christianity and Freedom called Under Caesar's Sword, which focuses on the persecution of Christian communities around the world. Research for Under Caesar's Sword is now being carried out under the Religious Freedom Research Project.
The Christianity and Freedom Project was timed to coincide with the one thousand and seven hundredth anniversary of the Edict of Milan of 313 CE, which officially granted religious freedom to adherents of all faiths throughout the Roman Empire. This initiative catalyzed scholarly exploration and focused global attention on our hypothesis: that Christianity has made important contributions to defining and promoting freedom. The project and its research fully recognized that Christianity has had a mixed record concerning freedom and human rights. Its broad objective was to explore critically the ways in which Christianity has fostered civic innovation and political and economic progress even—or especially—in the face of opposition. Although other religious and non-religious traditions have also made important contributions to the development of freedom, project participants believe Christianity’s contributions in history and in the contemporary world have not received adequate scholarly and public attention, and therefore merited focused investigation.
The initiative proceeded on the premise that Christianity’s contributions to religious, political, and economic freedom, whatever their extent and significance, have not occurred in isolation. Scholars examined how those contributions have often been developed and sharpened in close interaction, interdependence, conversation, and sometimes conflict with Jewish, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and modern secular communities and forms of discourse.
Historical analysis complemented and informed consideration of the contemporary global situation. To the extent that Christianity has been an important incubator of political or economic innovation, social and political pressure placed on Christian minorities in many countries today is not only a short-term human rights problem. It may also impede long-term progress towards greater political freedom and vibrant religious and political pluralism around the world.
The project did not assume that the present-day persecution of Christians around the world is of greater concern or more important than the persecution of other groups. But project participants believe that the causes and results of the persecution of Christians have for various reasons failed to receive proper study. The project intended to rectify that deficiency by trying to determine as rigorously and objectively as possible the consequences of the suppression of Christians for advancing political freedom, religious and political pluralism, and economic development in various parts of the world.