RFP Themes

From 2011 to 2016, the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) engaged major questions not often broached in contemporary debates over the meaning and value of religious freedom. The RFP commissioned some of America's leading scholars to study religious freedom's relationship to social flourishing, violent extremism, women's equality, and other themes, both in historical and contemporary contexts. Learn more about our past research themes below.

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.

Historical Origins of Religious Freedom

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. From 2011 to 2014 the Religious Freedom Project brought together leading scholars to examine the evolution of the idea of religious liberty, its institutionalization, and contemporary relevance.

Religion as Intrinsic to Human Experience

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. From 2011 to 2014, the Religious Freedom Project instituted a standing seminar series to bring leading scholars to present their findings and explore their implications for the idea of religious freedom. The seminars generated an extended conversation among scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and it informed the core research carried out across the project's four other thematic areas.

Religious Freedom and Economic, Social, and Political Development

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 explored 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? From 2011 to 2014, the Religious Freedom Project addressed these questions through research presented through events and publications.

Religious Freedom and the Struggle against Extremism

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 explored 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? From 2011 to 2014 the Religious Freedom Project asked these and other questions of diverse societies around the world.

Religious Freedom in the United States and Europe

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 United States 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 United Kingdom) or the 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. From 2011 to 2014, the Religious Freedom Project addressed a thicket of controversial legal and ethical issues not adequately addressed on either side of the Atlantic.

Religious Liberty, Economic Freedom, and Development

From 2014 to 2016, the Religious Freedom Project's Economic Working Group focused on the impact of religious freedom on economic freedom, political economy, and development. Participating scholars were economists, development specialists, political scientists, and students of Islam with relevant expertise on economic issues. They had a broad regional focus, analyzing issues in the West, the Middle East and North Africa, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The group analyzed 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. This project expanded on work conducted by RFP scholars from 2011 to 2014.

Religious Liberty, Political Freedom, and Democracy

From 2014 to 2016, the Religious Freedom Project's Political Working Group focused on the impact of religious freedom on political freedom and democracy. Participating scholars were experts in areas of political science, sociology, law, diplomacy, and philosophy. Their analysis was both qualitative and quantitative, and covered political developments around the globe. The group examined 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 geopolitical competitiveness. This project expanded on work conducted by RFP scholars from 2011 to 2014.
back to top