Anthony Gill on the Political Origins of Religious Liberty
Date: January 7th, 2013

Religious liberty has not been the normal state of affairs in world history.  Indeed, religious activity has been tightly controlled by rulers across space and time.  So why would political leaders ever choose to “deregulate a religious market”?  In a turnabout way, the host of Research on Religion, Anthony Gill, becomes the guest with Prof. Steve Pfaff (UW Sociology) filling in as the interviewer as they discuss Tony’s most recent book, The Political Origins of Religious Liberty.  You’ve known Tony as the suave voice that comes over your iPod headphones for the past 136 weeks, but did you also know that his is a professor of political science at the University of Washington and Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion?  He is, and now is the chance to find out what he thinks about the important philosophical issues of the time.  We begin our conversation discussion with a definition of religious liberty.  Tony points out that it is important to think about religious liberty in terms of costs and benefits.  Any government policy that imposes a greater cost on an individual or group’s ability to worship needs to be viewed as a decrease in freedom, whereas anything reducing such costs is a movement towards liberty.  We then talk about previous theories of why religious liberty has arisen in the modern world, noting that most scholars rely upon ideological reasons for its appearance — namely that policymakers were convinced by philosophers that religious freedom was a good idea.  But Tony notes that even though religious liberty might be a good idea, it is not an idea that is always shared by everyone in the policymaking arena.  Numerous policy ideas exist at any given moment and it is important to consider the political and economic interests of rulemakers when accounting for the appearance of tolerance and freedom in places like The Netherlands, Great Britain, and the United States.  Secular leaders are most interested in their political survival, generating tax revenue, and growing the economy.  These interests will be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to allow greater religious freedoms.  We also note that religious leaders are not neutral in this process.  The clergy of dominant religious will generally favor restrictions on religious minorities, whereas religious minorities will push for greater freedom.  The gradual development of religious pluralism changes the political landscape in a way that favors the emergence of tolerance and liberty in the long-run (though there is likely to be conflict in the short-run).  Our discussion relies mostly upon examples from colonial British America, but Steve Pfaff peppers the conversation with other illustrations from Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and even Spain.  We close with Steve challenging Tony on some different configuations of religious liberty and whether or not a government that seeks to be “neutral” is privileging secularism over all other confessions.  Tony shares his thoughts on this subject.  Recorded: December 18, 2012.


 Anthony Gill’s website at the University of Washington and Baylor’s ISR.

The Political Origins of Religious Liberty, by Anthony Gill (also available on Kindle).

Rendering unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America, by Anthony Gill (and on Kindle).

Steve Pfaff’s website at the University of Washington.

Exit-Voice Dynamics & the Collapse of East Germany, by Steve Pfaff.


Timothy Shah on the Case for Religious Liberty.

Allen Hertke on Religious Liberty.

Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Diplomacy.

Jonathan Fox on Religion & State around the World.

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, and the Arab Spring.

Jason Jewell on John Locke and Religious Toleration.

Roger Finke on Religious Persecution.

Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgence and Democratization.

Kevin Cooney on Religion and the Rule of Law in China.

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