Anthony Gill on the Political Origins of Religious Liberty (Encore Presentation)
Date: September 25th, 2017

Due to a series of technical difficulties with our studio line, we are rebroadcasting an interview that friend and colleague Steven Pfaff (UW Sociology) did with me nearly 5 years ago.  Given that I am teaching a course on religion and politics this term, I am floating this one up to the top of the feed as an encore presentation for the students and for you.  Please enjoy, and once we get the phone lines reconnected we will bring you some crescent fresh episodes.

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 religion market”? This week, Anthony Gill (University of Washington, political science), the host of Research on Religion (Facebook page and Twitter), becomes the guest as Prof. Steven Pfaff (University of Washington, sociology) takes the reins of inquisitor and peppers Tony with questions about his book The Political Origins of Religious Liberty.  We begin our conversation 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 enhances liberty.  We then talk about previous theories of why religious liberty has arisen in the modern world, noting that most scholars rely upon ideational reasons for its appearance — namely that policymakers were convinced by philosophers that religious freedom was a good idea in-and-of-itself.  But Tony notes that even through religious liberty might be a good idea per se, 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 rule-makers 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 religions will generally favor restrictions on religious minorities, whereas religious minorities will advocate for greater religious freedoms.  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 upon examples from colonial British America, but Steve Pfaff adds to the conversation other illustrations from Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, and even Spain.  We close with Steve challenging Tony on some different configurations of religious liberty and whether or not a government that seeks to be “neutral” is privileging secularism over all other confessions.  Tony chimes in on this topic as well.  Recorded: December 18, 2012.



Anthony Gill’s bio at the University of Washington Political Science Dept and Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

Steve Pfaff’s bio at the University of Washington’s Department of Sociology.

The Political Origins of Religious Liberty, by Anthony Gill.

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

Exit-voice Dynamics & the Collapse of East Germany, by Steven Pfaff.

The Spiritual Virtuoso: Personal Faith and Social Transformation, by Marion Goldman and Steven Pfaff.


An extensive list of our podcasts on religious liberty.

Anthony Gill on Religion (an EconTalk podcast).

Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517 (Protestant Reformation Series).

Steven Pfaff on Denominationalism, Sin, and Other Stuff.

Larry Iannaccone on Sacrifice, Stigma, and the Economics of Religion.

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