Daniel Philpott on Defending Religious Freedom
Date: November 1st, 2015

While the promotion of religious liberty sounds relatively innocuous, there have been growing voices standing against such a foreign policy as practiced by the United States, Canada, and some Western European nations.  Prof. Daniel Philpott, professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, examines the basis for a number of these critiques and responds to them, arguing that religious liberty is a universal human right that should be protected and promoted both by official policy and private initiative.

We start with a short discussion about Dan’s collegial blog (with other scholars) entitled Arc of the Universe.  After informing Tony that it is not about astronomy, he explains how the title originated from one of Martin Luther King’s sayings with respect to justice and what the bloggers write about over at that website.  Many of the issues we address today can be found written at Arc of the Universe.  Dan then briefly surveys how the issue of religious liberty became a topic of concern for US and Western European foreign policy, dating back to the 1999 International Religious Freedom Act, and what that policy is intended to do.

We then examine the basic thrust of recent academic criticism aimed at the promotion of religious liberty abroad.  These critics — who Dan calls The New Critics — emphasize the point that religious freedom is not a universal value and that it is being imposed by the West on cultures that it is not well-suited.  They also see the religious liberty foreign policy as a product of Western power emanating from the colonial and imperialist eras and that this comes with pernicious effects.  Dan then counters the main gist of this argument by arguing that religious liberty is a universal right and points out that it is enshrined in a number of international documents signed by a wide variety of countries, including a majority of Islamic nations.  Dan further asserts that the notion of religious liberty has roots deeper in history than the age of European colonialism, and that it in fact it stretches back to early Christianity.  He makes two additional points that the concept of religious liberty is not necessarily Western and cites evidence supporting such freedoms in the Koran, and then points out that rights of conscience have popular support throughout the world broadly.

Another aspect of the New Critics argument that we address is the definition of religion, wherein the critique of religious freedom policy is viewed as imposing a certain image — namely Protestant or, more broadly, Christian — of what proper religion is.  Dan takes on this argument by noting that there are some very common sense ideas about what religion is irrespective of the type or intensity of ritualistic behavior.  Tony asks is rights of conscience makes this point moot by allowing individuals, rather than groups, define what they consider to be religion and Dan responds.  We also note the interesting tendency of the New Critics to approach their criticisms of religious freedom not from an atheistic point of view, but one that is skeptical of secularism and the origin of that concept in the European Enlightenment.  Our conversation then turns to whether the promotion of religious liberty conflicts with other liberties and how all of this can be balanced.  Dan notes that religious liberty is not an absolute right and that in the United States religious groups are not allowed to practice polygamy or child sacrifice.  He also makes the case about how the same arguments of the New Critics would be made if the topic was torture.  With different concepts of the validity of torture in different cultures, one could easily slide down the path of moral relativism and we discuss this.  Dan also discusses how moral relativism does not flow from empirical diversity.

We finish the podcast by discussing the effectiveness of top-down foreign policy efforts to promote religious freedom.  Both Tony and Dan agree that those efforts have been less than effective and that sending around an ambassador to lecture other nations’ politicians about the virtue of liberty will not have much of an impact on the ground.  We chat about different ways in which religious liberty might be promoted, including at the grass roots by NGOs and common folks who realize they need to live with, and tolerate, their neighbors of other faiths.  We bring up the research of Rebecca Shah in showing how this has played out in the poor barrios of India despite the influence of Hindu nationalism.  Our discussion ends with some of Dan’s thoughts on how scholars might be shaping the agenda on religious liberty.  Recorded: October 29, 2015.



Daniel Philpott’s bio at the Political Science Department at the University of Notre Dame.

Arc of the Universe blog.

Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Conciliation, by Daniel Philpott.

The Politics of Past Evil, edited by Daniel Philpott.

God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, by Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah.

Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations, by Daniel Philpott.

Center for Civil & Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame.


Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgence and Democratization.

Religious Freedom and Political Flourishing: A Panel Discussion.

Religious Liberty and Economic Prosperity: A Panel Discussion.

Proselytism, Humanitarianism, and Development: A Panel Discussion.

Robert P. George on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Tom Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Foreign Policy.

David Smith on Religion, International Relations, and Foreign Policy.

Timothy Shah on the Case for Religious Liberty.

Monica Toft on Religion, Terrorism, and Civil War.

Rebecca Shah on Religion and the Enterprising Poor in India.

Ani Sarkissian and Religious Liberty in the Post-Soviet World.

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

Brian Grim on Religious Freedom and Business.

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