different types of secular debates from different contexts around the world in relation to religious diversity and religious freedoms.

Lesson Plan for Summer-Week 4

General Description:

Inside the Readings folder, there are 3 scholarly articles about different types of secular debates from different contexts around the world in relation to religious diversity and religious freedoms.  Two of them touch on issues specifically related to South Asian religious traditions.  Use these articles to start thinking about how value systems may differ in different contexts.

Learning Objectives & Instructions:

1) Read all of the articles in the Readings folder.

2) Think about how secular states try to balance the tension between the legal rights of some people with the religious freedoms of others.

3) Start making notes about important ideas that jump out at you from the readings, so you can eventually use them as references for your footnotes in the week 5 submission.

4) Proceed to the writing assignment in the Writing folder, and complete it by the Due Date.

Question that need to be answered in the writing discussion is:


Based on the discussions in the readings: Should a secular state simply allow all types of religious practices in the public sphere or, on the other hand, simply outlaw all types of religious practices in the public sphere? At what point do you think that either of these situations would start to become problematic and potentially outrageous?

Chapter 14

Liberty as Recognition

Nandini Chatterjee


Abstract and Keywords

This essay reviews a series of controversies involving different conceptions of religious freedom in India, and charts the clashes between religious freedom conceptualized as jurisdictional autonomy versus religious freedom conceived as social justice justifying state intervention following the promulgation of the Indian constitution in 1950.

Keywords:   Indiareligious establishmentIndian constitutionlegal historyjurisdictionIndian secularism

Adopted in 1950, article 17 of the Constitution of India legally abolished untouchability, the ancient Hindu system of social discrimination, forbidding its practice in any form and making the enforcement of any discrimination arising out of this disability a criminal offense. At the same time, the constitution guaranteed freedom of religious belief and practice under article 25, the autonomy of religious institutions under article 26, and the right of religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions under article 30. There was an obvious contradiction between these two sets of constitutional provisions, one aimed at social justice and the other at ensuring religious freedom, a contradiction that subsequently produced a very substantial volume of case law and legal scholarship. Recent scholarship on legal and political developments elsewhere, such as Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s essay in this volume, suggests that this contradiction is less locally specific than was earlier believed.

In decisions since the 1990s, the US Supreme Court has asserted the transcendence of law, prohibiting the use of certain intoxicating substances in worship or gender-based discrimination in state-subsidized schools run by churches and religious groups. In reaction an unprecedentedly broad spectrum of groups has begun demanding protection for the autonomy of religious institutions as a principle in its own right. As Sullivan’s essay suggests, this inchoate but increasingly intractable demand is less about doctrine or religious ceremony and more about jurisdictional autonomy of something far less defined than church (hence “religion”) and the state. Sullivan sees this genre of claims as a naïve effort (p.159) to create something akin to the ancien régime establishment despite, or because of, the historical fact that Americans have never experienced such a legal and institutional connection between church and state.

In this essay I will reflect upon the possibility that the claim of jurisdictional autonomy in fact implies and entails a demand for state support—a form of establishment. As with early modern English republicans deploying the neoclassical idea of liberty of the body politic, any such claim of freedom seeks not mere nonintervention by the state but also demands state recognition of prior constitution—of the body that seeks to be free. The implications of such recognition and endorsement are naturally variable and depend on the social location of the specific claims. But I would argue that in all cases legal demands for religious freedom encapsulate and entail a formal recognition by the state of persons, institutions, material belongings, and social groups as constituting the religious body whose freedom is sought.

I will apply this idea to three sets of legal and political contests in India, stretching from the 1830s to the 1990s. The first set of debates concerned the internal regulation of a religious community—specifically, the arraignment of caste hierarchy in certain Protestant congregations in southern India in the 1830s. The second set, stretching from the 1930s to the 1960s, consisted once again of the regulation of caste—this time in relation to Hindu religious institutions. The last set deals with legislation, legal disputes, and administrative developments related to privately managed, state-supervised, and state-subsidized educational institutions, which have acquired the administrative nomenclature of Minority Educational Institutions. Religion and social hierarchy (in the culturally specific form of caste) thread in and out of all these disputes, as do debates over the content and purpose of religion and the appropriate authority for determining these. Above all, what connects all these disparate disputes is the persistent appeal to religious freedom, albeit articulated in various vocabularies. Unsurprisingly, the precise body or subject whose freedom was advocated in each of these debates, and the variety of protagonists involved in these instances of advocacy, varied widely. Nevertheless, in all of them the advocates of liberty explicitly sought state endorsement of their positions, in some cases more successfully than others. I will discuss the implications of actual or proposed state endorsement of such claims in my concluding comments.

I begin with the story of a diverse, fractured, and small religious community, statistically significant only in the southern part of the Indian (p.160) subcontinent. There have been ancient Orthodox churches in India since the fourth century CE, possibly even from the first century, and Catholic congregations led by Counter-Reformation European missions have existed since the sixteenth century. But Christianity entered the demographic map of India only with large-scale group conversions of the most marginalized Indians—dalits(the erstwhile “untouchables”) and members of various indigenous groups incompletely incorporated into any of the overarching religions and officially designated “tribals”—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My first set of disputes relates to Anglican mission churches in the period immediately prior to such mass conversions. These disputes, which took place in the 1830s, were about the doctrinal acceptability of caste-based segregation in the mission churches, and, as a corollary, about the appropriate authority for making and applying the rules of religious life.

In 1826 the second Anglican bishop of Calcutta, the metropolitan of India, Reginald Heber, had observed the practice and concluded that caste was similar to its European eponym casta—being the result of natural social divisions and hence doctrinally neutral, or at the most akin to the “prejudices” of the ancient Jews and hence deserving Pauline tolerance. Historians of Protestant missions note that subsequent incumbents, especially Bishop Daniel Wilson in office 1832–58, came to the conclusion that caste was indeed part of the Hindu sacral complex, a hindrance to the spread of Christianity, and inhumane, and therefore to be discarded. What have remained unexamined in scholarship are the regulatory mechanisms through which this social discipline was imposed on the erring Indian congregations.

In 1829 even before the reforming Bishop Wilson had arrived, a new generation of Continental Pietist missionaries employed by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge Mission provoked a schism in the Indian—or, in missionary parlance, “native”—congregation of the Anglican Church in Mysore. They did so by insisting on, among other things, the desegregation of church services and the deployment of a lower-caste pastor to minister to the congregation. Following the expulsion of the poet Vedanayagam Pillai, one of the most eminent members of the congregation, the recalcitrant upper-caste segment of the congregation attempted to distance itself from what it saw as ritually polluted religious ceremonies by holding services in the churchyard. When prohibited from doing so by the missionaries, this segment petitioned the British governor of Madras, complaining of deprivation of the upper (p.161) caste members’ collective property—the church that had been built with their contributions. Using more exalted and shorter lines of communication with the political authorities, Bishop Wilson was able to convince the government of India (and in turn the government of the presidency of Madras) that the dispute merely concerned matters of ecclesiastical discipline and hence was exclusively within the jurisdiction of church authorities. The Court of Directors of the East India Company—that is, the ultimate political authority for British-ruled India at that time—wrote from London approving of this outcome. Unsurprisingly the congregation split, and Anglican commentators reported with disgust that the Roman Catholic Church was not above welcoming the insubordinate Indian Christians into its fold.

By the 1930s the dramatis personae had been significantly rearranged, but the plot remained similar. The denunciation of caste as inhumane, socially regressive, and un-Hindu had become a widely (although by no means universally) shared position among Indians—especially the public-spirited, the reformists, and the nationalists. Indeed, under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, the Indian National Congress required its members literally to sign on to a renunciation of caste as the prerequisite of membership. Among the many disparate social agendas embraced and appropriated by the Congress in the twentieth century was the “temple entry” movement—that is, the efforts of dalit leaders to breach the centuries of prejudice that had excluded them from Hindu religious buildings. Thus during the 1933 debates in the semi-elected Imperial Legislative Council (which made laws for all of British-ruled India), the nationalistreformists assumed a position similar to that of the Pietist missionaries, with the difference that their procaste opponents consisted not of Hindu templegoers in general, but the powerful and entrenched managers of the very wealthy and lightly supervised Hindu religious institutions. The Shankaracharya of Puri, one of the most important mahants (poorly translatable as “abbot”) in the country, sent a telegram of protest: “Do you really claim that questions relating to medicine, engineering, etc., and to religious faith can be determined by referendum and especially by legislators not returned on such tickets or that it is moral or even constitutional to force such decisions on sincere Sanatanists however misguided you may deem them? Why this playing to the gallery and dancing to the tune of renegades from Sanatanism and true constitutionalism? Surely this is unworthy of you. Reflect and turn back. It is not too late now.” The Shankaracharya, quite like the Pietist missionaries of a century ago, (p.162) was making a claim for the state recognition of the autonomy of religious institutions and, even more specifically, for the recognition of the existing structure of authority within them. That the Shankaracharya was a trained medical doctor before entering his religious life perhaps explains his conceptualization of religious authority as deriving from professional specialization rather than ordination or spiritual achievement.

These conservative efforts to prevent the reformist reconceptualization of the content of religion, limits of religious community, and structure of religious authority were defeated to some extent, the reformist victory being enshrined in the Indian constitution, promulgated in 1950. Article 25, which guaranteed freedom of religion, was qualified by clause 2, which provided, “Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law … b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.”

The law almost begged for the slew of cases that followed, all hinging on the inherent contradiction between religious freedom conceptualized as jurisdictional autonomy and religious freedom conceptualized as social justice and justifying state intervention. Quite like the upper-caste Indian Anglicans who, when defeated, chose to be Catholics, those opposed to such changes attempted to position themselves legally in terms of alternative non-Hindu religious identities.

In a famous case decided by the Supreme Court of India, Gouda Saraswath Brahman trustees of the temple of Sri Venkataramanah in Mulki, South Karnataka, attempted to keep their temple free of pollution by dalits by claiming that it was a denominational temple and hence entitled to limit its benefits to members of the denomination or those admitted at their discretion. In response the activist court stated that the constitutional clauses enabling the state to open Hindu temples to all Hindus (including dalits) overrode all other considerations. The Gujarati Swaminarayan Sampradaya or Satsangis took this pattern of oppositional argument one step further, claiming not to be Hindus at all. Chief Justice P. J. Gajendragarkar, an activist judge if there ever was one, refused the Satsangis their route of escape through religious redefinition, informing them that the constitutional obligations of modern Indian Hindus remained incumbent upon them. In another important case involving authority over Hindu religious institutions, the Madras High Court explained why the Indian judiciary could take an openly activist (p.163) stance and restrict the interpretation of religious freedom in the cause of social justice. The case tested the constitutional validity of an act that was passed by the state of Madras in 1951 that reinforced the power of a government department called the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Commission to inspect and supervise Hindu temples and maths(monasteries) and audit their accounts. The law was the product of campaigns spread over a century, all aiming to make Hinduism ethical and democratic and Hindu religious property subject to the wishes of a Hindu religious public. Opponents argued that the law conflicted with the other religious freedom provision in the Indian Constitution, article 26, which provided that:

Freedom to manage religious affairs: Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right

· to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;

· to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;

· to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and

· to administer such property in accordance with law.

Explaining why these and other freedom of religion clauses did not offer a secure escape route from the reformist agenda of the Indian state, judges noted that India was not America—in India there was no rigid wall of separation between church and state.

This reformist confidence quickly waned in the aftermath of the horrors of a secularist and unconstitutional government (the so-called Indian Emergency of 1975–77) and the subsequent rise of politically successful ethnonationalism, describing itself as “Hinduness” or Hindutva. Ironically this political development led not only to the spectacle of Hindu ascetics doubling as demagogues but also to the intensification of the policy and politics of minority recognition. Indian critics suggest that such politics entails treating minorities and other groups based on ascriptive identity as “vote banks”—that is, likely to vote collectively for a party or leader that endorses what is asserted and recognized as key demands of the group. In practice, “vote bank” politics consists of a vicious circle of constant negative stereotyping and victimization in politics, media, and social life, compensated by strategic concessions to self-styled (p.164) but government-recognized “community leaders.” As the most studied instances demonstrate, such concessions tend to be made to patriarchal individuals and entities, achieving two sets of recognition at once—the claim of such entities to represent the community, and the claim by the wider public that the community is backward, politically deviant, and exceptional.

Once again this process has produced a side stream of institutional developments that have attracted less attention but nevertheless represent a crucial stage in the history of defining and recognizing religion in the context of governance. This consists of the legal and bureaucratic rise of the category known as Minority Educational Institutions (MEIs). The concept of MEIs is based on article 26 (see above), and article 30 of the Indian Constitution, which states, “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” The question that has occupied the Supreme Court of India several times since the 1950s, but with increasing frequency since the 1990s, is the degree of autonomy from state supervision this article entails for an educational institution established by a group defined as religious and specifically considered to be a minority. Examining recent cases in detail reveals how the social parameters of the contest over religious freedom have evolved in India since the 1950s. The most important distinction is that rather than ritual hierarchy, contests over the freedom of religious institutions are now explicitly over the allocation of scarce resources such as educational facilities and government employment.

In 1992 the Supreme Court decided that St. Stephen’s College, one of the most prestigious colleges in northern India and originally established by the Anglican Cambridge Mission to Delhi, could reserve no more than 50 percent of its places for Christian students. Traditionally St. Stephen’s had never achieved anything more than a smattering of Christian students and until that point had demonstrated no particular inclination for admitting them over others. The question of religious autonomy was precipitated by the college’s effort to seek freedom from the cumbrous entrance procedures of Delhi University, with which it was affiliated. The college did so by arguing that it had the right to define and manage its own admission procedures per article 30 of the Indian Constitution. This victory was subsequently questioned several times in the Supreme Court, and in 2002 an eleven-member constitutional bench concluded that the right of St. Stephen’s and other MEIs to institutional (p.165) autonomy was necessarily compromised by taking state aid and accepting the consequent obligations, such as a transparent process of admissions and attention to merit in selecting candidates for higher university and professional degrees.

These and several other disputes led to the formation of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions in 2005, which offered bureaucratic umbrella protection to institutions deemed MEIs against potentially unconstitutional intervention by supervisory bodies, such as affiliating universities. Arguably, shorn of the constitutional framing of its case, such protection would have been unnecessary for St. Stephen’s College, for the Supreme Court’s plea for efficiency and merit was indeed its main concern. Legal developments have their own momentum, however, and despite predictions of doom from (non-Christian) Indian notables, many of whom had been educated at St. Stephen’s, the college has undergone important changes in its social orientation, not only declaring itself a “Christian foundation” on its website but reserving 40 percent of its places for Christian applicants, including dalit Christians. It is possible that, in this case, an artificial legal definition (as a Christian institution and hence an MEI) may have moved this institution toward performing the socially transformative role that it never essayed thus far.

There is, however, a further aspect to the St. Stephen’s case that complicates what might have been a story of progress toward equity and justice. The constitutionally provided and judicially confirmed autonomy of MEIs may have endorsed (or as with St. Stephen’s, enabled) their reserving of places for members of the religious (or, in some cases, linguistic) community in question, but it has also afforded them a path of exit from affirmative action policies with relation to caste. Thus, of its 60 percent remaining places, St. Stephen’s reserves 15 percent for non-Christian Scheduled Caste/dalit and Scheduled Tribe students (“scheduled” referring to the schedule or list of the Constitutional Order of 1950, which listed those groups so defined and hence entitled to benefit from affirmative action policies). The quotas maintained by St. Stephen’s are far lower than the legal requirement for all other colleges affiliated with the University of Delhi. However, being an MEI, St. Stephen’s is within legal bounds when not complying fully with affirmative action policies incumbent upon state-funded or state-supported educational institution. Recent legislation has restated such legal exceptions. For example, the 2006 Central Educational Institutions (Reservations in Admission) Act required all universities to reserve 27 percent of seats for “Other Backward (p.166) Castes” in addition to the 15 percent for Scheduled Castes and 7.5 percent for Scheduled Tribes already in place. Universities were also required to increase the number of places available so as not to reduce opportunities for admission available for other students. Minority Educational Institutions were explicitly exempt from this requirement. Being a “minority,” then, offers autonomy from state intervention but also carries various other social implications.

In conclusion, then, we might ask, what do these claims and counterclaims over the nature, implications, and boundaries of religion do? It has been argued by some authors in this volume (Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Webb Keane) that they produce a belief-centric understanding of religion such that ritual and practice come to be excised from what is—in a Protestant Christian perspective—considered to be true religion, and which (they argue) became the dominant paradigm because of the historical reality of colonialism with its hierarchies of knowledge and power. I do not entirely agree with this conclusion. It appears to me that, in spite of the demonstrably greater frequency of appeals to it, “belief” continues to be only one—and not necessarily the most important—way in which modern Indians, despite their colonial experience, define religion. When seeking liberty on a religious basis, whether they are seeking autonomy or social justice, disputants in the contexts I have described referred in variable combinations to authority, belonging, and ethics. In the debates within Indian churches, divided by race and caste, the dispute over church ceremonial and the control of sacred space was very much about establishing who was entitled to claim authority over both. Bishop Daniel Wilson’s successful claim of institutional autonomy in that context translated into the state’s recognition of his own authority within the church and that of European missionaries in charge of Indian congregations. This view of religious authority was challenged by Indian congregants positing a different principle—that of public property. Since they had paid for it, they said, the church was theirs in which to worship as they saw fit. The codefinition of property and the public is a neglected dimension in the history of religious modernization on the Indian subcontinent, one that can also be seen to be animating the efforts of Hindu, Muslim, and other reformists attempting—throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—to gain control over religious (p.167) institutions and to dislodge those that they saw as corrupt, self-serving (as opposed to public-minded) priests. If this was the view of the improbably designated “father of modern India” Rammohan Roy (d. 1833), this was also the view of activist lawyers and judges such as Gajendragadkar. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, such reformers of Hinduism appear to have won a partial victory—hence the conservative efforts to reclaim their autonomy (and authority) through redefinition of themselves as not Hindu. That moment passed, and with the rise of a different model of populist Hinduism what we are now seeing is the legal and bureaucratic ethnicization of minority religions. Partly this is a defensive measure deemed necessary in the context of aggressive majoritarianism. On the other hand, it may also be, as I have discussed above, an unfortunate route of escape from social justice, which ironically replicates the Hindu conservative escapism of the 1950s and ’60s. The implications have not been fully revealed.

Scholarship on religious change in the modern world has now reached the point at which we can reject the view that these developments are somehow exclusively or uniquely Indian. When in the 1960s eminent American scholars commented (largely negatively) on the Indian judiciary’s predilection for unseemly meddling in religious matters, Marc Galanter struck a solo note by arguing that the Indian case was neither unique nor necessarily distinct from the American one. Anticipating Talal Asad, he observed, “No secular state is or can be merely neutral or impartial among religions, for the State defines the boundaries within which neutrality must operate.”

But however universal these legal conundrums are revealed to be, it remains the case that they star in the spotlight only at specific moments and in certain contexts. In explaining the timing of such intellectual and political crises, one has of course to refer to geopolitical events and trends, but one might also argue for the importance of the social content. For example, it may appear that, as Sullivan points out, Americans have rather abruptly woken up to a problem that is neither new nor unique since, as with India, constitutional provisions for religious freedom and the quest for autonomy by religious denominations have been present since the moment of the birth of both nations. I wonder whether in understanding such disputes over religious freedom, the question to ask is not why but why now? If, as Evan Haefeli suggests in his contribution to this volume, toleration is inevitably a partisan phenomenon, then which element of the partisan equilibrium was shaken in the United States twenty (p.168) years ago, around the time of Employment Division v. Smith? Not everything may be attributed to post-9/11 Islamophobia and its many results.

In India, as I have shown, there were very specific racial, social, and political contexts to the deployment of the arguments for religious freedom—alternatively imagined as institutional autonomy and social justice. Some of these contexts are better known than others, such as the legal transformation of Hindu ritual and social order, which saw the repeated deployment of article 26 in the 1950s and ’60s, or the plaited politics of ethnic nationalism and ethnic recognition, which led to the clutching of articles 26 and 30 by those clubbed together under the bureaucratic appellation of Minority Educational Institutions. This shift entailed the reorientation of social activism on the part of marginal groups, from temples to the material means of social advancement—educational facilities, government jobs, political representation, and legal provisions for affirmative action. Seeking autonomy—in most cases from the supervisory authority of universities that they are affiliated with—or exemption from rules based on affirmative action policies, these institutions seem to be behaving in very similar ways to the post-Smith religious alliances in the United States, and doing so with some measure of success. India, it appears, has become more like America in the past half century.

Selected Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Bateman, Josiah. The Life of Daniel Wilson. London: John Murray, 1860.

Chatterjee, Nandini. The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity, 1830–1960.Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2011.

Forrester, Duncan. Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Galanter, Marc. “Hinduism, Secularism and the Judiciary.” Philosophy East and West 21, no. 4 (1971): 467–87.

Hasan, Zoya. “Gender Politics, Legal Reform, and the Muslim Community in India.” In Resisting the Sacred and the Secular: Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia, edited by Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, 71–86. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999.

Hudson, D. Denis. Protestant Origins in India: Tamil Evangelical Christians, 1706–1835. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

Litt, Jurgen, Ancharlott Eschmann, Gayacharan Tripathi, and Herman Kulke, eds. The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa. New Delhi: Manohar, 1978.

Mudaliar, Chandra. State and Religious Endowments in Madras. Madras, India: University of Madras, 1976.(p.169)

Sastri Yagnapurushdasji v. Muldas Bhundardas. AIR 1966 S.C. 1127.

Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Sri Venkataramana Devaru v. State of Mysore. AIR 1958 S.C. 255.

St. Stephen’s College and others v. The University Of Delhi and others. AIR 1992 SC 1630.

T.M.A. Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka. SCC 2002 481. (p.170)

Chapter 3

Believing in Religious Freedom

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd


Abstract and Keywords

This essay examines the effects of conceiving of religion as belief in the context of international religious freedom promotion. Hurd points out that the lived reality of many religious practitioners cannot be reduced to belief, and that the tendency to do so among international religious freedom advocates inevitably privileges some individuals and groups over others. Hurd emphasizes the seductive link to economic and political freedom when belief and choice are made primary, leading to the marketization and confessionalization of religion—and even to something like mind control.

Keywords:   religious freedomreligious freedom advocacybeliefglobalizationpoliticsinternational relationsfree religious market

Anyone who identifies as a believer … (though religious freedom is for believers and nonbelievers) … can come to our roundtable.

—US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, Council on Foreign Relations, 2013

The category of belief is not so easily transferred from one society to another, and … those who seek to do so are subject to the consequences of their deed.

—Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It tells of the triumph of international law over those who refuse to adhere to global norms and standards. It proposes secular tolerance over violent religion. It is a story of human progress and emancipation, of transforming conditions of religious oppression to liberate individuals—particularly women and minorities—from their primitive and discriminatory ways. It is a story of the triumph of the free market, of the “real” freedom and “real” religion that are said to emerge naturally when government influence is stripped away from the religious lives of citizens. And today, especially, it is a story of the need for the US government and its friends to convince others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing politics and society.

This essay challenges that story by focusing on a key aspect of the promotion of religious freedom. Religious freedom advocacy is often described as supporting a right to choose one’s “religion or belief.” Although religious practice is also considered, belief is understood to be the central and defining feature of religiosity. The implication is that there can be no religion without belief. Religious freedom advocacy also seeks to (p.46)protect the right to choose one’s religious belief or nonbelief. Choice is taken to be a defining feature of freedom.

What kind of religion, and what kind of religious subject, are presupposed and promoted through these efforts? What are the consequences of promoting religious freedom as the right to believe or not, and the right to choose among beliefs in a free religious marketplace? What is the historical background of these assumptions? Is it possible that state programs, international initiatives, and human rights instruments designed to secure a universal right to religious freedom in fact disseminate and instantiate a particular notion of the “free” believing—or nonbelieving—religious subject? Would it be possible to continue promoting religious freedom as a universal norm if the modern construct of belief, and its tireless partner, nonbelief, were understood as the product of a specific political discourse situated in history rather than as the mark of the sacred?

International religious freedom advocacy contributes to the normalization of (religious) subjects for whom “believing” is taken as the universal defining characteristic of what it means to be religious, and the right to believe as the essence of what it means to be free. As individuals and groups around the world submit to legal regimes of religious freedom, they are also submitting to a particular model of a free religious economy populated by believing and nonbelieving subjects. This transformative process shapes religion in specific and identifiable ways.

The Subject of Freedom

International authorities have attempted to define “religion or belief” for the purposes of legally guaranteeing religious freedom. For the UN Human Rights Committee, charged with monitoring member states’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, religion or belief includes “theistic, nontheistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.” For legal scholar Malcolm Evans, “it is the freedom to believe and to manifest beliefs, subject only to those limitations strictly necessary to protect the rights and interests of others, which is the subject of human rights protection, and not the beliefs themselves.” For the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whether a belief is protected depends on its “cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance”: “The word ‘religion’ is commonly, but not (p.47)always, associated with belief in a transcendent deity or deities, i.e. a superhuman power or powers with an interest in human destiny. The term ‘belief’ does not necessarily involve a divine being; it denotes a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance. So not all beliefs are covered by this protection. For example, if someone believed that the moon was made of cheese, this belief would not be likely to meet the test above.” There is an interesting tension between these anguished attempts to define religion or belief for the purposes of international legal regulation and the fact that most scholars of religion departed some time ago from the equation of religion with interiority and belief. This course correction has led to what Constance Furey describes as a “fundamental change in the way many religionists now think about the religious subject … this scholarly trend in religious studies strongly undermined the assumption that the object of the religionist’s inquiry is (and should be) a freely volitional subject.” As Yvonne Sherwood puts it in chapter 2 of the present volume, religion scholars “have spent most of their energy in the last thirty years decoupling religion from belief,” which has been “kicked into the sidelines as a Christian/colonial imposition.” With this shift in orientation, scholars of religion appear to be catching up with the lived realities of religious experience.

Religious affiliation has always involved more than a choice between belief and disbelief. Citing a colonial American minister from the Carolina backwoods named Charles Woodmason, historian Jon Butler recounts that he “observed religious bewilderment, fascination, repulsion, confusion, and a distanced evasion, including indifference, rather than unbelief or a choice between belief and unbelief, or atheism.” The difficulty with equating belief and religion, Butler explains, is that “the laity have seldom phrased their own views about religion in such dichotomous and essentially exclusive ways.” T. M. Luhrmann made a similar point in the New York Times about contemporary American evangelicals:

Secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first. And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

(p.48) Viewed skeptically today by those who study religion both past and present, the arguably nonexistent freely volitional subject who chooses to believe (or not) persists and, strangely, looms large in the world of international religious freedom advocacy. The protection of international religious freedom as a universal norm hinges upon, and even sanctifies, a religious psychology that relies on the notion of an autonomous subject who chooses beliefs and then enacts them freely. This understanding of religion normalizes (religious) subjects for whom “believing” is taken as the universal defining characteristic of what it means to be religious, and the right to choose one’s belief as the essence of what it means to be free. Anchoring and steadying this approach to religion is a specific, historically located figure of faith, and a particular, historically contingent notion of belief.

Talal Asad’s account of the shifting and lived experience of belief calls into question the universality of the liberal democratic requirement that it is belief or conscience that properly defines the individual, thereby representing, for many liberals, the essence of religiosity. Asad dates this concept of belief to a new religious psychology and concept of the state that began to emerge in seventeenth-century Europe. In that theory, which is also at the core of John Locke’s theory of toleration, belief should not be coerced because it affronts the dignity of the individual, and cannot be coerced because it is located in the private space of the individual mind. Authenticity, according to many liberal philosophers, “consists in the subject’s ability to choose his or her beliefs and act on them.” Donald Lopez has described this seventeenth-century notion as “an ideology of belief, that is, an assumption deriving from the history of Christianity that religion is above all an interior state of assent to certain truths.” This discourse of belief was accompanied by a particular understanding of the secular state; as Asad explains, “Although the insistence that beliefs cannot be changed from outside appeared to be saying something empirical about ‘personal belief’ (its singular, autonomous, and inaccessible-to-others location), it was really part of a political discourse about ‘privacy,’ a claim to civil immunity with regard to religious faith that reinforced the idea of a secular state and a particular conception of religion.”

Like Butler, Asad draws our attention to the shifting, lived experience of “belief.” Experiences now translated as “belief” (croyance) were always embedded in distinctive social and political relationships and sensibilities. This is illustrated, as Asad explains, in Dorothea Weltecke’s (p.49) description of a young peasant woman named Aude Fauré who was brought before the Inquisition:

She was unable, she said, to credere in Deum. What she meant by this, Weltecke points out, emerges from the detailed context. Aude Fauré took the existence of a God for granted. It was because, in her desperation, she could not see in the Eucharist anything but bread and because she found herself struggling with disturbing thoughts about Incarnation that she had no hope of God’s mercy. It is not clear that the doctrine of God’s body appearing in the form of bread is being challenged here; what is certainly being expressed is the woman’s anguished relationship to God as a consequence of her own incapacity to see anything but bread. In short, it is not that our present concept of belief (thatsomething is true) was absent in pre-modern society, but that the words translated as such were usually embedded in distinctive social and political relationships, articulated distinctive sensibilities; they were first of all lived and only occasionally theorized.

Like Furey, Butler, Sherwood, Lopez, Luhrmann, and others, Asad’s discussion of “belief” complicates the notion of a universal right to religious freedom understood as the freedom to believe (or not). Inasmuch as the protection of religious freedom hinges upon and sanctifies a religious psychology that relies on a particular notion of an autonomous subject who chooses and enacts beliefs, and a particular notion of the secular state that does not (and cannot) coerce such beliefs, these projects privilege and elevate—often in law—particular forms of religious subjectivity while disabling and deprivileging others. In normalizing subjects for whom believing is taken as the universal defining characteristic of what it means to be religious, and the right to believe as the essence of what it means to be free, they exclude other modes of living in the world, as bodies in communities and in relationship to which they are obliged, without (necessarily) any attention to or concern for individual belief.

But belief itself is also limited. It is not free. Religion or belief, as Sherwood shows in chapter 2, “is a limited-membership club. There is no place at the table for purely political beliefs (known as ‘opinions’)—that is, beliefs that cannot aggregate in official and large collectives, or beliefs that lack the institutional edifices and props of antiquity to assert their status and make their case.” The promotion of international religious freedom, then, is part of a larger story involving the costs and (p.50) consequences of mistaking, in William Cavanaugh’s words, “a contingent power arrangement of the modern West for a universal and timeless feature of human existence.”

The momentum behind the legal globalization of the rights of believers and nonbelievers is formidable. Calls for an international convention to protect the freedom of religious (non)believers are urgently made. Prominent scholars such as Malcolm Evans have joined a chorus of experts warning that legal protection for religious freedom should be seen no longer as “only an option,” as “it is fast becoming a necessity in order to prevent the further erosion of the position of religious believers in many countries.” The international community has been charged with “developing a more precise understanding of what the freedom of religion as a human right actually entails, and to do so in a coherent and transparent fashion to which all interested parties can contribute” so that “we might then be better placed to develop the means by which it can be realised.” There is a drive to settle on the norm, agree on a definition, and fix it in a convention. Legal protection for religious freedom is proposed as the remedy for a host of societal ills, from poverty and oppression to violence and discrimination. An international convention, according to Evans, would breathe new life into an anemic global consensus that has “done little to combat the rising tide of restriction, hostility and violence experienced by many religious believers.” It would tackle head-on “the overriding problem, which is how to hold States to account for their own failure to respect and protect the rights of all believers.” The reference to religion or belief, at least outside the United States, includes nonreligious belief as well. Not only religionists but also nonreligionists are defined by belief. It is said to include everyone.

Yet the historical particularities of the rise of a certain economy of belief, and its close ties and constitutive relationship to modern, post-Protestant notions of religion, subvert the promise of freedom implicit in Evans’s international legal ambitions. Contemporary international religious freedom advocacy not only protects particular kinds of religious selves and subjects but also helps to create individuals and “faith communities” for whom choosing and believing, in the sense historicized by Asad and lionized by Evans, are seen as the defining characteristics of what it is to be religious, and the right to choose to believe (or not) as the essence of what it means to be free. To achieve this unity in freedom of belief—belief in belief, as it were—across communities of belief (and nonbelief), is what it means to have achieved “religious freedom.” As (p.51) Evans insists, “faith communities must reject the superficial attractions of claiming or accepting such freedoms for themselves alone, and unhesitatingly support the freedom of religion or belief for all. Unless or until religious communities are prepared to champion for everyone the freedoms that they wish their own followers to enjoy, there is likely to be little opportunity for seriously furthering the freedom of religion or belief at all.”

The identification of religion and faith communities with a right to freedom of belief and believers leaves little room for alternatives in which religion is lived relationally as ethics, culture, and even politics but without, necessarily, belief and, as a matter of command, not freedom. The foreclosure on religion without belief shuts out dissenters, doubters, and those on the margins of or just outside those “faith communities” celebrated by religious freedom advocates, whose voices are subsumed or submerged by the institutions and authorities presumed to speak in their name. It endows those authorities with the power to pronounce on which beliefs deserve special protection or sanction. And it occludes the fundamental instability of the notion of religious belief. Who decides what counts as a religious belief deserving of special protection and legal exemption rather than as some other form of belief?

Religious freedom advocacy is built around a particular notion of the “free” believing or nonbelieving human that is disseminated through secular international institutions and instruments. This freely choosing, believing or nonbelieving subject is, as Lila Abu-Lughod has observed of the human of secular liberalism, “everywhere—translated, resisted, vernacularized, invoked in political struggles, and made the standard language enforced by power.” The subject of religious freedom is an autonomous individual defined by his or her freedom to choose to believe or not. To reiterate Suzan Johnson Cook’s quotation from the epigraph, “anyone who identifies as a believer (though religious freedom is for believers and nonbelievers) can come to our roundtable.” Today this believing/nonbelieving subject is normalized not only through US foreign religious engagement but also through a proliferating series of public international legal regimes and administrative initiatives that have adopted this template and have as their objective to promote the right to religious freedom. These initiatives promote a particular notion of (free) religion understood as a set of propositions to which believers assent, making religion, as Webb Keane has observed, “a matter not of material disciplines or of ritual practices … but of subjective beliefs.”

(p.52) A Transition into “Freedom Itself ”

As individuals and states around the world submit to legal regimes of religious freedom—as many are doing at lightning speed due to diplomatic pressures, trade incentives, and other advantages to be accrued—they also assume a particular model of a free religious economy. Contemporary international religious freedom advocacy both presupposes and produces the neoliberal religious subject of the religious economies model: a rational, voluntary religious actor who seeks out the religious options that suit her best. This model of religious growth, associated with Laurence R. Iannaccone, Roger Finke, and Rodney Stark, is described in chapter 5 of the present volume by Courtney Bender, who writes,

Where state regulation is absent …, religious groups are free to organize as they wish and rise or fall based on their abilities to appeal to religious consumers.

Religious economies models borrow explicitly from the Chicago school of economics. So, in this model a rational, voluntary, religious actor will consistently seek out the religious option with the compensatory system that best suits her. Individual religious freedom is maximized in a religious marketplace where multiple firms exist. Competition has the effect of increasing religious vitality and fervor, rather than marking its decline, and creating an ongoing religious equilibrium.

Shaping actions and possibilities, advocacy for religious freedom and religious liberalization promote and protect forms of (religious) subjectivity that are particularly well suited to operate in a free market where the believer or nonbeliever can shop for, among other things, religion. The state’s job is to create the conditions for the emergence and flourishing of rational, tolerant, believing or nonbelieving consumers of free religion under law.

Mathijs Pelkmans has tracked the asymmetrical effects of religious liberalization on religious and nonreligious groups in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, where state-sponsored religious liberalization arrived in a package deal with the liberalization of the economy and the global “war on terror.” Everyone was bringing freedom. As Pelkmans shows, the combination of economic and religious liberalization and the securitization of Islam in the “war on terror” opened spaces for the flourishing of Christian (p.53) missions while closing them down for Muslim reformist movements. The market model created conditions that were favorable to Christian missions because “it is encased in an international discourse in which Islam (except for its ‘secular’ or ‘folk’ variants) is readily equated with radicalism and terrorism.” As a result, “sectarian” Protestant movements were classified as legitimate denominations while Muslim reformist movements were perceived as a threat to the government and suspected of links to terrorist organizations. Working in tandem with free market ideology and the strategic imperatives of the “war on terror,” religious liberalization in Kyrgyzstan sanctioned particular ways of being religious that were understood to be modern and free. In this model, individuals are free to choose their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) qua individuals, like shopping in the marketplace for goods. Particular inhabitations of what the authorities denominate as free, orthodox, and unthreatening religion are elevated and enabled while other ways of relating to community, place, and tradition are rendered unintelligible or even threatening. The failure or inability of certain religious groups to participate in this “free” religious market are cast as problems inherent to the groups themselves, as failures to “cast off religious peculiarities so that they can participate in the thriving religious commerce of modern democracies, and in real, ‘free’ religiosity,” as Bender argues in chapter 5 of the present volume.

Yet the transformation wrought by religious liberalization goes deeper. The marketization of religion incentivizes communities to define themselves according to particular understandings of what it is to be a religion. “Religions” begin to perceive themselves as they are portrayed in the religious economies discourse—as hidebound communities, static bodies of convention, and groups comprising individual believers. Boundaries are settled. Orthodoxy is established. Spokesmen are appointed. Distinct confessional identities are required to play this game: you can be this or that, but not both. As identities solidify, the ability to change and adapt is increasingly understood to be the exclusive purview of secular subjects and not religious ones. Those who are provisionally affiliated, those wishing to question or qualify their affiliation, those living with multiple affiliations, given or chosen, are left out in the cold—falling into the abyss created by the modern divide between the secular and the religious. The experiences and uncertainties that shape religious identification are squeezed into the either/or logic of confessional identity.

Some religions adapt more readily than others. Submission to a religious economies model incurs losses in human and religious diversity. In (p.54) the case of Kyrgyzstan, liberalization benefited religious groups such as evangelical Protestants that had not been active or were only minimally active in the country prior to the reforms. Yet these losses can be difficult to calculate because the transition into religious freedom is not understood as the imposition of an American, or even international norm, but rather as a transition into freedom itself, as Bender explains, “The free market allows—and in fact trains—religious groups to be free: to cast off the cultural and political baggage or problematic connections to political life. What we confront in both religious economies models and the narratives of their sociological critics is much less a theoretical frame of pluralism than a political doctrine of freedom.” Part of the strength and appeal of contemporary international religious freedom advocacy is drawn from its imbrication with this political doctrine of freedom. Religiously liberated subjects are not brought into a particular American or capitalist normative system. They are brought into freedom itself.


For Janet Jakobsen modernity is characterized by a “market-based sense of freedom” that, she notes, “is not the repression of activity, but it is the regulated enactment of activity along particular lines.” International religious freedom advocacy participates in a market-based religious economy by regulating the enactment of religious activity along particular lines. It shapes activities, actions, and desires. “Freedom” is achieved through the identification and selection of “religion or (non)belief” as an individualized object chosen in a religious marketplace. Inducing particular desires and practices, the promotion of religious freedom enables particular ways of being religious, and being human, while disabling others.

In its stronger forms, international religious freedom globalizes the secular state’s power over the individual. Appearing as a guarantee of the worth of the individual’s own desires, it tells individuals and groups how to be religious, modern, and free. In regulating religious activity along particular lines, it privileges particular ways of being religious as deserving protection by the state or other authorities. It singles out authorized representatives of “believers” (and less often, “nonbelievers”) for legal protection, reinforcing divisions and hierarchies within and between communities. It structures societies around religious markets that, though purportedly self-regulating, are shot through with political (p.55) and economic inequalities. In its more insistent moments, contemporary religious freedom advocacy is a story of the costs in human dignity and difference associated with the attempt to make conscience or belief the measure of what religion is understood to be, and the freedom to choose one’s belief the measure of what it means to be free. Aude Fauré was brought before the Inquisition at the beginning of this modern attempt at mind control. Today, as well, it is a global enterprise.

Selected Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Against Universals: The Dialects of (Women’s) Human Rights and Human Capabilities.” In Rethinking the Human, edited by J. Michelle Molina and Donald K. Swearer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Asad, Talal. “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert Orsi, 36–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Butler, Jon. “Disquieted History in a Secular Age.” In Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, 193–216. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Cavanaugh, William. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Cook, Suzan Johnson. “Religious Tolerance at Home and Abroad.” Panel presentation at the Seventh Annual Religion and Foreign Policy Summer Workshop, New York, June 25, 2013.

Evans, Malcolm. “Advancing Freedom of Religion or Belief: Agendas for Change.” Lambeth Inter Faith Lecture, Lambeth Palace, London, June 8, 2011.

Furey, Constance M. “Body, Society, and Subjectivity in Religious Studies.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80, no. 1 (March 2012): 7–33.

Jakobsen, Janet R. “Sex + Freedom = Regulation. Why?” Social Text 23, nos. 3–4 (2005): 285–308.

Keane, Webb. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. “Belief.” In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor, 21–35. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Luhrmann, T. M. “Belief is the Least Part of Faith.” New York Times, May 29, 2013. Accessed September 3, 2013 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/opinion/luhrmann-belief-is-the-least-part-of-faith.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.

Pelkmans, Mathijs. “Asymmetries on the ‘Religious Market’ in Kyrgyzstan.” In The Postsocialist Religious Question: Faith and Power in Central Asia and East-Central Europe, edited by Chris Hann, 29–46. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2006. (p.56)

———.“The ‘Transparency’ of Christian Proselytizing in Kyrgyzstan.” Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 2 (2009): 423–45.

UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). “Freedom of Religion or Belief—How the FCO Can Help Promote Respect for This Human Right.” June 2010. Accessed September 3, 2013 at http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/global-issues/human-rights/freedom-toolkit.

Chapter 5

The Power of Pluralist Thinking

Courtney Bender


Abstract and Keywords

This essay illustrates the politics of American religious pluralism in the half-century of US history. American religious sociologists have moved from an understanding of religious pluralism as having a secularizing effect tending to produce a common civic faith to an understanding of religious pluralism founded on a market model as vitalizing religion. Both understandings affirm and underwrite an American exceptionalism that regards the United States as uniquely free in matters of religion.

Keywords:   separation of church and statepluralismUnited Statesneoliberalismsecularismfree market model of religion

It is hard to remember, but religious pluralism meant something quite different fifty years ago. We have so shifted our collective understanding of it, and this transformation has been so naturalized, that we have little common conception that this shift even happened and much less sense of its consequences. To put it succinctly, in the 1950s and through the 1960s, sociologists argued that religious pluralism and secularization went hand in hand, contributing to the development of a modern, shared “secular” faith that could support and was indicative of religious freedom. But since the 1980s sociologists have argued that religious pluralism leads to the religious vitality of many lively religious groups. The new model, like the old one, argues that religious pluralism in the United States is brought about by, and likewise promotes, religious freedom. Both positions have thus contributed as much to our collective imagination of freedom as they have to theoretical understandings of the same.

In this short essay, I can do little more than note the divergent and shared theoretical logics underpinning sociological studies of religious pluralism over the last half century. They develop from two quite different understandings of religion, the former tied to classical sociological theories and the more recent to liberal theoretical concepts. The differences are important, and they have not yet been adequately discussed or considered by sociologists of religion. That said, both the new and the old models of religious pluralism share a view that religious pluralism, however it is defined, is good for American freedom and American democracy. Calling attention to the enduring power of positive, pluralist thinking as well as to the radically different narratives in which religious (p.67) pluralism and religious freedom have been linked helps us to consider both models anew. And as such, it might help open up new approaches to empirical studies of religion and new theoretical approaches to religion that might provide fresh theoretical and political leverage in engaging religious diversity and political opportunity both in the American context and in the international settings where the American model is held up as a gold standard of actually existing religious freedom.

This essay’s title resonates (intentionally) with that of Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale, a minister and psychologist, offered a version of self-help positive thinking strongly inflected with his Christian commitments. “Believe in yourself!” he began, encouraging his readers to maintain an optimistic outlook, and promising that those who could do so would experience a happier, healthier, and, perhaps, wealthier life. Despite the book’s explicit Christian frame, Peale intimated throughout that the “universal laws of attraction” were a “reality” for everyone. In other words, anyone—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish—could learn from his book.

Peale’s book was widely panned by reviewers, but the emphasis that it placed on individualized, spiritualized approaches to religion emerged as a prominent example in Will Herberg’s 1955 sociology classic Protestant—Catholic—Jew. Herberg argued that increasing interactions among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in suburban enclaves, in schools, and on the factory floor were shaping a new religious culture in the United States. Intermarriage rates were rising, and it appeared that the political and social salience of religious differences was on the wane. Religious identities still mattered, Herberg noted, but they were increasingly linked to private religious belief. Being privately (and nominally) religious was an important part of being a twentieth-century American: indeed, being a good citizen meant partaking in the religious pluralism of Protestant-Catholic-Jewish America where everyone had a religious identity but where religiosity itself was increasingly expressed in a cheery and psychologized private faith, and where the public faith was committed to the “American way of life.”

Herberg’s work was written within a “classical” secularization perspective, in which (as Émile Durkheim and Max Weber variably suggested) religious pluralism was both a sign and carrier of modern secularity. According to this frame, increasing social differentiation and the rationalization of authority within its various domains left religion and its institutions bereft of their earlier powers. And while the demotion (p.68) of state churches and their concomitant shrinking authority created opportunities for new religious sects to develop, all religions had increasingly limited social and political power. The existence of plural religions in nations once organized around state churches was thus both a sign of secularity (the absence of a state church or a single church’s hegemony) and also a social fact that hastened societies along their secularizing path.

American sociologists in the 1950s and ’60s used this narrative to explain changes they observed in American religious life. Both Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy (1967) and Robert Bellah’s essay “On Civil Religion” (1968) articulate a vision of American public life in which the public acceptance of multiple, private religious pursuits weakened strong and spirited sectarianism. The midcentury sociological narrative can be summarized as follows: religious pluralism, itself made possible by the demands of a secular government, is a sign of healthy democracy. The “religion” in this pluralism is primarily private choice, which becomes social as those private citizens unite around a “civil religion” in which respect for private belief is held up as an important aspect of civic belonging.

This midcentury understanding of the relationship between religious pluralism and religious freedom sounds archaic today, and its articulation of the freedom of private individuals celebrating in a shared public civil religion something akin to an interesting footnote. In contrast, the sociologists who study religious pluralism today make quite different claims about the relationships among religious freedom, pluralism, and democracy. This work has shifted the locus of attention from individual believers as carriers of “religious freedom” to religious groups; their competitive interactions come to define a quantifiable metric of religious freedom. This shift is significant for several reasons, not least of which is its implications for how sociologists identify the very “religion” that is free to support (American) democracy.

Why did sociologists of religion turn away from the models that had been so powerful in the 1950s and ’60s? There are many reasons, of course, including theories falling out of fashion in the academy and the desires of a new generation of scholars to make their mark. But all of that aside, the usual answer that sociologists give is that religion changed in America: what had been private became public; Evangelicals became mobilized out of their pietistic torpor; immigration brought “new religions” to the United States; identity politics and social movements found resources in religious organizations to make political claims. Given the benefit of hindsight, many scholars now find the story of radical religious and social (p.69) upheaval in the 1960s and ’70s to be an incomplete or misleading explanation. But, that said, sociologists working in this era often claimed to observe “religion” working in ways that they had not predicted, and in ways that demanded theoretical rethinking.

Of the many alternatives proposed, the “religious economies” model rose to the fore as one of the strongest alternatives. Such a model, promoted by Rodney Stark, Roger Finke, and others focused particularly on the question of the plurality of religions and its effects on religious participation. In a marked turn from the earlier generation, this model’s proponents argued that religious plurality and vibrancy is a natural consequence of limited or absent state regulation of religion. In the United States, therefore, religious vibrancy can be explained as the outcome of a free religious market, one made possible by (or perhaps better put, revealed within) the separation of church and state. Where state regulation is absent—and in explicit contrast to what they understand as the “European” situation of national churches—religious groups are free to organize as they wish and rise or fall based on their abilities to appeal to religious consumers.

The religious economies model borrows explicitly from the Chicago School of economics; in this model, a rational, voluntary, religious actor will consistently seek out the religious option with the compensatory system that best suits her. Individual religious freedom is maximized in a religious marketplace where multiple firms exist. Competition has the effect of increasing religious vitality, religious options, and religious fervor rather than marking their decline. Thus, as the argument goes, a plurality of Protestants—Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, and even Mormons—vie for members. Over time, the losing firms are those who can’t attract or hold members, and the ultimate winners are all those people who can maximize their religious potentials in a firm of their choosing. Normatively speaking, the religious economies model presumes that the best religious market—that is, the one that is best able to allow “freedom of religion” to thrive—is one in which choices are maximized: state monopolies not only limit options but also contribute to declines in religious participation. As we can see, this model not only argues that competition increases participation; it also builds this understanding on an implied vision of modern humans as having some form of religious interests that exist freely.

There is a clear contrast between the religious economies model’s basic concept of religious pluralism and that of the earlier generation of (p.70) sociologists. In some respects, the model takes a much narrower view of religious pluralism altogether. Initially, sociologists’ arguments and models were based on competition among Protestants (a Protestant pluralism)—a much more exclusive and less “diverse” pluralism than the midcentury sociologists’ invocations of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. As many sociological critics have pointed out, the religious economies model has often found it challenging to include data (often membership data) from religious groups that do not conform to a specific Protestant model of voluntary adult membership. And as others in history and religious studies have noted—insofar as Jews, Catholics, Native Americans, antebellum slaves, and others are uneasy fits—the religious economies model has quite explicitly advanced a theological norm within itself. Specifically, free-church Protestantism is the norm against which all other religious groups are measured as capable of being free and capable of forming the kind of religious actors who can defend “religious freedom.”

The implications of these stories and their rather explicit celebration of particular kinds of religious “winners” are likely clear to many. We can, for example, consider the effects of the “illusion of the free market,” the subject of Bernard Harcourt’s recent genealogical critique of free market economics. As Harcourt argues, the concept of the naturally regulating, universal free market recurs in multiple generations of free market economic thought. Where the market is conceptualized as naturally existing, regulation becomes an enemy: the state’s meddling poses a threat to the naturally developing and self-regulating equilibrium. But this is not all, of course, for, as Harcourt notes, the self-regulating free market is also threatened by those economic actors who are not able to self-regulate—those who are not free and rational. Whether such actors refuse to act as proper self-regulating economic actors or whether they cannot do so, they become understood as unnatural actors that interrupt the natural freedom of the market. Even as regulation threatens market equilibrium, it nonetheless plays an important role in policing and regulating those actors who also threaten its freedom. Harcourt argues, in short, that one of the effects of the logic of the free market is to designate those economic actors who are free of the need for regulation and those who are not so free, thus providing impetus for their regulation and surveillance (and perhaps reform and rehabilitation) by the state.

We can take an analogical step to consider how Harcourt’s observation may relate to the current sociological understanding of the free market (p.71) religion. The religious economies model views the failures of various religious groups to participate in the market as problems inherent in the groups themselves—failures, for example, to cast off religious peculiarities so that they can participate in the thriving religious commerce of modern democracies and in real, “free” religiosity. The model rarely if ever points to problems that might be inherent in the market itself: that it might not be as free as imagined, or that it might in fact be regulated or regulating.

Numerous sociologists have pointed out the limitations of the religious economies model; they have roundly challenged the robustness of its principal methods, data, and interpretations, noting that these elements have been found wanting on numerous occasions (for a review, see Mark Chaves and Philip Gorski 2001). Yet despite decades of critique, the basic premise of the religious economies argument—in particular, its emphasis on the free market of religion—persists in public discourse. It finds its way into policy discussions about religious freedom in the United States and abroad. In that respect, we can say that none of the challenges to this model have stuck. One has to wonder, why not? One reason, I believe, is that even the staunchest sociological critics of the religious economies model share its basic premise—namely, that a plurality of religious groups is needed to indicate a thriving religious freedom, and that the American example presents a clear case of actually free religion. While this premise is explicitly articulated in the religious economies model, it is also embedded in almost every recent sociological analysis of religious pluralism.

To take one prominent example, sociologist Nancy Ammerman explains in Pillars of Faith that expanding religious pluralism in the United States, increasingly inclusive of non-Christian groups, has been supported by an American civil public sphere wherein religions exist “without state authorities to enforce orthodoxy” and “without state regulation or state support.” Striking a tone similar to that of the religious economies model she critiques, she observes that in the history of the United States each religious group’s “attempt to create a more nearly perfect spiritual community was free to find its own fertile soil or perish.” Whether a religious group flourishes or perishes is, therefore, up to the actors themselves. If they accept the system “nurtured in the pragmatic and pluralist democracy of the United States” they will flourish. And to those “non-Protestant traditions that have complained that they have been ‘Protestantized’ as they have accommodated to American culture,” (p.72) she answers that “whatever else [Protestantization] has meant, they are right that they have been pushed to adopt a basic commitment to live peacefully alongside religious others.”

Ammerman and other sociologists critical of the religious economies model draw on organizational and cultural approaches that have been used in other contexts to investigate how implicit and explicit norms, regulations, and interactions shape social domains and enforce conformity. Scholars of religious organizations using these approaches have thus focused on the effects that regulations, enduring cultural norms, and interests in professionalization have on “new” entrants to the United States. For example, they note that Hindu groups building temples in the United States incorporate as nonprofit corporations, thus developing governance structures for religious communities that are quite distinct from historical patterns in India. Or they note how Muslim groups are actively working to develop “chaplains” and other leaders in their communities that expand beyond the roles of teachers and imams—in part to conform to changing expectations among American Muslims of what religious leadership entails and in part to expand sites of professional “interfaith” interactions in local and national contexts. Others have argued that American religious organizational structure promotes a “de facto congregationalism” that encourages all religious groups to identify adherents and members as voluntary participants in shared religious collectivities.

These approaches call attention to the ways that norms and regulations shape and refigure religions that may be new to the United States (for example, Hinduism and Islam) so that they map more comfortably onto an American religious grid. They therefore also have the potential to call attention to the exclusionary effects, regulatory pressures, and bureaucratic and legal complications that explicit and implicit norms pose for many religious groups. But sociologists employing these models have rarely focused on these issues. As we see, they prefer to explain how the transformations that religious groups experience work to make each new religious entrant a more spiritual, perfect, and free practitioner of their own religions. As these new entrants confront American norms of freedom, they become more free and likewise more “tolerant” of others.

In other words, these arguments presume that “religion” comes into its own in America, in all of the nation’s manifest plurality. Insofar as religious groups willingly submit to freedom, they certainly change. But in this view transformation is not to an “American” norm with its (p.73) own limits and favorites but rather into the norm of religious freedom itself. The free market allows—and in fact trains—religious groups to be free: to cast off the cultural and political baggage or problematic connections to political life. What we confront in both the religious economies model and the narratives of its sociological critics is much less a theoretical frame of pluralism than a political doctrine of freedom. In this oddly contradictory explanatory narrative, sociologists can recognize both that the American public sphere is not neutral toward religion and that this nonneutrality has the effect of making all religions “more free.”

Two issues are worth pondering at greater length than this short essay will allow. First, we can consider the political consequences of our current concept of religious freedom. American public discourse about religion has abandoned an earlier vision of religious pluralism that focused on the plurality of private individual faith that united under a shared rubric of commitments to religious tolerance and religious freedom. As even Herberg and Bellah worried, a shared if thin common faith might falter, or it might in the wrong hands be transformed into religious nationalism. Against these troubling possibilities Americans currently identify a religious pluralism that is “strong,” “robust,” and—to be more precise—distinctive. But the pluralities of religious groups must demonstrate that they are different from each other, even as they must demonstrate that they are free from demands that might restrict their flourishing in this plural public sphere.

Except—as Harcourt’s examples remind us—this freedom is an illusion. Having the midcentury sociological assessments of religious pluralism in view helps us to see more clearly the current illusions that guide research—for example, how sociological studies of religion have continued to reinforce the cultural logics of “actually existing” religious freedom in American political culture and how such studies seek out new immigrant groups that succeed at being free. Our positive pluralist thinking continues, even if the terms of that pluralism have changed: much as the “positive thinking” espoused by Norman Vincent Peale hid the mechanics of social institutions that shape human lives and their many contingencies, contemporary pluralist thinking hides the mechanisms through which we recognize religions as free or many, or why we even find these tallies and their evaluations useful or necessary.

Second, with these two contrasting theories of pluralism in view we can see more clearly how they share a deeper theoretical understanding (p.74) of religion. Indeed, even though the new sociologies of religion and market models claim to have successfully offered an alternative theory to classical secularization theories, they have redoubled their theoretical commitment to an understanding of religion as institutionally differentiated from other social domains. Current public and political rhetorics of religious pluralism depend upon evidence of religion’s multiplicity and its differentiation from other parts of social life. Indeed, it is only through plural differentiation that religion is free—it is only a secular state that separates “church” from other political, economic, educational, and cultural concerns that allows real religion to flourish.

This vision, in turn, returns to a concept of religion and the religious person as awaiting freedom: oppressed by social situations where politics, religion, and economics are durably entwined, the only possible future is for a politics of differentiation—one that is, in the United States, perpetually reproduced in interfaith pageants and other public rituals. To my ears, the sociological logics of secularization and their emphasis on social differentiation have become revived and reread through the religious imaginaries of liberal political theory, including the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. If this is the political tradition that currently hovers over sociology of religion (as I have argued in a recent essay), then it is time to consider these arguments directly, and at length, in order to untangle once more how religious freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom are tacitly or explicitly linked in recent research.

In doing so we would begin to seriously reconsider what it means to identify and research American religion—modern “secular” religion—as not ever “free” of its connections to politics or the economy. What would a sociology of modern religious life look like if it did not begin with the expectation or the view that social differentiation frees religion, politics, and economics from each other in the way that we have so frequently claimed? What if we would begin, for example, with Karl Marx’s wry observations in “On the Jewish Question” that the privatization of religious identity in the American context does not mean that religious identity ceases to matter politically? Just as the act of privatizing property does not transform property into something of no interest to the state, he notes, so the privatization of religion does not make it free to be left to its own devices. While “man emancipates himself politically from religion by banishing it from the sphere of public law to that of private law,” Marx writes, then “religion is no longer the spirit of the state. … (p.75) Religion has become the spirit of civil society, of the sphere of egoism, of bellum omnium contra omnes.” What would our sociology look like if we looked closely at the ways that the privatization of religion, much like the privatization of property, becomes a site of new capacities for social and political distinction and regulation?

To sum up, the power of the pluralist thinking that currently holds sway in sociology—and in other parts of the social sciences as well—is both old and new. In the 1950s and ’60s, sociologists viewed religious pluralism as contributing to the declining role of religious interests within the secular state, which could support private individual consciences along with a public iteration of religious toleration. At present, sociologists identify religious pluralism as the continued vitality of competing religious groups within the secular state. The plurality of groups (rather than a plurality of individuals with their own consciences) stands as the current sociological marker of thriving religious freedom.

The underlying shift, as many have noted, has fashioned free religion along the logic of the free market economy. Religious actors, like economic actors, pursue natural or inherent interests that will regulate the market (or civil society) in a balanced way, so long as regulation is minimized. State regulation of religion is consistently understood to undermine these pursuits—except insofar as regulation keeps inappropriately unfree actors from participating. We can also see that regulation appears to have a positive, recuperative role at times insofar as regulation might train religious groups and individuals how to be free versions of themselves.

While this market model of religious freedom and religious pluralism is “new,” it nonetheless shares with the older version a conception of modern society as secular and differentiated. These concepts of secularity are shared in different ways by liberal political theorists and classical sociological theorists—traditions often viewed as oppositional, yet from this vantage point clearly linked in their modern visions of orderly, secular societies. Insofar as sociologists of religion today may be said to share more with liberal theorists’ conceptions of natural and free religion than they admit, we find an opportunity to rethink, in a new way, how powerful the logics of social differentiation have been for our modern polities.

Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if sociologists of religion who encountered the “resurgence” of religion in the 1970s had turned their attention to the limits of the logics of social differentiation. How would sociologists today understand religious freedom, and (p.76) how would we talk about plurality, if their attacks on earlier models had gone to the heart of secularization theory? More to the point, what might a sociology of religion look like now were we to really take this challenge seriously? Recent work, including Prema Kurien’s incisive readings of American politics and Hinduism, Henry Goldschmidt’s efforts to rethink religious and racial conflict in urban contact zones, and interdisciplinary conversations among legal scholars, sociologists and historians, such as those in the edited collections After Secular Law and After Pluralism, offer alternatives that either reject the terms implied by the so-called self-evidence of religion’s plurality and differentiation, and call attention to the value of such claims within specific political and legal systems. As captivating and strong as this growing body of work is, I nevertheless hazard to guess that it will take more than one generation to shed the power that positive pluralist thinking holds over us. But if we do so, we might be in a better position to speak about the consequences of the legacies of these magical and enduring concepts.

Selected Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Ammerman, Nancy. Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96 (1967): 1–21.

Bender, Courtney. “Pluralism and Secularism.” In Religion on the Edge: Decentering and Recentering the Sociology of Religion, edited by Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt, and David Smilde, 137–58. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Bender, Courtney, and Pamela Klassen, editors. After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Chaves, Mark, and Philip Gorski. “Religious Pluralism and Religious Participation.” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 261–81.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Goldschmidt, Henry. Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Harcourt, Bernard. The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Herberg, Will. Protestant—Catholic—Jew. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. (p.77)

Kurien, Prema. A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Marx, Karl. “On the Jewish Question.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 26–52. New York: Norton, 1972.

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, Robert A. Yelle, and Matteo Taussig-Rubbo, eds. After Secular Law. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.

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