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The Political Origins of Religious Liberty.

The Political Origins of Religious Liberty. By Anthony Gill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 263 pp. $23.99.

This complex and carefully argued work, by a political scientist at the University of Washington adopts a novel empirical approach to the origins of religious liberty in the modern world. Rather than explaining it in ideational terms--the emergence of liberal ideas in early modern Europe, courageous stands by dissident religious groups, the influence of Enlightenment thinking, and the progress of secularization--as many writers generally do, Gill insists that it results from interest-based calculations of secular rulers. Political leaders are most likely to permit religious freedom when it enhances their own political survival, tax revenue, and the economic welfare of their country. He supports this argument b incorporating historical description into a deductive theoretical framework, or what he labels analytical narrative, and explores the emergence of religious liberty over time. Human agency and rational choice theory are crucial to this process.

His thesis that interests played a more critical role in securing the legislation that unburdened religious groups from onerous state regulations than ideas or culture per se, makes religious liberty basically a state matter. Leaders of a dominant religion in a society prefer a regulatory regime that discriminates against religious minorities, whereas the religious minorities favor a system that allows them to practice their faith openly, including owning property and access to the media, and to proselytize. Gill provides three case studies--colonial British America, Mexico and Latin America, and Russia and the Baltic States--that illustrate the identifiable and significant changes that occurred over time and test his general theory regarding the origins of religious liberty.

In a theoretical chapter Gill sets forth three definitions--religious firm, religious marketplace, and religious liberty; five axioms--religious preferences in society are pluralistic, proselytizing religious firms are market-share maximizers, politicians are primarily interested in political survival, politicians seek to maximize government revenue as well as promote economic growth and minimize civil unrest, and politicians seek to minimize the cost of ruling; and five propositions drawn from these definitions and axioms that are neatly summarized. He acknowledges that not all rational choice theorists are materialists and that ideas do matter in some cases, but he insists that external forces affect our ideas and preferences.

Gill demonstrates in all three case studies that economic and political factors led to the expansion of religious liberty. Pluralism in the colonies forced the British to adopt a policy of religious freedom while in the new republic religious groups worked to protect their "market share" by seeking legislation to make it more difficult for "foreign" faiths (like Catholicism) to proliferate. In Latin America (his specialty region) religious freedom came more slowly and political freedom was crucial to its emergence. In Russia and the Baltic states the hegemonic churches were able to regain much of their power after the end of communism, but in the latter a more diverse religious marketplace developed.

This complex study challenges our traditional ideational approach to religious liberty, and the author's arguments need to be taken seriously even if they appear at times to be overdrawn. There are a few minor errors: Prince Vladimir was not the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, and occasionally titles were omitted from the bibliography. I do take issue with the contention that a strong wall of separation between church and state is not commensurate to religious liberty and privileges secularism. Actually, it is precisely this that makes our freedom in America possible, and the efforts of modern-day politicians (abetted by their religious allies) to tear down that wall ought to be a matter of grave concern to every thoughtful person of faith.



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Author:Pierard, Richard V.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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