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Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad

Religion has always been central to American self-understanding. But there is today and there always has been a difference in the United States between the domestic version of religion and religious freedom and the versions offered for export. This difference is not merely the result of different contexts, but rather, of the fact that the two are different faces of a distinctive understanding of religion that is internal to American religious self-identity.

As with other aspects of American exceptionalism, religion—American style—has a curious inside/outside dynamic based in assumptions about ourselves and the other which contributes to its stability across many different constituencies, left, right, and center. That dynamic is enabled by a productive hierarchical ambiguity about what counts as “religion” at home and abroad, helping to maintain the gulf many Americans experience between themselves and others. Religion at home is assumed to be both tamed and free in a way not yet achieved by religion elsewhere.

Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad was a three-year research project (2016-2019) funded by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. It examined the particular complex of religion, law, and politics at the dynamic pivot between the domestic and the foreign in a time when the political role of religion is under renewed scrutiny and the nature and the role of the nation-state is under revision. The project aimed to better understand the phenomenology of this hybrid political/legal/religious space and the symbiotic relation between US domestic and foreign policy, past and present, with regard to religion and religious governance.

The first of three phases of the project sought to specify with more precision exactly how this productive ambiguity about what counts as “religion” at home and abroad works. The second phase sought to open up the project to the theological dimensions of U.S. exceptionalism. The third phase examined the implications of the inside/outside framework for jurisdictions beyond the United States. The project organizers have published two volumes as well as the ongoing expansion and development of the Teaching Law and Religion Case Study Archive.

The project included a research program as well as pedagogical and public outreach elements. Networking and career development opportunities for younger scholars and advanced graduate students were prioritized, and graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow were closely engaged in project activities.


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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Northwestern, is a specialist in the study of religion, politics, and governance in US foreign policy and international relations. Her first book, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, won the 2011 American Political Science Association Hubert Morken Award for the best publication in religion and politics (2008-2010). Her most recent book is Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, is a specialist in the study of religion, law, and religious freedom as a matter of US domestic law and policy. The most recent of her four single-authored books, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care and the Law, won the 2015 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Analytical-Descriptive Studies.

The principal investigators have worked together previously as part of a team to study the contemporary politics of religious freedom supported by Luce. This project picks up on unexplored themes that emerged in the course of Hurd and Sullivan’s collaborative work on the Politics of Religious Freedom project. The inside/outside question has arisen with increasing frequency over the past few years, in the US and elsewhere, signaling important directions for future research.


The “At Home and Abroad” project was funded by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. The Initiative aims to provide intellectual leadership, develop new paradigms for research and teaching, create new resources and networks, and enhance public understanding of and discussion about religion in the international sphere. The Initiative supports projects that draw on scholarly expertise to foster and disseminate more nuanced, contextualized and dynamic understandings of religion in global public life, politics, and policy.

The “At Home and Abroad” also received support from the Buffett Faculty Research Group on Global Politics and Religion and the Indiana University Foundation.