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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What's Wrong with the New Genealogy of Religious Freedom?


On November 2, 2017 in a luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center, Professor David Decosimo from Boston University spoke on the New Genealogy of Religious Freedom (NGRF), challenging its assumptions and offering a constructive illustration of what religious freedom can look like.

Decosimo outlined the New Genealogy of Religious Freedom’s critique of religious freedom itself.  The NGRF states that religious freedom is unstable, impossible, and systematically biased against religions that are not compatible with liberal Protestantism.  It further argues that religious freedom is employed as a tool of oppression and neo-colonialism, and it generates new forms of religious prejudice, thus facilitating hegemony of powerful geopolitical actors.

Decosimo explained the main currents of NGRF’s critique of religious freedom, namely that religious freedom is inherently dominative, and this domination limits freedom and perpetuates a destructive system of power, and the dangerous power of dominant countries.  While NGRF has criticized religious freedom as being destructive of human freedom and a tool of control for the state and secular power, Decosimo’s evaluation of religious freedom highlights how understanding the ideals of religious freedom can be constructive in realizing more ideal societies.

Decosimo’s approach to religious freedom incorporates freedom as non-domination in conjunction with an understanding that not all power asymmetries need to be oppressive.  In order to move forward with a comprehensive understanding of religious freedom, Decosimo argues that we must reject the assumptions that are implicit in the NGRF, in order to see religious freedom as a constructive process that creates a dialectical and democratic vision of freedom.  This becomes possible when we reject a foundationalist understanding of religious freedom that creates religious homogeneity in political society.

During a discussing following his talk, Decosimo engaged with questions of historical genealogies of religious freedom, arguing that although these histories often reveal darkness and domination, examining them honestly will reveal possibilities for future civic friendship and even love.