Religious freedom frequently appears in journalism, scholarship, and policy as an antidote to the ills of violence and political strife, but unreflective celebration of religious freedom as a universal principle and emancipatory ideal overlooks the contextually determined, often coercive, qualities of religious liberty discourse. Presidents, lobbyists, think tanks, and religious leaders all deploy the language of religious freedom in pursuit of their objectives, but their conflicting interpretations make it difficult to figure out where one person’s freedom infringes on another’s right to exist. Religious studies scholarship is hardly immune to these definitional problems, and scholars of religion have no better handle than any other stakeholders on how to “do religious freedom right.” However, scholarship on religion and politics can become more precise by rejecting simplistic claims about religious freedom as something that nations have or lack and instead focusing on the historically contingent, always localized, situations in which disputes about what counts as religion arise. In so doing, scholars of religion may not provide satisfactory answers to the normative question of how to free religion once and for all, but they can do a better job of describing who gets to define the operative terms, and with what effects.
Keywords: religious freedom, geopolitics, human rights, religious studies, tolerance, public scholarship