A Q&A with Faculty Fellow Daniel Philpott

Author: Josh Stowe

Daniel Philpott 2

Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and a faculty fellow of the Ansari Institute, is the recipient of the 2021 Religion and International Studies Distinguished Scholar Award.

The honor, given by the Religion and International Section of the International Studies Association, recognizes his pioneering contributions over 25 years as one of the earliest scholars of the “religious turn” in the study of international relations.

In this conversation, Philpott explores the topics that have animated his scholarship, including reconciliation, democratization, and religious freedom, as well as his international activist work on faith-based reconciliation.

Q: Talk a bit about your work, and some of the key themes you have explored in your scholarship and teaching.

Religion made a difference, and that is what interests me—how religious people, reaching into the depths of their traditions, retrieve ways of thinking and acting that can bring hope and make a difference.

A: I am obsessed with how religion relates to politics! For many years, my interest has focused on reconciliation—how societies confront the question of justice in the aftermath of the massive injustices left behind by wars and dictatorships. What I've noticed is that the religious leaders in these settings thought differently about justice than officials and politicians who thought in the terms of the official global community—the United Nations and the like. For them, reconciliation was the focus and it meant repairing a wide range of wounds through a wide range of practices of repair—acknowledgment, apology, forgiveness, and repentance. So religion made a difference, and that is what interests me—how religious people, reaching into the depths of their traditions, retrieve ways of thinking and acting that can bring hope and make a difference in modern nation-states, which are secular in their basic orientation.

Religion also made a difference in the past generation's wave of democratization. In 48 out of 78 cases, religious leaders or communities were involved in bringing down dictatorships. Some of the most famous cases are John Paul II challenging the Communist dictatorship in Poland, the Catholic Church in “The Revolution of Dignity” in Maidan Square in Ukraine, and Muslim democrats coursing through the streets of Jakarta to bring down the dictatorship of Suharto in 1998. I studied this along with my co-authors, Monica Duffy Toft and Timothy Samuel Shah, in our 2011 book, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics

More recently, I turned to religious freedom in my book, Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today. I confronted the Islam Question, debated hotly in the West, whether Islam is inherently prone to violence and intolerance or is essentially a peaceful religion but with some violent actors, like most religions. I posed religious freedom as the criterion—a human right found in the major international conventions. I found evidence for both sides but sought to stress the hopeful side, that is, potential for increasing religious freedom for Muslims and in the Muslim world. I discovered, for instance, that 11 out of 47 Muslim-majority countries have religious freedom. And I identified seven “seeds of freedom,” which are concepts or historical episodes that contain the potential for expanding freedom in the Muslim world.

A: You are considered a member of the first generation of scholars of the “religious turn” in international relations. Talk about this turn and its significance for the field.

A: Well into the 1990s, political science, like most social sciences, was dominated by the thinking of the secularization thesis, holding that religion was an irrational atavism that was headed for extinction and, where it still existed, likely to be the source of violence and instability. A few pioneers were beginning to notice what I and my coauthors in God’s Century called the resurgence of religion in global politics, a global rise in the political influence of religion—every religion, in every region of the world—beginning in the mid 1960s or so. Mark Juergensmeyer, Jose Casanova, Scott Appleby, Martin Marty, David Little, Jonathan Fox, and, most famously, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, were among the early voices. Once the attacks of September 11th, 2001 took place, there could be little doubt that religion mattered, though the burden of showing that it could be peaceful and just remained intact.

From that moment, a new strand of scholarship started to burgeon in political science—religion and global politics. Foundations awarded grants and universities sponsored series of lectures on this, and the 2000s were a boom decade for the topic. Graduate students started writing dissertations on religion and politics and received support from senior scholars in the field, which was crucial. Today, there is a vibrant subfield, sections of professional associations devoted to the topic, and so forth. I still think, though, that when viewed against the headlines, too little scholarship on religion and global politics is being conducted. The subfield is dwarfed by international security and political economy. Still, it's encouraging to have witnessed its growth and to be a part of it. 

A: Your award nomination noted that you have “challenged the hegemony of rational choice theory in the political science discipline, which undermines ideas as mere epiphenomenal factors.” Can you explain the significance of this?

A: Rational choice theory is a way of studying politics that looks at political behavior using economic models. It assumes that actors have fixed ends, usually material ones such as increasing wealth or power, and then explains their behavior according to the incentive structure posed by the surrounding environment. There is nothing intrinsically unsound about such approaches and they ought to be given their chance to explain social reality.

My own approach, though, explains political action through human purposes. One must understand the purposes and ends that humans pursue when they act and the deepest commitments through which they understand the world. Only then can an adequate explanation be found.

I challenged the dominant explanations in political science and sociology, which were predominantly materialist.

Whether my approach or a rational choice theory best explains important outcomes in politics is ultimately an empirical question—which better explains the evidence? In my first book, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations, I sought to explain the origins and development of the sovereign states system. How did the world come to be divided up into territorial entities bounded by borders, as virtually the entire land surface of the globe is today? To explain this, I argued, one must appeal to “revolutions in ideas” that changed people's purposes in politics. The first of these revolutions was the Protestant Reformation, the second, the rise of nationalist ideas in the early to mid-twentieth century. I argued that the rise and expansion of the sovereign states system could not be explained as the outcome of “material” forces alone—economic change, the rise of new technologies, the growth of war-fighting capabilities, changes in the global balance of power, and the like. I thus challenged the dominant explanations in political science and sociology, which were predominantly materialist.

Q: In addition to your research and teaching, you’ve worked extensively with religious leaders around the world on peace and reconciliation. How has this on-the-ground activism complemented and influenced your scholarly work?

A: I’ve done a fair bit of activist work in “faith-based reconciliation.” I first came to this in summer 1996, when I alighted in Santa Barbara, California to take up my first job as assistant professor at the University of California. In my initial weeks there, I met an Episcopal pastor, Brian Cox, who traveled the globe to hotspots trying to forge reconciliation among political and religious leaders. He invited me to travel with him to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had seen terrible war quite recently. We met with religious and political leaders. The experience was one of those life-defining ones; there was something that grabbed me about the work that led me to believe that this was what I was supposed to do.

These experiences shaped my writing and thinking, both about reconciliation and about politics in general. I grew in my hope and confidence for the good that people can do in the wake of conflict and violence.

Between 2000 and 2006, I traveled regularly to the region of Kashmir, the land that India and Pakistan dispute, with Brian Cox to conduct faith-based reconciliation in civil society among communities that had been warring with one another going back to the late 1940s. We worked under the auspices of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. From 2009 to 2014, I traveled to the Great Lakes Region of Africa—Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda—where I worked with leaders in the Catholic Church to discover how the Church could be a force for reconciliation in countries riven by war. That was under the umbrella of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network.

These experiences shaped my writing and thinking, both about reconciliation and about politics in general. Many people think that when you go from the academy to the real world you get chastened and educated in the school of hard knocks. For me, though, I actually grew in my hope and confidence for the good that people can do in the wake of conflict and violence. I saw people forgive, repent, heal, and reconcile, and this in the aftermath of some of the darkest experiences imaginable. It gave me more first-hand confidence in the operation of grace.