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Religion in World Politics


Admission requirements

Required courses:

  • Introduction to Globalization and Transnational Politics and any 200-level course in the Transnational Politics track of the World Politics Major.

It is recommended that students take Political Islam in the Middle East as a preparation for this course.


Religion has become an increasingly important and controversial issue in world politics over the past forty years. There are still a few analysts who believe the events that put religion back on to the public agenda – events such as the Iranian Revolution, the rise of the Christian Right, and 9/11 – were the death throes of premodern survivals that are destined to disappear as their societies mature and develop. To many others, this view has come to seem implausible. Religion remains socially strong in many parts of the world, and continues to play and important roles in political life. What those roles are, what explains them, and what impact they have: these are far more contested questions. They’ve not only been at the centre of academic disputes about how to understand the new visibility of religion, but also public debates about what place and role religion ought to have in contemporary societies.

This course will not provide decisive answers; it aims instead to deepen students’ understanding of the events and ideas that inform these debates; to encourage students to think critically about the most influential answers that have been offered; and to provide students with resources for developing their own answers in more nuanced and sophisticated ways.

The course begins by examining a number of key analytical frameworks that have been especially in influential in debates about religion in political life. Each of these approaches offers a different account of how religion is related to political action, drawing our attention to particular aspects of religious politics and suggesting certain questions we might ask to understand its particular forms. We’ll use them as a starting point for analyzing some of the most contested issues associated with the new political visibility of religion, asking what they illuminate and what they obscure. The course explores what forms religious politics is taking in the contemporary world, and how they interact with the ‘world-building powers’ of modernity: the capitalist economy, the nation-state, and the modern ideologies of secularism and nationalism. Issues covered vary from year to year, but include topics such as fundamentalism, communalism, spirituality, religious freedom, as well as the relationship between religious politics and violence, democracy, national and regional identity, and globalization. Throughout the course, we will draw on examples and cases that illustrate more general themes or have intrinsic interest in the context of contemporary concerns.

This course builds on themes introduced in the 200-level course Political Islam in the Middle East; you will find this course easier if you have already taken Political Islam.

Course Objectives


  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of competing analytical approaches to the study of religion in world politics.

  • Describe the major positions in key debates about religion and contemporary political life.

  • Understand the most important issues raised by the case studies covered.

  • Demonstrate understanding of the complexity and diversity of religious politics around the world.


  • Apply conceptual and theoretical tools to analyse the role religion plays in world politics.

  • Relate empirical cases to broader conceptual and theoretical debates about religion in world politics.

  • Think critically about existing theories and narratives of religion in political life.

  • Communicate arguments effectively, orally and in writing.

  • Develop the capacity to learn independently.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2021-2022 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course is taught through two-hour seminars. Students will be expected to participate in both large and small group discussions; present and defend their ideas within an academic setting; and take part in group projects. The instructor will facilitate and ensure the efficient running of the discussion, but students are responsible for shaping its direction. Each seminar has a ‘required reading’ list that must be read in advance of each seminar. Students are also recommended to read some of the items listed under ‘suggested reading’ prior to each seminar and use the extended list as a starting point in their preparation for essay writing.

Assessment Method

  • Seminar participation: 15%

  • Group presentations: 15%

  • Book review: 30%

  • Individual research essay: 40%

Reading list

There is no core text. Recommended texts indicative of the course content include:

  • Ted G. Jelen and Clyde Wilcox (eds.), Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).

  • Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

  • Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah, God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: Norton, 2011).

  • Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007).


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Edmund Frettingham,