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Religion in World Politics


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

Introduction to Globalization and Transnational Politics and any 200 level course in the Transnational Politics track.

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


It is difficult to draw clear and consistent lines between religious and political activity in premodern societies. Religion was a focus of social and political unity, and forms of worship were as much public and political as personal. The nature and purpose of political authority was understood within all-encompassing religious accounts of cosmic and natural order, within which kings and priests had their own proper roles to play. Modernity fundamentally disrupted these politico-religious orders wherever it took root, transforming both their political and religious poles. One theory about this process maintained that the political realm would outgrow and achieve complete independence from religious values and norms, and religion would wither in public and even personal relevance. The continuing social significance of religion in many parts of the world, together with a series of assertive political mobilisations apparently centred on religion, have cast doubt on these expectations. Modernity has instead generated a fractured and contested terrain in which religious and political projects are only partly separated, the proper relationship between religious and political authority is often highly contested, and religious worldviews exist alongside and compete with other ideological options.

This course examines this contested terrain in number of important political contexts around the world. We will ask what role religion plays in political life, how religious traditions are drawn on to interpret politics and construct political agendas, and how religion is interpreted and engaged with by other political actors. We will discuss what is distinctive about the forms of religious politics and the politico-religious orders we find in the twentieth century, thinking especially about how the transition to modernity in each context affected religious forms and their relation to politics. Past case studies have included the United States, Europe, Nigeria, India, and China.

This course builds on themes introduced in the 200-level course Political Islam in the Middle East; you will find Religion in World Politics easier if you have already taken Political Islam, and we won’t be focusing directly on the Middle East or Islam on this course.

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 2023-2024 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%

  • Briefing paper: 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,