Scholars get religion

More academics are starting to see the 'religion factor' as key to understanding forces in economics, politics, and society

When it comes to academic scholarship, blue sky and dollars are often the only limits on research.

But Luis Lugo discovered another obstacle early in his scholarly career. All it took was for the doctoral candidate in political science to suggest a project that would delve deeply into religion.

The response, at best, was cool. "In my own discipline, political science, the Emily Post rule applied," recalls Dr. Lugo, who took his PhD at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. "Religion was simply not something one discussed in polite company."

Lugo, who persevered and went on to examine religion's impact on early United States foreign policy, chuckles about the incident. But that's not the only thing that makes him smile. In the years since he started his studies, US higher education has done a sharp about-face. American scholarship, Lugo says, has gotten religion.

The ivory tower has gone from keeping a rigid distance between religion and social-science scholarship to a still-modest, but growing, embrace of it, says Lugo, director of the religion program at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.

He's not alone in his assessment of the shift. "Since the early 1990s, there has been a broad increase in the amount of interest in religion in the academy as a research topic," says Kathleen Mahoney, coauthor of a forthcoming book on religion's role within higher education. "We are seeing religion-and-fill-in-the-blank research: religion and economics, religion and political science, religion and history."

For most of the 20th century, scholarship and religion were at opposite poles when it came to research - with religion confined to its own department. Religion's ingrained values were seen as antithetical to a search for answers based on a scientific line of reasoning.

Now, however, a broader range of academics are beginning to see the "religion factor" as a key to understanding historical, political, social, and even economic forces.

"Increasingly, scholars are realizing there is no such thing as value-free inquiry," Dr. Mahoney says. "Why can't Christians bring their values into inquiry - and have that perspective inform their research?"

Among scores of research projects, books, and monographs, examples of scholarship branching out are easier to find than ever.

A Santa Clara University economist is using economic tools to study religious extremism. An Emory University interdisciplinary institute is conducting a research project on marriage, sex, and family issues as they relate to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. A Harvard University history professor is authoring a book about the rise of evangelical political power and the Christian right in Orange County, Calif. And such research is trickling into the classroom, observers say, through courses with words like "God" or "religion" in their titles, many of them offered outside the religion department.

Caution still prevails

Mahoney, Lugo, and others note that some disciplines have warmed to religion research, while others remain in the deep freeze.

Political science and sociology were relatively early and growing adopters over the past two decades. History, too. But go to the economics department, and the idea of focusing on religion may still get a skeptical reception.

Robert Barro is helping to change that. A leading conservative economist at Harvard, he is examining the impact of religions on the economies of nations. It's still a small shock to some of Dr. Barro's colleagues.

When Barro began his research, there really wasn't a department on Harvard's campus where it fit well, he says. So he and Rachel McCleary, a religion and philosophy expert, formed the Religion, Political Economy and Society Project. Now, the idea is to branch out beyond economics and involve other disciplines in basic religion and social-science research.

"I started by thinking about why some countries grow faster than others over a long time," Barro says. "At first I was thinking about political institutions and property rights, but I've expanded to think about the impact of religion and culture on economies."

Up against the scientific method

Such innovation, however, is still a fairly recent development.

After World War II, American higher education became captivated by advances in the hard sciences. Social-science research veered sharply in favor of strictly quantitative methods that mimicked research in the natural sciences. Religion was hard to measure and didn't fit the new mold.

Another factor was the scholarly embrace of the "secularization thesis." As society became more advanced, it would naturally becomes less religious - or so the thesis held. Religion, therefore, would soon be as relevant as a buggy whip, so why try to study its effects on society?

Then real life intervened. Even as church attendance was dropping, Jimmy Carter became America's first "born again" president in 1976. Ronald Reagan enjoyed Christian-right support - as did Pat Buchanan later. George W. Bush may be president today because he appealed more to Christian-right voters. Add to that the Iranian revolution, the Branch Davidian battle with the FBI in 1993, and most recently, the Sept. 11 attacks, and it's clear that understanding religion's impact on society has never been more important.

Such events have driven scholars to adopt a pragmatic view, says Alan Wolfe, a political scientist and sociologist who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

"I'm not a religious person," he says, "But I and others are interested in understanding religion's role in society. One thing after another has led me to realize if you want to understand American politics or Sept. 11, you really need to know more about American history and the role religion has played in it."

Even onetime proponents of the secularization thesis, like Boston University sociologist Peter Berger, have reversed course.

"I started out my career believing with almost everyone else that modernity goes hand in hand with a decline in religion," says Dr. Berger, who wrote "The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics" in 1999. "Well, I was wrong.... There are secularized regions - Western Europe, for example. But it doesn't go hand in hand with modernity. So there has to be something else going on."

Growing numbers of political scientists and historians have also found religion to be a critical element in their work.

"I think we [in the academy] are finally figuring out that the importance of religion is self-evident," says Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "Social scientists have been constantly predicting the secularization of the world. That simply has not happened. Religion is remarkably resilient."

While not yet ubiquitous by any means, this shift in attitudes is scattered across the academy. Mahoney ticks off a list that includes growing enrollments in academic organizations with a Christian orientation - the Society of Christian Philosophers, for instance. More faculty are attending conferences on the place of religion in the academy and the role of spirituality in teaching.

Evidence of the upsurge can also be seen in more and better submissions to scholarly journals, which are coming from a greater variety of disciplines. "We're starting to crack the mainstream journals in all fields," exults Dr. Jelen, who edits the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Still, political scientists are "pretty recent converts," he says. Just a few hardy adventurers dissected religion and American politics in the early 1980s. Now, however, mainstream academic organizations have subgroups catering to religion research, like the American Political Science Association's religion section, which has about 500 members.

The trend seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. Islamic fundamentalism, for example, is the subject of new scholarship at many institutions.

Follow the money

There's another reason multidisciplinary religious scholarship is picking up speed: money. Several well-known endowments have funded religion research projects across disciplines, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lilly Endowment, the Ford Foundation, and, most recently, the John Templeton Foundation.

"These large organizations want to study religion in a social-science context, so now there is money for scholars who might not otherwise study religion," says Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

The 1990s stock market certainly helped make these goals a reality. Share prices of Eli Lilly & Co. shot skyward, propelled by sales of popular drugs like Prozac. The Lilly Endowment holds much of that company's stock. The result is a well-funded endowment (about $15 billion) giving generously to research, Dr. Goff says.

"I know professors who say, 'I got a 'Prozac grant' to study religion,' " he says. "The mutual-fund boom has been great. Studies being funded by Lilly and Pew have attracted many scholars."

Even with a sagging stock market, though, religion-research funding looks to be more than a flash in the pan. Pew, under Lugo's direction, is starting up 10 cross-disciplinary research institutes on university campuses. The institutes must be located in the center of campus - to woo faculty from many disciplines, he says.

"We're trying to enrich the academy," Lugo says, "to get academics to think more broadly about issues important to the public. The long-term result, we hope, will be students who graduate with a better understanding of religion's impact on society because their professors understand it better."

A magnet for budding scholars

If that happens, then it may be easier to attract young scholars to carry on the research. When Harvard's Barro needed help gathering data, he recruited Brian Boyle, a junior majoring in sociology, and Jeremy Galen, a sophomore religion major.

Both young men are excited by the prospects - and open to incorporating religion into their own future scholarship.

"I've read the last 15 years of literature in this field," Mr. Galen says. "What interests me is that the study of religion goes hand in hand with these other questions about society. I would have no hesitancy whatsoever about doing research in this area. There's enough scholarship support for it to be well received."

• Send e-mail comments to:

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Scholars get religion
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today