Fifty years ago, religious discourse resided exclusively in the domain of church leaders and scholars. These days, that’s decidedly not the case: Politicians, pundits, journalists, authors, bloggers, and virtually everyone with a platform is eager to share their views on the subject.
While this trend has in some ways contributed to a richer dialogue, it has also left many people feeling confused and divided.
Enter Paul Dafydd Jones, associate professor of religious studies, and Charles Mathewes, the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies. The pair serve as co-directors of Religion and Its Publics, a multiyear initiative dedicated to bridging the gap between academic study and public conversations about religion.
Now three years in, the project has featured writings, workshops, seminars, and conferences, as well as various guest speakers, including—among others—Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Reverend and former Democratic National Committee Chief of Staff Leah Daughtry, and Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore.
“The study of religion is at its best when it draws on multiple perspectives, tendering nuance and complicated judgment,” Jones said. “Our hope is that by undertaking this work, it will be instructive to society as a whole.” Jones and Mathewes were fortunate to receive support for the project from the Henry Luce Foundation, which for more than 80 years has promoted innovative scholarship centered on informing public discussion. Established by Time Inc. co-founder Henry R. Luce, the foundation has provided more than $1 billion in grants since its founding in 1936. “The Luce Foundation made this possible,” Mathewes said. “Thanks to them, we’ve been able to hire two postdoctoral fellows, host a variety of speakers and events, and even teach a class together.” The team is pleased with the results of their work to date; however, they’re eager to push ahead, engaging new and unique voices to further our understanding of religion in the contemporary world. “We may not be able to get these people to walk into a bar,” Mathewes joked, “but they’ll come talk to us. That’s a start.”