Understanding Religion and Public Life

October 15, 2020
diane more in her office.

Harvard Divinity School launched this week Religion and Public Life (RPL), a new initiative and degree program with the core mission to advance the public understanding of religion in service of a just world at peace. The master of religion and public life (MRPL) is the first new degree program at HDS in 50 years, since it introduced the master of theological studies.The program is led by Diane L. Moore, Lecturer in Religion, Conflict, and Peace and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS. Moore says there is an urgent need for a more sophisticated understanding of religion in public life. The new one-year degree program is an opportunity for practitioners from fields such as business, law, the arts, nonprofit work, government, and many others to gain advanced knowledge about religion.

As part of its launch, RPL will hold on October 21 a virtual conversation on electoral organizing with Christian communities of color and working class communities in the U.S. Speakers include Jonathan Soto, organizer for the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign, Whitney Murray Brown, Women of Faith program director for Faith in Public Life, and Olga Marina Segura, opinion editor at National Catholic Reporter.

Below, Moore discusses RPL in more detail, who might be interested in applying to the degree program, and how it will help enhance students’ understanding of religion in the public arena.

Harvard Divinity School: What is the program on Religion and Public Life? What is the genesis of the program?

Diane L. Moore: RPL at HDS is a new initiative that serves as a canopy to integrate a number of projects and programs at HDS that focus on deepening knowledge within and outside of the academy regarding the power of religion in human experience, especially (but not exclusively) in arenas deemed to be secular. Building on the successes of the Religious Literacy Project and the many events and conferences sponsored by faculty over the years aimed at promoting the public understanding of religion, RPL forms a cohesive “third leg” of HDS to complement our other longstanding strengths in ministry studies and our doctoral program.

Its aim is to foster collaborations across the University and with professionals and civic actors in a wide array of fields to promote a more nuanced and capacious understanding of religion than is generally available to those who haven’t pursued training in religious studies.

Anchoring the RPL are, first, a new one-year master of religion and public life degree aimed at experienced professionals and others in civic life, and, second, a new certificate in religion and public life that students in our master of divinity and master of theological studies programs are eligible to pursue. In addition to numerous public events and programs, we will also be developing a robust executive/continuing education program that will be available to those not enrolled in a degree program.

HDS: Why is HDS uniquely poised to offer this degree and how does the program fit with the School’s mission?

DM: As referenced above, HDS has a long history of promoting the public understanding of religion and our own faculty has expertise representing a broad range of religious traditions and approaches to the study of religion. The RPL will also continue to contribute to the One Harvard vision through collaborations with other faculties as we’ve done through our Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative, which is a multi-year collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School. The overarching purpose of the RPL is to advance a more nuanced and complex understanding of religion in service of a just world at peace, which reflects the mission of HDS.

HDS: What are some of the consequences of failing to understand the power of religion in human experience and how will this program help educate a new kind of leader?

DM: Several events in the recent past have highlighted the importance of promoting a more robust understanding of religion in public life in general and among professionals in particular. Most notably, the lack of awareness of the complex social/political/religious dynamics in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003 led to unintended consequences that are still unfolding today. In another example, the failure of global public health officials to understand the importance of mourning and burial rituals in West Africa significantly delayed effective intervention in the Ebola crisis. Here in the U.S., the recent rise in political prominence of certain segments of white evangelical Christianity has impacted public policy in several arenas, including reproductive health, climate change, immigration, and foreign policy.

In truth, religion has always been entwined with social, political, and economic dimensions of human experience, but its significance has not been adequately represented in the study of modern public life. For example, Professor J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Kennedy School asserts that until recently religion was considered the “third rail” in international relations theory. The assumption was that religion both could be and should be avoided at all costs. Recent events such as the Iranian Revolution, the emergence of liberation theologies in Latin America, the rise versus decline of religion following the fall of the Berlin wall, the attacks on 9/11 in the United States and 7/7 in London, and the declaration of the “war on terror,” have obliged closer attention to the significance of religion in public life.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding the increasing awareness of its persistent public significance, there are still few places where citizens in general and professionals in particular are engaged in developing relevant understandings of religion. The two primary places where citizens in the U.S. learn about religion are in their own families and faith communities where particular representations of faith are practiced, and through the media. Neither of these venues introduces citizens to a nonsectarian understanding of religion that recognizes how religions are internally diverse, culturally constructed and historically contingent, and embedded in all dimensions of human experience rather than separable in a “private” sphere of belief and ritual practice.

HDS: Who might be interested in applying for the new master of religion and public life degree program?

DM: The new degree is geared toward experienced professionals, artists, and activists who wish to deepen their effectiveness by enhancing their understanding of how religion is functioning within their field and/or context. I’ve included some examples here:

  • A political reporter who wishes to pursue a project around understanding the influences of white evangelical Christianity in the Trump era
  • A regional director in Africa for a secular humanitarian aid organization that focuses on local humanitarian leadership and wishes to understand the differing religious influences that shape women’s access to reproductive health services
  • A human rights lawyer in Myanmar who wishes to study the rise of religious forms of nationalism
  • A master secondary school educator who wishes to revamp the school’s “Introduction to World Religions” courses to align with current religious studies scholarship
  • An instructor at the National War College who wishes to create a course that explores peacebuilding strategies that include religion, but that critique and go beyond the widespread focus on countering violent extremism
  • A climate change activist who wishes to mobilize religious communities to address the climate crisis
  • A playwright who wants to explore how differing interpretations of sexuality and gender norms can exist within a single family
  • A public policy official interested in the roles that religions play in shaping immigration policy here in the U.S.

HDS: Who are the faculty teaching in this program and what topics are covered in the coursework?

DM: Students who enroll in the MRPL will work on a specific project relevant to their field and/or context. They will work with their faculty advisor, the director of RPL, and their peers in the program to plan a course of study that will help advance their project. They will have access to the entire HDS faculty and other relevant faculty from across the University.

HDS: The world is currently experiencing a pandemic and the United States in recent months has witnessed mass protests against racial injustice and murder. How will this program help students confront those ongoing issues and others like them?

DM: The challenges we are facing here in the twenty-first century are immense and require fresh thinking and creative collaborations across all sectors of society. We believe that deeper understanding of the power of religion to both thwart and promote human and planetary flourishing is an underexplored and untapped resource with great generative promise.

—by Michael Naughton

See this post on the Harvard Divinity School website.