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
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
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
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
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.
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. …