Scholars Get Religion ; More Academics Are Starting to See the 'Religion Factor' as Key to Understanding Forces in Economics, Politics, and Society

Article excerpt

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. …