Religious Pathways to/through Democracy

Friday, April 16, 2021, 11:15 AM - 11:45 AM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: Politics; Religion; Social and Cultural


This roundtable considers the paradoxical relationships of U.S. religion and democracy from the early republic to the present. Recent scholarship on American religion has exposed fault lines in the idea of religious freedomand the importance of race, empire, class, and gender to the debates surrounding it. White Protestant insiders defined religion in the United States, while excluded religious, ethnic, and racial groups sometimes claimed, sometimes contested, and always pushed against the limits of white Protestant categories as they sought access to the levers of democracy. American religions carve pathways to democracy; they also carve pathways through and around democracy.

Session Participants

Chair: Alison Collis Greene, Emory University
Alison Collis Greene is Associate Professor of American Religious History at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, which was awarded the Southern Historical Association’s 2016 Charles Sydnor Prize. Her current work explores the histories of rural Christianity, race, economics and conservation in the modern South.

Panelist: Melissa May Borja, University of Michigan
r. Melissa Borja, a core faculty member in the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program, earned a PhD and MPhil in history from Columbia University, in addition to an MA in history from the University of Chicago and an AB in history from Harvard University. Before teaching at the University of Michigan, Dr. Borja was Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

She researches migration, religion, politics, race, and ethnicity in the United States and the Pacific World, with special attention to how Asian American religious beliefs and practices have developed in the context of pluralism, migration, and the modern American state. Her book, Follow the New Way: Hmong Refugee Resettlement and Practice of American Religious Pluralism (under contract, Harvard University Press) draws on oral history and archival research to investigate the religious dimensions of American refugee care—how governments have expanded capacity through partnerships with religious organizations and how refugee policies have shaped the religious lives of refugees. Animating her work is a deep fascination with how new religious diversity has complicated old practices of governance and, in turn, how Americans have attempted to govern new religious diversity.

Her work appears in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, The Oral History Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and The American Historian. She contributes regularly to the religious history blog, Anxious Bench. Her lecture on Southeast Asian refugees was featured on C-SPAN’s “Lectures in American History,” and she has been active in Princeton University’s Religion and Resettlement Project, a three-year national program that aims to improve understanding of the role that religion plays in the lives of refugees as they resettle in the United States.

She has been awarded the ACLS/Mellon Fellowship and Charlotte Newcombe Fellowship, and her research has been supported by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life; the Immigration History Research Center; the Center for the Study of World Religion; and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. She is a 2018 Young Scholar in American Religion. She currently serves as co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s "Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society” group, as well as a member of the steering committee for the “North American Religions” group.

Panelist: Rebecca L. Davis, University of Delaware
Rebecca L. Davis is an Associate Professor of History, with a joint appointment in the Department of Women and Gender Studies, at the University of Delaware. Davis received her Ph.D. in American History from Yale and held a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion. She is the author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss (Harvard University Press, 2010) and the co-editor, with Michele Mitchell, of Heterosexual Histories, forthcoming in 2020 from New York University Press. She is writing Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics, and Sex in America, a new single-volume history of sex and sexuality (Liveright/Norton). In addition, Davis is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer and one of the producers of the Sexing History podcast.

Panelist: Terrence L. Johnson, Georgetown University
Terrence L. Johnson is Associate Professor of Religion and Politics in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His research interests include African American political thought, ethics, American religions, and the role of religion in public life.

He is the author of Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (Oxford 2012) and serves as co-editor of the Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People book series, which is published by Duke University Press.

Johnson's recently completed second book manuscript, We Testify with Our Lives: Black Power and the Ethical Turn in Radical Politics, explores the decline of Afro-Christianity in the post-civil rights era and the increasing efforts among African American leftists to imagine ethics and human rights activism as necessary extensions of, and possibly challenges to, political liberalism and liberal public philosophies rooted in individualism, neutrality and exceptionalism. He is completing a co-authored manuscript with Jacques Berlinerblau on Blacks and Jews following the emergence of the Black Lives Matters movement. Tentatively titled Now Is the Time: Blacks, Jews and the Struggle to Rescue Global Democracy, the manuscript turns to the historic links between Blacks and Jews during mid-20th century America as a resource for imagining new democratic possibilities in light of white nationalism's increasing global presence in contemporary politics. The book is under contract with Georgetown University Press.

Panelist: Max Perry Mueller, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Max Perry Mueller is a theorist and historian of race and religion in American history. He is the author of, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017). His next book, Wakara’s America, is the first full-length biography of the complex and often paradoxical warrior Ute chief, horse, thief, slave trader, settler colonist, one-time Mormon, and Indian resistance leader.

He is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with affiliations in Ethnic Studies and History and a fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies.

Panelist: Hannah R. Waits, Harvard University
Hannah Waits is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Global American Studies at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. She specializes in 20th-century US politics, race, sex, and religion. Her book manuscript, The Missionary Majority: American Evangelicals and Power in a Postcolonial World, demonstrates how global missionary work by millions of Americans shaped the conservative resurgence in US society in the mid- and late twentieth century. For this project, she has earned fellowships from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the Religious Research Association. She teaches courses on religion and politics, the US and the World, and NGOs and humanitarianism, and is a recipient of three university-wide outstanding teaching awards.