The New Gospel of Academia


In Pennsylvania, researchers are documenting how religion keeps young people from drugs and delinquency. In Cambridge, professors are pondering how faith propels environmentalism and inner-city economic development.

And in one of the world's most religiously diverse laboratories--Southern California--scholars are visiting such sacred sites as Sikh gurdwaras, Chinese Buddhist temples and Armenian apostolic churches to scrutinize the powerful role that religion plays in the lives of new immigrants.

Across the nation, scholars have begun to promote a new paradigm in academia: Religion matters.

Once a largely forgotten factor in social research, dismissed by those who believed that society would inevitably secularize and cast spirituality aside, religion is now a hot field of inquiry. Until recently, a long-standing academic bias against religion has blinded many scholars to its powerful role in shaping both private lives and the public culture.

"While millions, even billions, of people view so many different human concerns through the lens of religious faith, this crucial subject remains one of the most understudied social phenomena of the 20th century," Princeton University President Harold Shapiro said last year.

That's changing. Driven by new funding opportunities, a national spiritual resurgence and growing political interest in faith-based initiatives, more people than ever are studying religion. No longer confined to schools of divinity, religion is being increasingly probed in departments of sociology, political science, international relations, even business schools. The new research is expected to "significantly reshape the social sciences," said Jon Miller, a USC sociology professor.

"We've started to legitimize the study of religion and help people acknowledge it's a phenomenon people need to pay attention to," said Donald E. Miller, executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

The American Academy of Religion, for instance, reports a 34% increase in membership in just the last six years, from 6,700 members to 9,000. Major academic organizations have added religion subsections in recent years; the one established by the American Sociological Assn. has gone "from nowhere to one of the largest" in the last five years, Jon Miller said.

More foundations are funding religious research. The Ford Foundation, for instance, launched a religion program in 1997 and has doled out about 50 grants totaling $10.5 million. Foundation President Susan Berresford added the program after she repeatedly encountered people in her global travels troubled by "deep moral uncertainty" amid rapid modernization and globalization, said Constance C. Buchanan, the foundation's religion officer.

Other major funders include the Lilly Endowment and Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew recently launched a multimillion-dollar initiative to create 10 academic "Centers of Excellence" to study the intersection between religion and international relations, urban affairs, American democracy and other contemporary issues. So far, centers have been established at Princeton, Yale University, Emory University, Boston University and the University of Notre Dame.

"Religion was often seen as soft, too ephemeral to be included in serious scholarship," said Kimon Sargeant, a Pew program officer. "We want to help provide a broader public understanding that religion can be a remarkable force for common good."

Interest Grows in Recent Years

Interest in religion's impact on social problems has grown tremendously in the last few years, as policymakers have looked for new approaches and shown a greater willingness to lower the wall between church and state to allow more public funding of religious initiatives, scholars say.

Both major-party presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, are pledging to expand the involvement of religious organizations in public programs to combat poverty, homelessness and other problems. Bush, for instance, has pledged to establish an "Office of Faith-Based Action" with $8 billion in funding for such initiatives.

Whether faith-based programs are more successful than secular ones has not yet been proved, but scores of scholars are now exploring that question. Two of them are Byron R. Johnson and John J. Delulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania and the Manhattan Institute. In groundbreaking research on religion and juvenile behavior, the two have shown that religious faith is one of the top three factors in predicting a childhood free of delinquency, along with attachment to parents and school.

"Ten years ago, if you put religion in a proposal to get [public] funding, you would have gotten immediately disqualified," Johnson said. "Now, the Department of Justice is saying that religion is fair game to look at."

The bustling Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC is a leading player in the new research efforts. Scholars there have examined religion's effects on health care, welfare, immigration and urban development. They have also distinguished themselves nationally by venturing outside the ivory tower to regularly bring together academics, faith leaders and public policymakers to brainstorm solutions to pressing social problems.

"Most centers do wonderful work, but they tend not to get their hands dirty," said Diane Winston, a Pew religion officer. "USC does, in the best sense of the word. In the move among scholars to make religion applicable to real problems, USC is at the cutting edge."

The center's dual commitments to professional research and community activism keep scholars scurrying.

Consider this August calendar: peacekeeping duties for the Democratic National Convention; co-sponsorship of a major Salvadoran religious feast day; suggestions to USC, the Multicultural Collaborative and others on how to better embrace faith groups; brainstorming sessions with the Cornerstone Theater Company about a series of faith-based plays; plans for an economic development conference with religious leaders and federal housing authorities.

One recent day found Greg Stanczak, a doctoral candidate in sociology, sipping tea with a Buddhist nun from the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. He scribbled notes as the Rev. Man Yee mixed amusing stories of a former life as a hotshot real estate agent with descriptions of temple services for its members, most of them Chinese immigrants.

Yee detailed how the temple does far more than bring Buddha's teachings to the flocks: It operates as a lifeboat for new immigrants, offering English classes and seminars in Chinese on U.S. tax laws and financial planning, dental care and menopause.

Across town on another day, Lezlee Suzanne Cox was interviewing the Rev. Alvin Tunstill Jr. on how his Trinity Baptist Church manages to produce a successful summer jobs program for South-Central Los Angeles youth. Congregants pitch in $140,000 a year to pay about 30 youths for their time as free interns at local corporations.

The congregation's largess is rooted in the conviction that the 4th Commandment to honor the Sabbath also obligates faith communities to provide the jobs that enable people to work the rest of the week, Tunstill told Cox, a doctoral candidate in political science. The minister shared ambitious dreams to revitalize his community, discussing stock market returns, small-business opportunities and economic incentives to lure doctors and other professionals back to the area.

And on a recent Sunday at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Pasadena, Father Vazken K. Movsesian explained to Tim Fisher how the church offers both ancient Armenian worship services and American social action programs of food and toy giveaways.

Such research reinforces the growing public recognition of religion's robust role in civic life. Donald Miller said the 1992 Los Angeles riots were the seminal event in raising his own awareness of that role as he watched news coverage and saw inner-city ministers leading efforts to quell the tensions and reweave the city's sheared fabric.

In 1993, he and two colleagues won a one-year grant from the Haynes Foundation to study the role of religious organizations in post-riot Los Angeles. That led to other grants and the USC center's formal establishment in 1996. The center is housed at USC but is fully supported by grants from Pew, Haynes, the James Irvine Foundation and other private and public funders.

A Surprising About-Face

The resurgent interest in religion marks a startling turnabout for academia--sociology in particular. Although many early sociologists were Christians active in the 19th century social reform movements, religion lost its academic luster in the 1950s, said Jon Miller of USC's sociology department.

The two theorists with the most influence on sociology at that time, Karl Marx and Max Weber, traveled different philosophical paths to reach similar conclusions--that society would inevitably push religion to the periphery, he said.

"In real life, we know religion never went away, but people just stopped paying attention to it," he said.

Stanczak was one of those scholars convinced that religion was obsolete. He came to USC to test his hypothesis that religion was disappearing among youth. Almost immediately, he said, he found out he was wrong.

"I was looking mostly at Generation X and Generation Y, and saw that religion was giving structure and meaning to their lives," he said. "To these people, religion is the core of what is radically transforming their lives."

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado never paid attention to religion either, focusing on political and social organizations of Latino immigrants. But the deeper the USC sociologist looked, the more he discovered that many of the groups had a priest, a church or a religious cause behind them.

Now his work--along with a slew of new national studies on religion and immigration--is likely to prompt major theoretical revisions in the field of immigration studies, said Jon Miller and others. Many previous scholars had ignored religion's central role in new immigrants' lives, they said.

The USC center's community outreach also distinguishes its work--and wins high praise from faith leaders across the spectrum.

When Carole Shauffer, a lawyer from the Bay Area, wanted to rally religious leaders for a foster child support program, she went to the center for names.

When the Rev. Richard Ramos wanted to launch an affordable-housing program in Santa Barbara, the center's staff helped him find funding sources.

When the Rev. Eugene Williams wanted someone to evaluate his literacy programs for prison inmates, he turned to the center, which now works with his Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches on a range of other programs.

"If anyone wants to know anything about religious or church-based organizations, the center is the place to start," Williams said.

As religion gains renewed respectability among scholars, more people are likely to be knocking on the center's door.

"There has been a phobia about religion, but the corner has been turned," Don Miller said. "People's religious experiences are going to be taken much more seriously in the academy, rather than being seen as something to be debunked and discarded."

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