At the Cutting Edge of Faith and Scholarship

  • News Photo 4777
    Thomas Kidd
  • News Photo 4776
    Philip Jenkins
  • News Photo 4775
    J. Gordon Melton
  • News Photo 4774
    Jeff Levin
Sept. 15, 2009

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In just five years, Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion has assembled a world-renowned roster of scholars

For the past five years, a very quiet construction project has been under way on the fourth floor of Pat Neff Hall at Baylor University. You don't hear the boom of jackhammers or the whirring of power drills, however, because what is being constructed isn't made of brick and mortar.

The Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) is building the world's finest assembly of scholar-researchers in religion.

With a mandate extending to all religious traditions, the Institute for Studies of Religion has earned renown for excellence in initiating, supporting and conducting research on religion. The scholars and projects based at the institute span the full intellectual spectrum: history, psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, epidemiology, theology, and religious studies. The institute also embraces the study of religious effects on such things as prosocial behavior, family life, population health, economic development and social conflict.

In just its first five years of existence, the institute has grown to some 90 faculty, fellows, resident and non-resident scholars, staff and post-doctoral and graduate fellows. During the past three months alone, four leading American researchers have joined the institute:

Philip Jenkins: Distinguished Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion. An historian by training, Jenkins' work takes an interdisciplinary approach and has been lauded in many different disciplines including sociology, criminology and religious studies. He is one of the world's pre-eminent experts on the history of global Christianity, both ancient and modern. Jenkins is the author of more than 20 books on a range of subjects in American and world religious history, as well as contemporary religious studies and criminology. He will promote the work of the program through writing and lecturing and will represent the program through his many opportunities to publish and speak on the history of religion.

In addition, Thomas Kidd of Baylor's history department has joined ISR as co-director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion. Along with writing and lecturing to promote the work of the program, Kidd will focus on the development of conferences and visiting scholars programs. Kidd came to Baylor in 2002, and is an expert on American religious history. He has written books on the Great Awakening in colonial America, American Christians and Islam, the Puritans and is currently writing God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.

Jeff Levin: University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health and Director of the Program on Religion and Population Health. An epidemiologist by training, Levin is a pioneering scientist whose research, beginning in the early 1980s, helped to create the field of religion and health. Both biomedical scientist and religious scholar, his work at the interface of religion, science and medicine has been instrumental in broadening perspectives on the connections among body, mind, and spirit. He is author or editor of over 150 scientific publications, including seven books, notably God, Faith, and Health.

J. Gordon Melton: Distinguished Senior Fellow. The author of more than 40 reference and scholarly books, Melton is known for his Encyclopedia of American Religions first published in 1979 and now in its eighth edition, published earlier this year. This immense work provides the history, theology and current statistics for more than 2,300 independent American religious bodies.

These four have joined ISR colleagues such as

• Rodney Stark, co-director of the institute who has authored more than 30 books on a wide array of topics in religion;

• Byron Johnson, co-director with Stark of ISR and a recognized authority on the scientific study of religion, the efficacy of faith-based organizations, domestic violence, and criminal justice;

• Jay Hein, Distinguished Senior Fellow and director of the Program for Faith and Service, who served as the nation's third director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush;

• Paul Freston, Distinguished Senior Fellow and director of the Program for Studies of Religion in Latin America whose research on multiple fronts in Latin America is central to the institute's plans to increase its presence as a leader in global research on religion and public life;

• Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow with the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, an affiliated center of the institute, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities and serves as the editorial director for FASTEN, the Faith and Service Technical Education Network; and

• Carson Mencken, Professor of Sociology, is ISR's director of research whose work links civic engagement, religious communities and economic growth, as well as mapping the religious landscape of China.

The examination of religion as it intersects with every facet of society is by design, says institute co-director Johnson. "Religion and faith touch all aspects of our culture, both historically and in modern day," Johnson says. "The Institute for Studies of Religion examines the impact of religion in our society, from medicine to education to economics to public policy, and more."

The work of the newest researcher at the institute, Jeff Levin, is an example of how religion is interwoven in modern-day America. Levin studies the religious determinants of population health and aging, with an emphasis on the role of faith and religious participation as factors preventing morbidity and mortality and promoting physical and mental health and well-being. He especially focuses on ethnic and religious minorities and on underinvestigated and at-risk populations, notably African Americans, American Jews, and older adults.

Levin says, "I expect the Program on Religion and Population Health to become a world leader in basic and applied research into the ways that faith-based actions and institutions influence personal and public health. The Program is a mechanism to extend the Institute's mission to the arena of global population health research and to contribute to the national conversation on the role of faith and faith-based initiatives in health policy. I am also hopeful that the Program can be a central player in efforts to build a graduate educational presence in public health at Baylor."

The directors of the program on Historical Studies of Religion envision their initiative becoming the world's foremost venue for interdisciplinary scholarship on the history of religion. "As people have increasingly come to understand the public significance of religion in the modern age, scholars desperately need a resource like ISR and Historical Studies of Religion to promote the best aspects of religious history," Kidd says. "Baylor and the ISR have an opportunity to exercise unparalleled influence on the study of religion not only in America, but around the world."

"I am thrilled to be work with ISR," said J. Gordon Melton, "as it is so welcome to find a research partner who so complements and supplements my institute's research program. ISR provides an exciting environment to do research--in company with others who are doing cutting-edge work in a structure that understands, supports, and appreciates the research task. I look forward to the cooperation on the upcoming census of Hinduism and Buddhism in America, our ongoing research initiative in China and Southeast Asia, and an emerging project on the rise of Unbelief (atheism) in the West."

Central to the program is the goal of public outreach. As the world of academic research and publishing has boomed in recent decades, many scholars have effectively abandoned any attempt to communicate their findings to a general public that would potentially be deeply interested in hearing about this work. Through their work in publishing, through organizing lectures, conferences and other public events, the scholars attached to the Historical Studies Program aim to mend these bridges between academic researchers and interested non-specialists. They seek to build widespread interest in the roots of our modern religious traditions - which are also the roots of our politics and our culture.

As Philip Jenkins says, "I always like to quote William Faulkner's remark that 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' So many people base their opinions in a view of history, but in a view that is often filled with myths and misconceptions. If people are going to rely on history, let it be a truthful account that reflects what scholars have worked so hard to reconstruct."

In varying ways, each says that the Institute for Studies of Religion provides the only place in the world where they can combine their pursuit of knowledge with the recognition of the role religion plays. While always striving for rigorous scientific objectivity, institute scholars treat religion with the respect that sacred matters require and deserve.

When asked why they joined the ISR, Levin says, "Three reasons, really: the already sterling reputation of ISR as a center for social and policy research on religion; my friendship with Byron, who is a true visionary and a man of great integrity and unbridled enthusiasm; and the uniquely faith-based environment at Baylor that provides such an ideal and welcoming home for my research program. None of this could happen anywhere else."

Jenkins agrees fully, adding that Baylor offers astonishing opportunities for pursuing his research agenda in an academic environment that places faith front and center. And, he adds, the potential for future development seems almost limitless.

The Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR), which Melton heads, carries on a variety of research initiatives along with its on-going program of monitoring and gathering data on North America's many religious groups. "We think of ourselves as sociologically aware historians," added Melton, "best exemplified in our research on the Antebellum Black church. We benefit greatly from cooperating with some historically aware sociologists. Working with ISR will simply expand both institute's ability to do what we each do best."

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