Press Releases

Friday, September 25, 2009

SSRC Forms Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) announces the formation of a Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life, co-chaired by Courtney Bender and Omar M. McRoberts. The small interdisciplinary group, which has been formed in conjunction with the Council's program on Religion and the Public Sphere, will anchor a new SSRC project supported with funding from the Ford Foundation. The project's work focuses centrally on assessing the social and political engagements of Americans who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious."

"Recent opinion polls show that the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising, while belief in a divine order and some form of God has declined only slightly," said Jonathan VanAntwerpen, who directs the SSRC's work on religion. "Americans seem to be remaining at least nominally spiritual while also becoming less religious." VanAntwerpen also serves as founding editor of the SSRC's popular blog The Immanent Frame, which regularly explores issues of religion and American politics, in addition to a range of other topics.

The new group will organize two major workshops attempting to make sense of this phenomenon, paying particular attention to its implications for the role of spirituality in American public life. "I look forward to working with Courtney and Omar and the other working group members as we collectively seek to initiate and deepen an interdisciplinary conversation on this and related topics," VanAntwerpen said.

Working Group Co-Chairs

Courtney Bender, associate professor of religion, Columbia University. Courtney Bender received her Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton and her B.A. from Swarthmore College. In addition to her associate professorship in Columbia's Department of Religion, she holds a courtesy appointment in its Department of Sociology. Bender has published a number of articles on a variety of topics, including Muslim taxi drivers in New York, the impact of First Amendment jurisprudence on new religious immigration, the history of reincarnation in America, spiritual journaling and writing as a religious practice, and Buddhist-Catholic dialogue. She is the author of Heaven's Kitchen: Living Religion at God's Love We Deliver (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and the forthcoming Worlds of Experience: Contemporary Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Omar M. McRoberts, associate professor of sociology, University of Chicago. Omar McRoberts studies and teaches courses on the sociology of religion, urban sociology, poverty, and collective action. His first book, Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood (University of Chicago Press, 2003) is based on an ethnographic study of religious life in Four Corners: a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Boston containing twenty-nine congregations. It explains the high concentration, wide variety, and ambiguous social impact of religious activity in the neighborhood. Streets of Glory won the 2005 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Working Group Members

Carolyn Chen, associate professor of sociology and Asian American studies, Northwestern University. Carolyn Chen received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her research addresses issues of religion, immigration, race and ethnicity. She is currently finishing a book manuscript, Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigrants Converting to Evangelical Christianity and Buddhism, which will be published by Princeton University Press. She is also working on a project that examines health and spirituality in the United States.

Elizabeth McAlister, associate professor of religion, Wesleyan University. Elizabeth McAlister earned her Ph.D. in American studies from Yale University and specializes in Afro-Caribbean religions. Amongst other publications, she has authored Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora (University of California Press, 2002) and co-edited Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2004).

William E. Connolly, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Theory and International Relations, Johns Hopkins University. William Connolly has chaired the Johns Hopkins Department of Political Science since 1996, where since 1985 he has taught political theory. His recent publications include Pluralism (Duke University Press, 2005), Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) and Why I am Not a Secularist (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Kathryn Lofton, assistant professor of American studies and religious studies, Yale University. Kathryn Lofton (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) has taught at Reed College and Indiana University. She arrived at Yale in 2009 after a year-long fellowship with the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. She has published on a variety of subjects from the last two centuries of American history, including evangelicalism, modernism, African American religion, popular culture, and consumer rites. Her first book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, is forthcoming from the University of California Press.

John Lardas Modern, assistant professor of religious studies, Franklin and Marshall College. John Lardas Modern's interests include American religions, historiography, technology, and aesthetics. He is currently completing a book that explores the metaphysics of secularism in antebellum America. Modern is also the author of The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (University of Illinois Press, 2001)—as well as a dormant dissertation that explores critical perspectives generated in and by Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

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