Conference on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life

June 3-4, 2011 | Lindsay Rogers Common Room, Columbia University
International Affairs Building 707, 420 West 118th Street, New York, NY

Open to the public.

What are the consequences of the increasing salience of “spirituality” in American civic and political life? Do actors and groups publicly identified as spiritual challenge commonly held understandings of social and political involvement? How strongly are they committed to any particular set of political goals or ideals of citizenship? How do they engage in public life, and do their patterns of involvement differ in a systematic way from those of others? What kinds of alternatives to, or cautionary tales about, dominant understandings of civic engagement might political expressions of “spirituality” present?

Building on a wide swath of recent scholarship, the SSRC conference on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life explored the institutions and traditions that construct spiritual activities and identities, and it considers their relations to systems and patterns of political participation and public engagement in the contemporary United States.

Invited papers addressed questions of spirituality in politics, culture, and the media as well as the meaning of the "public sphere" and civil religion, while other topics were taken up during multidisciplinary panel discussions in which leading scholars assessed the current state of the study of spirituality in their respective fields. Panelists and respondents include: Nancy Ammerman (Boston University), Courtney Bender (Columbia University), Philip Gorski (Yale University), David Kyuman Kim (Connecticut College), Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto), Ruth Marshall (University of Toronto), Elizabeth McAlister (Wesleyan University), Omar McRoberts (University of Chicago), John Lardas Modern (Franklin and Marshall College), Joel Robbins (University of California, San Diego), and Josef Sorett (Columbia University).

View the conference schedule [PDF].

Papers presentations included:

“Between Politics, Race and Theology: The Forging of Public Muslim Youth Identities”
Arshad Ali, Teachers College, Columbia University

“The Soul-Killing System: J. Gresham Machen’s Critique of Progressive Reform”
Finbarr Curtis, University of Alabama

“Informatic Cosmologies: NBIC, Singularity and the Conscious Universe”
Abou Farman, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

“A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher, Spirituality, and the American Underclass”
David Hamilton Golland, Bronx Community College, City University of New York

“Free the Jena Six! Black Technospiritual Practices and Racial Justice in the Digital Age”
Stephanie Greenlea, Yale University

“Enchanted Entrepreneurs: The Mediated Labor of Psychics in New York City”
Karen Gregory, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

“A Revolutionary Spirit: The Myth of Cesar Chavez”
Luis Léon, University of Denver

“Pragmatic Engagements, Transcendent Orientations: An Ethnographic Study of the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”
Ian Lowrie, Rice University

“Sex, Lies, and Buddhism: Buddhism in the American Media Imagination”
Scott Mitchell, Institute of Buddhist Studies

“From ‘Rules’ to a ‘Relationship’: The Spiritual Faith and Political Passions of American Evangelicals”
Sophie Statzel, The Graduate Center, City University of New York


The Conference on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life was sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, with the support of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Columbia University, and the generous support of the Ford Foundation.