The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) is pleased to announce the selection of the 2023 Religion, Spirituality, and Democratic Renewal Fellows. These twelve researchers will each receive between $8,000 and $18,000 in grants to research intersections of religious movements and contemporary questions of democracy and democratic action.

We received around over a hundred applications, which underwent a rigorous review by an interdisciplinary panel of experts. These twelve exemplary projects focus on issues ranging from religious nationalism, decarceration movements, and democratic financialization, among others. All these projects fit the SSRC Religion and Public Sphere’s goal to support innovative scholarship exploring the role of religion in the contemporary political and social landscape.

These awards are possible with generous support and partnership with the Fetzer Institute

The following scholars are recipients of the 2023 Religion, Spirituality, and Democratic Renewal Fellowship:

Agana-Nsiire Agana
Social Media and Political Engagement among Ghanaian Christian Youth

Agana-Nsiire Agana is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Edinburg and holds an M.Th. in World Christianity from the University of Edinburg and a B.A. in Theological Studies from Valley View University in Ghana. His research draws upon Kierkegaard’s existentialist philosophy and empirical work in Ghana to advance a philosophical-theological investigation of personal identity construction among young Christians in the digital age. Specifically, he interrogates how social media culture shapes the construction of personal identity and selfhood, and how this relates to much-bemoaned crises of authority and authenticity in digital religion literature. During his SSRC fellowship, he will explore the impact of transnational digital cultural flows on democratic participation among young Ghanaian Christians.

Debadatta Chakraborty
Hindutva and Hinduphobia: Transnational authoritarianism, gendered-racialized youth mobilization and nationalist politics of the Indian diaspora in the US

Debadatta Chakraborty is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a graduate certificate in Feminist Studies. Her research interests include transnational authoritarianism, diasporic community formation, gendered-racial capitalism, political economy, and culture and media. Her dissertation focuses on the rise of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) in India and its connection to diasporic youth mobilization by centering the religious-nationalist politics of the Indian diaspora in the US and its connection to white supremacy. Combining global ethnography, archival work, and interviews in the US and in India, it contributes to understanding how youth at “home” and in the diaspora make sense of right-wing ideologies through transnational networks.

Michael Edwards
Jesus and the Revolution: Theologies of Solidarity from the Burmese Highlands to the American Heartland

Michael Edwards is a Smuts Research Fellow in South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge and will be joining the University of Sydney as a Lecturer in Anthropology in 2024. An anthropologist of religious life, media ecology, and political change, he received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics in 2019. His first book project, “Real Change: Myanmar and the Dissonance of Salvation” (selected for the Atelier series at the University of California Press) is about the encounter between Pentecostalism and Buddhism during Myanmar’s fraught and fleeting democratic opening. A second ethnographic project, supported by the RSDR fellowship, explores questions of transnational religion and solidarity emerging from Myanmar’s unfolding revolution.

Seyma Kabaoglu
Banking on Doubt: Everyday Life of Islamic Democratic Financialization in Turkey

Seyma Kabaoglu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University and holds a BA in Economics and Sociology from Boğaziçi University. Her work is a long-term ethnographic study of politics of doubt and ethical finance in Turkey’s Islamic participation banking industry. By examining how people create inclusive spheres for economic activity from the analytical point of view of gender, class, and religious identity, her research aims to expand our understanding of the productive value of doubt in religious efforts for more democratic financial markets. Additionally, Kabaoglu is the host and content creator for two public humanities projects: Fidiro Kahvesi and Talking Anthropology podcasts.

Stephen Kapinde
Contested Pulpits? Shifting Trajectories of Pentecostal Spirituality and Democratic Renewal in Post-Conflict, Kenya

Stephen Kapinde holds a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He conducts interdisciplinary research cutting across religion, politics, democracy, gender and citizenship, reconciliation, and peacebuilding in Africa. Kapinde’s fellowship project is an interdisciplinary study on the complex dialectics between religion, spirituality, and democracy by repositioning the agency of Pentecostal movements as political agents in the quest for democratic renewal in conflicting democracies in Africa, particularly in Kenya. The project investigates how Pentecostal movements undermine or promote democratic renewal by investigating religious activities pursued by Pentecostal movements towards democratic processes and how the Pentecostal understanding of democracy differs from other secular non-state actors.

Zehra Mehdi
The ‘Work of Religion’: Muslim Ethical Responses to Persecution Under a Hindu Nationalist Regime

Zehra Mehdi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and holds MA degrees in Clinical Psychology from Delhi University, India, and Religious Studies from Columbia University. She is a practicing psychoanalytic therapist working with religious and sexual minorities since 2010. Her research interests include psychoanalytic ethnography, anthropology of religion, religious nationalism, political violence, religious minorities, secularism, resistance literature, mourning, and Partition Literature. Mehdi’s doctoral project explores the psychoanalytic role of religion in the lives of persecuted minorities through an ethnography of Muslim ethical responses to Hindu nationalism.

Trent Ollerenshaw
Politics and Polarization in the United Methodist Church: A Text Analysis of Sermons

Trent Ollerenshaw is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Duke University. His research focuses on American racial and ethnic politics, public opinion formation, and political polarization. In his project, Ollerenshaw will pair computational text-as-data methods with a large sermon corpus to study how North Carolina Methodist pastors navigated political polarization and social tensions between 2020 and 2021. His analyses will focus on particularly salient socio-political issues during this period, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice protests, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement, the 2020 presidential election, and the January 6th Capitol riots.

Ebtissam Oraby
Muslim Epistemologies and Science Education in Pluralist Society

Ebtissam Oraby is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University. She is a curriculum and pedagogy scholar specializing in multilingual education and Arab and Muslim cultures. Her research interests lie at the intersection between philosophy, language, religion, and education, ultimately exploring notions of alterity and ethical possibilities in educational spaces. Oraby’s project is an ethnographic study of a social design experiment that explores the intersections of science pedagogy and Muslim epistemologies. The research questions how elementary school students engage with a philosophy of science curriculum rooted in Muslim ways of knowing. This project aims to address curricular and pedagogical equity and social justice by exploring science pedagogy connecting minoritized students from Muslim backgrounds with their epistemological heritage ingrained in their spiritual tradition.

Jacob Saliba
The Discovery of the Sacred in Interwar France: From Contestation to Cooperation, 1919-1941

Jacob Saliba is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Boston College specializing in modern European intellectual history. He holds an MA in political science from Boston College and a BA in Economics and Political Science from Ohio Dominican University. Saliba’s dissertation project explains how and why a set of Catholic, Jewish, and secular intellectuals successfully built mutual intellectual projects and created sustainable civic bonds during the social-political tumult of interwar France. Drawing on archival evidence together with published texts, it demonstrates that the period’s looming context of fascism, racism, and extremism produced new conditions of possibility for religious and democratic renewal that occurred amidst these very tensions, providing empirically rich context to re-evaluate religion as a force for shaping spaces of democratic thinking and action.

Evan Stewart
Secular & Spiritual: The Political Potential of Religious Pluralism in the United States

Evan Stewart is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and associate editor of the journal Sociology of Religion. He earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. in Political Theory and Social Policy from Michigan State University’s James Madison College. His research examines religious change, belonging, and diversity in public life. His RSDR fellowship will support the preparation of a book manuscript. Using decades of survey and administrative data, this book challenges the assumption that rising religious disaffiliation and spirituality are detrimental to the health of American democracy. Instead, it argues that these changes have only recently accelerated the religious pluralism long mythologized in American culture and that pluralism can sustain civic engagement in new ways.

David Thompson
Break the Chain: An Ethnography of Brazil’s Interfaith Decarceration Movement?

David C. Thompson is a Research Fellow in the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. He received a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in May 2020. Thompson’s research examines prisons and incarceration in Brazil, with a particular focus on Rio de Janeiro. This work draws on ethnographic methods to bring into focus the horizons of punishment—that is, the futures that are made and unmade within an expanding penal landscape. His current project turns towards Brazil’s interfaith “decarceration” movement—the coalition of activists, NGOs, and religious groups who work to eliminate mass incarceration and address its harms. Through an ethnographic study of the movement, the project will consider how religion serves as both an animating force and a central point of conflict, as Catholics, evangelicals, Afro-Brazilian religious leaders, and secular activists all struggle to articulate new visions of justice for Brazil.

Maro Youssef
Transitional Feminist Coalitions:’ Islamist and Secular Women's Cooperation in Tunisia (2011-2021)

Maro Youssef is a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and the Strauss Center for National Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin and speaks Arabic, English, and French. Her research focuses on gender, social movements, religion, and policy in the Middle East and North Africa. As an applied sociologist, she has shared her research findings with academics and policymakers through oral and written briefings with Congress, the US State Department, USAID, the UN, the Foreign Ministry of Canada, and think tanks on women’s rights and feminist activism in the Middle East. Youssef’s RSDR project examines women’s rights and political mobilization in non-consolidated democracies, examining how women activists and politicians formed broad coalitions around women’s rights in Tunisia.