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Northwestern University

Politics and Religion

A $390,000 Luce grant will advance Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s research on the intersection of U.S. diplomatic history, American religion and foreign policy

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan are about to enter uncharted territory, leading scholarly inquiry into the emerging and innovative study of U.S. diplomatic history, American religion and legal and international studies.

Hurd, an associate professor of political science at Weinberg College, and Sullivan, professor and chair of religious studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, scored a three-year, $390,000 grant from the Luce Foundation to better understand the complex and symbiotic relationship between U.S. domestic and foreign policy as it relates to religion and religious governance.

Hurd, currently in her 12th year at Weinberg College, discusses the prestigious Luce Foundation grant and the compelling elements of this novel research program.

What was your reaction to receiving this grant?

I was delighted. These questions have increasingly arisen among academic and policy audiences as well as with students across disciplines and around the world, an indication that the topic is ready to be studied more systematically. 

What central issue do you hope to address?

As with other aspects of the myth of American exceptionalism, religion – American style – has a curious inside/outside dynamic based in assumptions about ourselves and the other, which contributes to the stability of the myth across many different constituencies. That dynamic is enabled by a productive ambiguity about what counts as “religion” at home and abroad. Religion at home is assumed to be both tamed and free in a way not yet achieved by religion elsewhere. We seek to better understand this history and how it informs the present.

What are some of the potential implications of this research?

Our findings will inform public conversations and policy debates about religion and politics in the U.S. and in foreign affairs. These discussions tend to be rife with assumptions about religion in relation to the American project – assumptions that this study will interrogate through careful historical and political ethnographic research. This will generate new possibilities for thinking about the role of religion in relation to the American national project. It will also provide an important comparative lens through which to view other histories of religious governance in national and imperial jurisdictions beyond the United States.

Why do you think this is such an important issue to study?

The U.S. operates by its own set of rules when it comes to religion as it does with other matters. The particular religious voluntarism of the domestic American space – what is sometimes termed the free market in religion – is not the religion we are exporting or that we have ever exported. The religion we are exporting is one that seeks to create a moderate “enlightenment-sized” religion that will serve the interests of the state, and this is something we need to better understand.

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