Religions & Public Life

Religions and Public Life at the Kenan Institute for Ethics examines the paradoxes that abound at the nexus where faith, citizenship, and law intersect with processes of globalization in order to produce new forms and reconfigurations of the public sphere. This initiative is a collaboration among Duke Divinity School, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

Religions and Public Life aims to surface crucial yet neglected dimensions to negotiating the impact of globalization—particularly with regard to issues such as public health, the environment, welfare provision, schooling, development, immigration, urban regeneration, and security—on the local, national, and international levels. Religious beliefs and practices are vital components of grassroots attempts to address inequality through democratic means. At the same time, religious groups are perceived as reinforcing and exacerbating conditions that produce inequality, particularly for women, embodying undemocratic institutions, and contesting visions of public life as secular and plural. The Initiative’s research and activities coalesce around four principal issue areas:

  • Judaism, Islam, and the West
  • Religions and global climate change
  • Religions, development, and faith-based humanitarian efforts
  • Interreligious engagement

Judaism, Islam, and the West: At the distinctly Western intersection of post-modern secularity and the legacies of the three major monotheistic religions, there are rich avenues to explore on the historical and contemporary flourishing of Jewish and Islamic identities and cultural contributions. At the same time tensions persist between strong religious commitments and the liberal state. At Religions and Public Life at KIE, we are engaging these issues through multidisciplinary activities and collaborations. Past activities include a workshop series exploring the aesthetics of Middle Eastern Islam through digital production, music, architecture, art, satellite television, and social media; a research conference of scholars and practitioners to synthesize lessons in innovation for Jewish organizations and communities; and several workshops and panels on Jewish and Muslim diasporas in Europe. Ongoing collaborations look at Jewish human rights traditions and examine the ethical tensions and complexity of multicultural accommodation and religious freedom in North America and Europe.

Religions and global climate change: Increasingly, concern for environmental justice and sustainability is understood by many religious communities as relevant to their faith commitments and practices. This program, in collaboration with the Nicholas Institute, has particularly focused on Christian communities in the Southeastern United States, leading to a roundtable conversation on mobilizing faith communities to act upon climate change. Pastors, professors, denominational leaders, and para-church organizers worked together on strategies to raise awareness about environmental issues in their congregations and will create opportunities for congregants to effect change. Work continues along these lines through peer-to-peer relationships.

Religions, development, and faith-based humanitarian efforts: In an age of considerable debate about the relative merits of development and relief work, along with the often problematic histories and assumptions underlying humanitarianism, ongoing research at RPLI engages both philosophical and theological critiques. This research began with a symposium on theology, global health, development and poverty, and continues to investigate the emergence of alternatives to both market-driven and state-centric visions of welfare provision, public health, and responses to poverty. The project also examines the globalization of religious and democratic movements and how these interact with and shape relations between churches of the Global South and Western faith-based development agencies.

Interreligious engagement: This new collaboration supported by the Golieb Foundation aims to help Duke University become a leader in interreligious service-learning at all levels of education. In order to explore interreligious relations as a civic-political rather than simply religious or humanitarian practice, the program has already hosted a faculty panel discussion of goals and guidelines. The program is also sponsoring an Alternative Fall Break bringing together students, faculty, and secular and religious organizations around the theme of food traditions in Durham, and will be launching a service learning graduate student fellowship and student training in conflict mediation and reconciliation.