Campus & Community

Weatherhead announces winner

6 min read

Religion in Global Politics project to receive $220,000 grant

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs has awarded $220,000 to a research team involving five University faculty members to realize a project in “Religion in Global Politics.” This decision marked the center’s third annual award of a Weatherhead Initiative grant, a program established in 1998 by a generous gift from Albert and Celia Weatherhead and the Weatherhead Foundation.

The potential impact of this multiyear research project is substantial. The project links five studies that consider the relationship of religious belief to five types of political activity, including political legitimacy, terrorism and civil war, the transition to democratic rights and regimes, the reduction of conflict, and conceptions of international order. The collective project is driven by a set of common questions and a shared comparative methodological approach.

The central elements of the project will draw on the contributions of members of the Harvard faculty who are considered to be experts in their respective fields. These faculty include J. Bryan Hehir, former head of the executive committee of Harvard Divinity School; Samuel P. Huntington, chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies and Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor; David Little, T.J. Dermot Dunphy Professor of the Practice in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict, and director of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School; Jessica Stern, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government; and Monica D. Toft, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government and assistant director of the Weatherhead Center’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. The project team also includes Daniel Philpott, assistant professor of government and international relations, and a fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame; and Timothy Samuel Shah, research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The award from the Weatherhead Center complements an award of $227,500 made to the team by the Smith Richardson Foundation this past July. The “Religion in Global Politics” project is based administratively at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies as part of the academy’s Global Cultures Program.

Derek Bok, former Harvard University president and now the Three Hundredth Anniversary University Professor at the Kennedy School, chaired the selection committee for the Weatherhead Initiative. Bok praised the proposal on “Religion in Global Politics” as an “immensely important topic” having the potential to be the most inclusive, synoptic study of its kind to date. Not only is the assembled team recognized for its expertise in the scholars’ respective fields, but, in the words of one reviewer, their efforts are bound “to create a critical mass of intellectual talent” fully devoted to the pursuit of this initiative. Samuel Huntington, one of the principal architects of the new Weatherhead Initiative, observed that while “[I]t is true of course that since Sept. 11 the theme of religion and politics has come to dominate public discussion of international affairs,… it is essential that our vision not be confined to the present crisis.” The project will, therefore, provide scholarly analysis of topics that individually are part of “front-page” and “prime-time” coverage — and will address the current lack of convenient resources for policymakers to treat the subject appropriately.

In response to a near-global resurgence of religion in politics, evidenced by the growing “public” role of religious groups, from the increasingly Islamic orientation of politics in states with Muslim populations to the rise of religious nationalism, this ambitious project will explore five topical studies on religion’s impact on different features of world politics. The studies are unified by a common premise that religion is a more prominent and influential force in world politics today than it was during the previous half century. “The serious gap” the project aims to fill, according to the initiative’s authors, “is to provide a systematic, comprehensive, and comparative analysis of the impact on global politics of the resurgence of religious beliefs, considerations, and organizations of human affairs.”

Modernization and secularization in the 19th and 20th centuries reinforced the assumption that sovereign states should be the basic actors in world politics, guided by the Westphalian international system, which is commonly summarized in terms of the concept of state sovereignty and the principle of nonintervention. The goal of Westphalia was to remove religion as a justification for war. Political scientists have long contended that modernization and the rise of science would cause a decline in religious faith. Thus, religion has been de-emphasized in the organization of world politics, and secular explanations of world affairs have been the dominant consideration. Over time, the research group contends, this normative imperative was transformed into a descriptive assumption: namely, that religion “ceased to be a significant causal force in world politics. If one uses standard studies of international relations in the last 50 years or the way states organize their foreign ministries and diplomatic bureaucracies as indicators, it would be easy to conclude that no systematic relationship exists between religion and contemporary world politics.”

The research team argues that such an interpretation of religion and politics is gravely deficient. It fails to account for major events such as the role of the Catholic Church in the democratization of Latin America, the role of religious leadership in the peaceful transition of power in South Africa, human rights, and the religious dimension of communal conflict. The team contends that “in the past decade … scholars have noticed that religions have begun to displace secular ideologies as the most important impetus of peoples’ political engagement.”

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs sponsors and facilitates the execution of the Weatherhead Initiative in International Affairs, which was established as an ambitious program to support large-scale innovative research on topics at Harvard central to the activities of the Weatherhead Center, whose mission is to promote research in international affairs at a global university. The first Weatherhead Initiative grant was awarded to Gary King of the Department of Government and Chris Murray of the School of Public Health for their project, “Military Conflict as a Public Health Problem.” The second initiative project, directed by Iain Johnston and Yoshiko Herrera of the Department of Government, Terry Martin of the Department of History, and Rawi Abdelal of the Harvard Business School, was launched in academic year 2001-02. This project focuses on the role of identity — national, ethnic, religious, and otherwise — in international and domestic politics.

In addition to a major conference and publication of a substantial monograph, Weatherhead Initiative directors synthesize the conclusions of their individual studies and elaborate on their implications both for scholarship and public policy. The knowledge gained is disseminated in a variety of publications including, in the case of the Religion in Global Politics project, two books from individual studies, approximately nine articles or monographs, and an overview volume that will explore the findings of the collective project. These studies will be the basis for a major conference that will bring together political, governmental, media, and intellectual leaders to discuss the conclusions of the studies and their implications for both scholarship and policy.