"[People] shouldn’t be scared to have a worldview that includes ideas of love, goodness, redemption, and grace," says Zachary Davis, M.T.S. '19, who hopes his podcast "Ministry of Ideas" can reintroduce religious literacy into the national discussion.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

‘Secular sermons,’ straight to your phone

long read

Zachary Davis explores the ideas that shape society on HDS podcast

Are fitness chains modern-day cults? Should efficiency be a moral value? How is our obsession with weight connected to Adam and Eve?

Few, if any, of these questions would occur to the average American. As religious affiliation has continued to retreat in the U.S., so has the religious literacy that once informed how we interpret our culture. But Zachary Davis, M.T.S. ’19, a producer at HarvardX and host of the podcast “Ministry of Ideas,” would like to change how we understand religion’s place in the 21st century. And he’s doing it, one episode at a time.

An initiative of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, “Ministry of Ideas” has garnered the acclaim of outlets such as BuzzFeed and The Guardian, the latter calling it “Simply the best podcast out right now.” Now halfway through its second season, the podcast releases 15- to 30-minute episodes every other week, each tackling a significant idea in society.

Davis sat down with the Gazette to discuss his podcast and how religious literacy can help everyone from Evangelicals to atheists be better citizens.

Q&A

Zachary Davis

GAZETTE: Tell me about your path to the Divinity School.

DAVIS: I grew up in a devout Mormon home in southern Utah. There are no paid clergy in Mormonism, it’s all volunteers from the congregation. No one goes to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I was taught that divinity schools were places of dangerous speculation on the road to atheism.

At 19, I went on my two-year mission to southern Spain and afterward I went to Brigham Young University to study political science. My first job out of college was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Junior Fellowship in Washington, D.C. For a full year, I was surrounded by a lot of really smart, formerly hopeful people who would work their whole lives on a hoped-for policy goal and then see it smashed with an election loss. That reoriented me to try to live a meaningful life that didn’t depend on forces that I can’t control. I decided to become an educator, to help provide intellectual tools so that people could empower themselves.

That all aligned when I started working at HarvardX. My first project was with Divinity School Professor Laura Nasrallah. I didn’t really know what the Divinity School did, but when I started working with her and Diane Moore, who is the director of the Religious Literacy Project, I started realizing that I was drawn to that way of thinking and their commitment to applying their knowledge for the betterment of the world.

GAZETTE: How did you come up with “Ministry of Ideas”?

DAVIS: At HarvardX, I saw firsthand the power of technology to expand access to knowledge across the globe. I’d been thinking for years about the best way I could expand access to humanities education, and the joy and excitement of working with Harvard faculty inspired me to start an educational podcast.

“Being a citizen is a sacred calling, and we can’t be faithful to it if we don’t have the historical knowledge and intellectual tools to exercise good judgment.”

When I first came up with the idea for the show in December 2016, I pitched it to the Boston Globe Ideas section as a simple interview show. One of the editors, Alex Kingsbury, had a background in radio, and he encouraged me to make the show more scripted and sonically rich. The Globe also helped me come up with the name, because they got a kick out of the fact that I saw the spread of important ideas as an almost religious ministry. They publish essay versions of our episodes and generally help promote the show to their audience.

The show is in part a response to President Trump’s election, because his whole campaign, I thought, was founded upon bad ideas. We need to have a better grasp of where our ideas come from and how they are manipulated by other forces, so that when we are called to evaluate something, we’re ready to do the duty of a citizen. Being a citizen is a sacred calling, and we can’t be faithful to it if we don’t have the historical knowledge and intellectual tools to exercise good judgment.

GAZETTE: What makes a podcast ideal for teaching religious literacy?

DAVIS: Mass media is the primary vehicle to communicate wisdom, knowledge, and community, and this is especially true for podcasts. They preserve the power of the spoken voice, with all of its rhetorical and performative qualities; they let you feel an intimacy with another human being wherever you are. You can be listening in the privacy of your headphones while at the same time there can be thousands and even millions of other people listening to the same thing. So it does create a community, and podcast fans can be cult-like in their devotion. There’s something going on there that I think is pretty interesting about how much more connected people can get to ideas when they are delivered through the voice. After thousands of years of textual primacy as the vehicle for knowledge, we’re returning voice as an important form of academic learning. That’s the hope, that we can marry academic rigor with sonic pleasure.

The staff of “Ministry of Ideas” (from left): Bridget Power, Shannon Boley, Zachary Davis, Keith Langston, Galen Beebe, Katie Gordon, Liya Rechtman, Jessica Eng ’22, and Nick Andersen are wrapped in discussion on the steps of Andover Hall.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

GAZETTE: Religion has been on the decline in the U.S. for decades. Does the country need a new enlightenment or just more religious literacy?

DAVIS: You need to be religiously literate to understand politics in America, because religious groups exert so much influence. If you understand Evangelical apocalyptic theology, you can understand that Trump pledging to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem mattered more than anything else to them, much more than his affairs. Same with his talk of ending the Iran nuclear deal [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. They don’t necessarily want peace: The end times predicts turmoil and tribulation. When we better understand why different communities believe the way they do, we’re going to have an easier time coming to democratic compromise.

Ultimately, we’re trying to empower people to be more critical about religion. We would like to persuade people that religion is more than just metaphysical propositions. Religion is a way of orienting values and communities and you can appreciate that even if you yourself don’t practice. That appreciation may help you think of secular forms that are compatible with some of those same goals. But in terms of providing community and solace, I don’t see anything replacing religion.

GAZETTE: The podcast is rife with religious concepts even when not discussing religious ideas. How do you strike a balance between treating these ideas objectively and using the podcast as a vehicle to teach religious literacy?

DAVIS: We’re coming from three traditions. Our show is about the history of ideas and why we think the way we do about important topics. We also draw from the tradition of cultural criticism or critical theory, which tries to rigorously examine what is good and bad for human flourishing. But the third tradition that we draw from is the church sermon. One way I have described what we’re doing is giving secular sermons. At its best, a sermon calls forth better versions of its listeners — it condemns and asks them to be better — but it also offers hope and strength, and I think the spirit of our show is using history to help you critically evaluate the ideas that you probably take for granted but all come from somewhere.

GAZETTE: I love the idea of secular sermons. What is the “Gospel” that you take your ideas from and that guides these sermons?

DAVIS: The show is driven by a belief that all humans should have access to a fair chance at flourishing, and that while power isn’t evil on its own, it’s very susceptible to being manipulated for its own ends. We’re enduringly interested in critiquing the expansion of market logic into matters of human relationships. The episode on efficiency is pretty near and dear to me because a culture that subordinates nearly everything to the needs of the economy is a historical development. We take it for granted when people are called human capital, but it’s actually deeply offensive.

The other gospel would be that love is not a ridiculous value to live by. We don’t talk about it in our secular context, but it’s very different to use love to direct a lot of your decision-making as opposed to using a value like professional success or economic needs. If we could find ways of incorporating the idea of love into more things, I think we’d have a society that’s better suited for our emotional and psychic needs.

“A culture that subordinates nearly everything to the needs of the economy is a historical development. We take it for granted when people are called human capital, but it’s actually deeply offensive.”

And, finally, justice. We have an episode on the history of cannibalism and how the label of cannibalism was used to justify the enslavement of millions. Working on this really taught me some powerful lessons about how labels can end up doing far more damage than the thing you’re afraid of. Being aware of long periods of historical injustice can help clarify contemporary challenges and problems. If wisdom is the ability to keep a big picture without getting lost in the details, then anyone working toward justice really has to be attentive to history.

GAZETTE: How do you identify an idea that needs to be re-examined?

DAVIS: We’re driven to try to reveal the significant ideas that actually make a difference to our lives. Although we’re looking at history, we’re almost always trying to connect it to contemporary concerns. We’re certainly not afraid to take positions; any preacher has to be willing to take a stand. I think that the ideal of the centrist, neutral commentator is a problem because it can end up simply sustaining an unjust status quo. We look for how a particular idea or concept plays out in real life and whether it seems to promote what I’ve been calling flourishing but what is essentially a mixture of fairness, justice, happiness, and virtue.

If I could succeed at anything, it would be to rehabilitate vital religious terms and concepts in a way that can be adopted by our secular polity. For a long time, secularism had the better side of the argument in the public sphere, but — and maybe it’s my own bias — I think we’re closer to realizing that religion wasn’t just about trying to explain the origin of the world, but instead was about the creation of a common welfare and shared myths that could bind us together. We’re in desperate need of those, and there are many people at the Divinity School interested in what new forms this can take.

My agenda is not necessarily to get everyone to go back to church — I don’t think I could — but people should be aware of its social function, and they shouldn’t be scared to have a worldview that includes ideas of love, goodness, redemption, and grace.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Episodes of “Ministry of Ideas” can be found on their website and podcast .