John Harvard's Journal
Divinity School Launches New Degree Programs
The new Religion and Public Life initiative promotes "religious literacy" in the professions
Harvard Divinity School (HDS), long focused on preparing religious leaders and training religious scholars, this fall adds a third mission. It is launching its first new master’s degree program in more than 50 years, the master of religion and public life (MRPL). Coupled with a similarly named certificate program—the anchors of the of the Religion and Public Life initiative (RPL)—HDS has embarked upon a comprehensive program of training professionals for practice in other realms.
In an October 2020 statement, Dean David N. Hempton said RPL was established to provide “an umbrella for programs and scholarship across Harvard that explore the ways that religion is entwined with social, political, and economic dimensions of human experience and institutions.” Alongside the degree and certificate programs, the initiative hosts public events to promote religious understanding, such as its panel this past March on the religious dimensions of the protests in Myanmar (following the military’s overthrow of the democratically elected government). RPL also offers a professional-development program for secondary-school teachers interested in weaving the critical study of religion into their curricula. Faculty director Diane L. Moore says that above all, RPL aims to give “people the language to understand the power of religion in human experience.”
Developing the RPL was an “organic process,” Moore says. It has its roots in the early 1970s, when HDS launched a program teaching K-12 educators how to incorporate religious studies into their classrooms. In 2011, Moore transformed that initiative into the Religious Literacy Project, which under her direction broadened its focus to include all professionals. Then, in 2016, as HDS celebrated its bicentennial (see harvardmag.com/hds-convocation-16 for a report) its faculty, staff, and students took stock of the school’s past and future. They also watched as religion was misrepresented in the public sphere, from Islamophobia after 9/11 to religious nationalism in the post-2016 political climate. “There was this really deep recognition of the importance of bridging the academy with the publics,” and generating more “public understanding of religion,” Moore says. They decided to unify HDS’s numerous public-interest-focused programs, including Hempton’s Religion and the Practice of Peace initiative and Moore’s Religious Literacy Project, into one cohesive organization. At Hempton’s request in 2019, she and a faculty task force brought this unification vision to life with the Religion and Public Life initiative.
Moore was a natural choice to lead the program, both because the RPL grew from her work with the Religious Literacy Project, and because she is exactly the sort of religiously literate practitioner the RPL hopes to form. An ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lecturer on religion, conflict, and peace, Moore traces her passion for RPL to her childhood spent in a progressive church deeply involved in the civil rights movement. “I saw the power of religion in public life first-hand,” she says.
Later, as progressive Christianity dwindled and conservative denominations gained more influence over social policy, she decided to dedicate her life to promoting a better understanding of religion, which she believes is “critical to understanding modern human affairs.” Beyond her work at HDS, she served during the Obama administration as a member of the U.S. State Department’s task force to enhance religious training for Foreign Service officers and worked as a religion teacher at Phillips Academy Andover. Earlier this year, the Vatican asked her and three other international scholars to consult on Pope Francis’s new international education initiative, the University of Meaning. This fall, however, Moore’s primary focus will be welcoming the RPL’s first master and certificate students.
The master’s degree is the “cornerstone” of the program, according to Hempton. The one-year course of study is designed to help mid-career professionals understand how religion interacts with their fields of expertise. Students will cultivate their “religious literacy,” according to the program description—the “ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social, and cultural expressions across time and place.”
The MRPL cohort is intentionally small, capped at 15 students. For its first year, RPL accepted only 14, with a dozen in Cambridge this fall and two deferring their admission until next year. The cohort spans the career spectrum, from singer-songwriter to magazine editor to lawyer. “It was just explosive in terms of the energy, excitement, and respect they all showed each other,” Moore says of the first time the students met. The cohort is a “larger than life” group, adds public-health scholar and MRPL student Ans Irfan. His classmates include Rev. Erica Williams, national social justice organizer for Repairers of the Breach (a nonprofit founded by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, calling for a national “moral revival” against poverty, gender inequality, racism, and LGBTQ discrimination); former chief content officer for Teen Vogue Phillip Picardi; and litigator Eric Alan Isaacson, who filed a class-action lawsuit against Trump University. Irfan is excited to hear his classmates’ outlooks on religion, “since we’re all coming at it from completely different fields. That variety of perspectives—that’s something that always has and always will excite me.”
Even with their varied backgrounds, the MRPL candidates share a “sense of vocation,” Moore says: a deep commitment to their profession and the program. MRPL student and Chicago high-school teacher John Camardella took a year-long sabbatical from his job and moved away from his wife and family in order to enroll. During his time in Cambridge, he plans to create a comprehensive religious and cultural literacy program for secondary educators and administrators—something he says “is literally the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The students will complete a year-long foundational seminar with their cohort, a survey class called “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion”; up to 8 courses in their area of interest (at HDS or across Harvard); an oral exam; and a final project. With so few requirements, the students can customize their education, with the final project as the centerpiece. The projects are as diverse as the cohort. Rev. Williams hopes to develop an “international, intergenerational, interfaith movement, which seeks to organize clergy, particularly around the global South” against poverty and oppression. Irfan wants to build a framework scientists can use to build common ground with religious leaders on public-health issues like climate change.
The initiative’s certificate in religion and public life is available to students pursuing HDS’s master of theology and master of divinity programs, enabling them to explore how religion interacts with a particular sector or profession. Concurrently with their primary degree work, certificate students will pursue an internship in their chosen field and complete a capstone project. They’ll also take a required introductory course co-taught by Moore and 10 RPL Fellows in the Professions.
The fellows were selected because they are “experts in their fields,” not for any expertise in the study of religion, Moore says. Among them are Maytha Alhassen, on-air journalist for Al Jazeera; Mike Delaney, former director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America; Cynthia Wilson, traditional foods program director for the native-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah; and Philip L. Torrey, director of Harvard Law School’s Crimmigration Clinic. Delaney, for instance, will explain how collaborating with religious leaders during his time at Oxfam improved the outcomes of humanitarian responses to crises. Moore hopes the students and Fellows alike will return to their fields equipped with new knowledge: “We’re trying to cultivate leaders within the professions.”
Through its education programs and its events for the public, the Religion and Public Life initiative aims to create a “religiously literate” world. What exactly that world looks like is a moving target, but Moore aims at least at broadening recognition of how much religion influences daily life, even in “secular” arenas. Hempton adds that religious literacy involves recognizing “the destructive as well as the creative power of religion in distinct contexts.” For master’s student Irfan, however, it all boils down to a sense of understanding. “A religiously literate world,” he says, “would be exponentially kinder and more compassionate than we are today.”