Supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program (BDPTP) is a multifaceted, three-year project initiating the second phase of BCSR’s Religion in the World initiative. Building upon the Luce Berkeley Public Theology Program, the first phase of Religion in the World, BDPTP aims to advance both academic and public understanding of public theology, religion, and democracy, creating mutually beneficial conversations among them. 

What is the relationship between theology and a democratic way of life? How does theology influence democratic practices?

As older boundaries between sacred and secular are transforming, we need to develop new ways of thinking about religion in public life and a new engagement with theology in the interests of exploring the possibilities of a common democratic future. Democracy and theology have shared a long, entwined, often conflictual, and above all vastly under-researched and rarely discussed history. How (and if) they might forge a constructive relationship now is essential to meet our new realities.

The goal of this new Program is to coordinate and concentrate both the unique academic and scholarly resources of UC Berkeley and its public reach on the question of how theology has shaped and continues to shape democratic thought and practice in the US and around the globe. By bringing our collective attention to the often conflicted relationship of theology and democratic life, we hope to transform assumptions about religion, secularity, and public culture common not just to our campus, but also nationally.

Public Courses:

Our signature program includes a sequence of public lectures and seminars with a focus on themes chosen both for relevance and faculty expertise, including:

  • Voting the Divine: Collective Decision-Making and Religious Authority between Polytheism and Monotheism Susanna Elm (History), Duncan McRae (Classics), and Emily Mackil (History) 

This Public Course will examine theological contexts and motives of voting in both ancient and modern societies. The series will address the relationship between voting as the signal marker of democracy, and the rituals and theologies of both monotheist and polytheist societies. The series will focus on voting as a central feature of religious life.

  • Theology and Health-Care Ronit Stahl (History and Othering and Belonging Institute) 

This Public Course will examine the role of religious institutions and accommodations in American healthcare. It will focus on the reshaping of American health care by religious hospital systems to examine how theology has infused public policy and public health. The course will examine how theology substantively and rhetorically shapes healthcare and how theology has become interwoven with public policy and democracy.                     

  • Religion and the Republic: Past, Present, Future Co-Convened by Jonathan Sheehan (History), Ethan Shagan (History), Victoria Kahn (Comparative Literature), and Kinch Hoekstra (Political Science)

This public course will examine the broader questions of the relationship between democracy and theology, using the case of republican politics in the past and in the present. The series will bring together historians, religion scholars, political theorists, political scientists, and legal scholars to explore the historical and contemporary varieties of republican religion in the hopes of developing a more robust way of imagining democratic norms and practices.

Faculty Research Projects:

In addition to Public Courses, the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program will convene four faculty research projects to advance scholarship on the topics below:

  1. Devout Muslims in European Democracies (Karen Barkey, Sociology)

This project engages the comparative study of devout Muslims in the European context of democracy and the dilemmas of participation. This study puts the actions of pious, practicing Muslims front and center, neither sanctifying them nor vilifying them, but seeing how they actually interface with local state institutions (courts, councils, municipal authorities, etc.) and the resulting effects on theological questions.

  1. Theology and the University: The English Department (David Marno, English)

Building on BCSR’s previous work on theology’s role in the modern university, this project will investigate the historical and current relationship of academic disciplines and departments to theology. One stage of the project will focus on the vexed relationship between theology and the academic study of English, asking, among other questions, what we might learn from English’s history and practices regarding the relationship between scholarship, theology, and democracy in the current moment.

  1. Theology, Media, and Radical Politics in the English Reformation (Joanna Picciotto, English)

Interest in the democratizing potentials of social media (as well as their vulnerability to market capture and “bad actors”) makes this a propitious time to reexamine the Protestant Reformation as a print movement, the channel through which Luther’s contemporaries entered the age of mass communication. Of particular interest to this study is the case of seventeenth-century England, where religion changed more frequently than anywhere else in post-Reformation Europe, and the role of religion and media in the English Revolution. 

  1. The Political Influence of Theology (Robert Braun, Sociology)

Defying secularization theories, the political influence of theology has increased over the last few decades. Debates on religion often draw attention to how religion independently, or in combination with rising nationalism, gives birth to fundamentalist ideologies that undermine tolerance and democracy. However, a large body of academic research, varying from studies on present day Islamic mobilization in Indonesia to Catholic theology in the interwar Western-Europe, reveals a more nuanced relationship between doctrine and democracy.

Addressing religion and the current COVID crisis, we will host a one-semester Religion and Pandemic virtual public forum, featuring interviews, conversations, and reflections with scholars on what it means to live, write, and think in our current moment. 

In addition to public outreach efforts, Public Courses, Faculty research projects, and the Religion and the Pandemic virtual public forum, programming will include curriculum development, and a postdoctoral program. 

To read the official press release for the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, please click here.

Professors and BCSR Co-Directors Karen Barkey (UC Berkeley) and David Marno (UC Berkeley), and Professor and BCSR Co-founder Jonathan Sheehan (UC Berkeley), are the Principal Investigators for the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program.

Professors and BCSR Co-Directors Karen Barkey (UC Berkeley) and David Marno (UC Berkeley), and Professor and BCSR Co-founder Jonathan Sheehan (UC Berkeley), will be the Principal Investigators for the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program

Karen Barkey is the Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion and she serves as the Haas Distinguished Chair of Religious Diversity, the Othering and Belonging Institute. Barkey is also the Director of the Center for Democracy, Toleration and Religion at UC Berkeley.

David Marno received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Stanford in 2011, and began teaching at UC Berkeley the same year. Marno teaches English Renaissance poetry and drama. He is currently serving as the Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion.

Jonathan Sheehan is the former Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, and the principal investigator for the “Berkeley Public Theology Project” funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. Sheehan is a historian, and has taught at Berkeley since 2007.

About the Berkeley Public Theology Program (2016-2020):

The Berkeley Public Theology Program was inaugurated in 2016 with generous funding from the Henry Luce Foundation. The one-million-dollar funding supported a four-year initiative that integrated robust academic research, student engagement, public programming and public outreach. The grant’s programming activities can be found in the following PDF: Berkeley Public Theology Program Summary.

About the Henry Luce Foundation
The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., the Luce Foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy.