Science and Religion in Public Life


The return of religion to the public sphere in politics and the academy is one of the great surprises of the twenty-first century. It has given rise to new local, national and global politics and led to rethinking of the boundaries of science and religion. In this FOCUS cluster, we explore the new global role of religion, with special attention to the US, and inquire how it inspires, challenges, and interacts with political and scientific institutions. Using diverse approaches, from historical to social scientific, textual criticism and hermeneutics to storytelling and scientific reasoning, students will gain familiarity with religious traditions and forms of politics that shape their lives, yet remain perilously obscure, and a deeper understanding of how religion has had, and continues to have, cultural and political impact. How do the sacred texts of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity relate to each other and shape the social and political world of religious communities? How do black freedom struggles in the US deploy religious critique as a source of empowerment and agency? How can engaging others’ stories expand our otherwise abstract scientific, theological, and political, perspectives? How have the divergent interpretations of Jesus Christ and his message informed ideologies as contradictory as white supremacy and liberation theology?


History 190FS/ Religion 190FS/Jewish Studies 190FS: Great Books of the Abrahamic Traditions (CCI, EI, CZ)

Malachi Hacohen, Bass Fellow and Professor of History, Political Science and Religion; Director of the Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics

Lauren Winner, Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality, Duke Divinity School

Recent decades have seen radical reshaping of the relationships of the three Abrahamic religions. We have witnessed new conflicts among their proponents, but also renewed efforts at interreligious dialogue and unprecedented solidarity. Yet, do Christians, Jews and Muslims really know each other? The Abrahamic religions are all based in sacred texts, containing revealed truth, and have legal and interpretive traditions elucidating them. Do we know these texts? Do we know how they each read them? This team-taught course brings together scholars with expertise in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic texts and traditions to explore each other’s intellectual universe. We will seek to understand the texts on their own terms, within their contexts of origin and transmission, and explore their social and political working throughout history. By the end of the semester, participants will have acquired basic literacy in the three religions and habits of reflection that will prepare them for engagement with the religious world of the other.

Religion 190FS/ Jewish Studies 190FS: The Bible in America (CCI, EI)

Marc Zvi Brettler, Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies

Is America a biblical country?  Was it founded using biblical models?  How did biblical ideals inform the earliest European setters, the founders, and future generations through today?  How has the Bible been used, and misused, in such political issues as slavery, abortion, the place of women in society, war, capital punishment, and environmentalism?  What is the role of the Bible in film and popular song?  How does the Bible function in contemporary political debate?  How do different religious communities view the Bible differently?  How should the Bible be used in the public square?  This Focus seminar will explore this range of issues.

History 190FS: The Politics of Christ (CCI, CZ)

James Chappel, Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History

Whether Jesus Christ lived or not, his influence comes from the stories that people have told about him (he wrote nothing himself, and lives only in the words of others). This course traces the evolution of the literary character named "Jesus Christ," beginning with the Scriptures and ending with recent films, novels, and even video games. Students will encounter the apocalyptic Jesus of the early Christians, the militant Jesus of the crusades, the Aryan Jesus of the National Socialists, the revolutionary Jesus of political radicals, and the conservative Jesus of contemporary evangelicalism. The shifting meaning of Christ will be used to open up discussions about history, truth, and ethics. 

Faculty Director

Malachi Hacohen
Malachi Hacohen
  • Bass Fellow and Professor of History, Political Science and Religion
  • Director of the Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics
210 Carr Building
Campus Box: 
Box 90719
(919) 684-6819