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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Photo of Erik Owens

Letter from the Interim Director

December 2016

Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory last month has shaken the foundation of American politics in ways that will take years, maybe decades, to fully register. The populist anti-establishment sentiment that provided much of his campaign’s energy also revealed a deeply troubling resurgence of white nationalism, nativism, and xenophobia. Yet when broken down by religion, this year’s vote looked very familiar to other recent election cycles, with majorities of white Protestants and Catholics supporting the Republican candidate, and majorities of Hispanic Catholics, Jews, and the religiously unaffiliated voting for the Democratic candidate. 

The complicated politics of race, religion, economics, and philosophy will continue to unfold in the year to come, and the Boisi Center will continue its work to understand them, while also seeking to foster the forms of engaged citizenship that a healthy society requires. We are committed to rigorous, civil, and constructive conversations about religion in public life, in pursuit of the common good of a religiously diverse society. We continue to produce and highlight exceptional scholarship; and we continue to support the university’s Jesuit, Catholic commitment to education that shapes minds and souls for the service of others. We feel, that in the current social and political climate, this work is more important than ever, and we invite you to join us. 

In the pages that follow you’ll see that we have had an extraordinarily busy semester at the Boisi Center, hosting twelve public events and co-sponsoring three others, in addition to fulfilling our usual teaching and research commitments. Space constraints in this newsletter prevent us from fully recounting the conversations that took place at these events, so we have posted articles on our website, along with interview transcripts, bibliographies, audio, video, and photos where available. 

Our fall 2016 events covered an array of issues from a range of perspectives, as usual, but in recognition of the needs of the BC community in a time of tense social and political relations, we put special emphasis on themes of student engagement, civility, justice, and the common good. Several of our events focused on racial injustice, past and present; others highlighted work on behalf of vulnerable communities at home and abroad. We convened military, diplomatic, and theological experts to challenge current thinking on just war theory, and we organized a terrific event called “Stories that Move,” where world-famous children’s book authors joined with USAID officials to help participants write short books for early language learners around the world. We also hosted our first student town hall, with an open conversation about the issues most important to students; we hope to make this a regular feature of our student engagement efforts.

Despite all the activity around here, things aren’t the same without founding director Alan Wolfe, who is on research leave this year in advance of his retirement in June. He has left very large shoes to fill. But I am delighted to announce that he will return to campus March 22 to deliver the inaugural Wolfe Lecture on Religion and Public Life—named to honor Alan’s leadership in the field and at the Boisi Center. 

This spring we are also honored to host a lecture by Melissa Rogers, President Obama’s widely respected senior advisor on religion, along with screenings and panel discussions of two new films: a documentary about theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Scorsese’s latest epic film, “Silence,” about a Portuguese Jesuit forced to renounce his faith under extreme duress in seventeenth-century Japan. Our lunch talks this semester will reflect on American Muslims in the Trump era, the ethics of citizenship, and the religion and politics behind international adoptions. Our student engagement efforts in the spring feature a conversation with renowned public radio host Krista Tippett about citizenship and civility, another student town hall event, and a graduate student seminar on the Bible in American political life. And we are working with the Jesuit Institute to host a large multi-day conference on ethics in the university. 

As this interim year reaches its mid-point, I have been working with incoming director Mark Massa, S.J. (who begins here July 1) on a strategic plan to take the Boisi Center into its next phase. We will continue this process through 2017, reporting on our progress and plans in this space and others. We value all of you who read this newsletter, attend our events, advise our projects, visit our offices, and otherwise contribute to our efforts. I invite you to reach out to me at with your thoughts about our work as we look to the future.

~ Erik Owens


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