The annual Graduate Symposium on Religion and Politics provides an opportunity for informal reflection and conversation among graduate students from different disciplines on the relationship between religion, politics, art, and culture.
However, because of the Pandemic affecting in-person meetings, during the academic year 2020/2021, the Boisi Center pivoted from a symposium setting to an online graduate student conference. For two years, 2020/2021 and 2021/2022, we held the graduate student conferences online via Zoom. During 2022/2023, we held our first in person graduate conference.
2010–2011: How Christian is American Politics?
Participants met three to four times per semester, over lunch provided by the Boisi Center, to discuss a short reading.
Fall 2010 readings included selections from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, among others.
In the spring of 2011, the group discussed evangelicalism in America and specific topics such as Islam in America, civic education, marriage, immigration, and citizenship, depending on the interests of the group.
Discussion was be facilitated by political science Ph.D. candidate Brenna McMahon, and led each week by seminar participants.
- The Founding
- The Civil War Era
- The Civil Rights Era
- Christian Conservatism
- Religious Toleration in America
- Liberty and the Body
Faculty, Staff, & Alumni Symposium
Participants meet five times over the course of the spring and summer 2011 semesters, over a continental breakfast provided by the Boisi Center, to discuss a short reading.
Participants will discuss selections from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rick Warren, among others. Depending on the schedule and interests of symposium members, the group will continue in the summer with specific topics such as abortion, marriage, religious toleration, and end of life issues.
No expertise or previous coursework in the subject is expected or required. Discussion will be facilitated by political science Ph.D. candidate Brenna McMahon, and led each week by symposium participants. We expect the seminar to meet Friday mornings from 8:30-9:30, but this can change depending on the participants’ schedules.
2011–2012: God-talk in American Politics
Why do references to God and faith play such an important role in the current presidential campaigns? What role has God and faith played in American political history?
In this non-credit reading and discussion group, we read seminal speeches in American political history that address contemporary political questions. Topics include: immigration, racism, national crisis, American exceptionalism, public morality, and social welfare. In six sessions over the course of the academic year (two in the fall and four in the spring), the group will discuss different views expressed in these speeches about God and the proper role of God and faith in American political rhetoric.
No expertise or previous coursework in the subject is expected or required. Discussion will be facilitated by political science Ph.D. candidate Brenna R. Strauss, and led each week by symposium participants. Lunch will be provided by the Boisi Center at each session.
- Introduction to Dialogue
- The Founding and Nation Building
- National Crisis and War
- Religion and the Politician
- Public Morality and Federalism
- Slavery and Race
- Election 2012 and the Contraception Debate
Faculty, Staff, & Alumni Symposium
Is God-talk a requirement in American politics? Why are presidential candidates’ religious views so important to Americans? What is the proper role of God-talk in American politics?
In this non-credit reading and discussion group, we will read seminal speeches in American political history that address these and related questions, including those of Washington, Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, as well as more recent speeches. Topics will include: the founding, war and national crisis, religion and the presidential candidate, racism, public morality, and social welfare. In five sessions over the course of the spring 2012 semester, the group will discuss the theology behind these speeches and the proper role of God and faith in American political rhetoric.
No expertise or previous coursework in the subject is expected or required. Discussion will be facilitated by political science Ph.D. candidate Brenna R. Strauss, and led each week by symposium participants. We expect the seminar to meet Friday mornings from 8:30-9:30AM, but this can change depending on the participants’ schedules. A continental breakfast will be provided by the Boisi Center at each session.
2012–2013: Religious Freedom in America
2013–2014: Religious Diversity and the Common Good
2014–2015: The Future of Marriage and Family
The fifth annual Boisi Center Symposium on Religion and Politics is examining the future of marriage and the family this year. A group of graduate students and professors from the theology and political science departments meet each month to discuss the nature of marriage and the family, and their state in America today. Discussions center around each session’s readings, which examine marriage and the family philosophically, theologically and from the point of view of social science.
Among the topics the group is discussing are the growing socio-economic divide regarding marriage rates and the related rate of births within marriage; the rising age of marriage among college-educated Americans; and the plummeting birth rates in the United States and the West in general.
These topics invite deeper examination of what marriage means, what the place of children is within a meaningful life, and the downsides or costs of the traditional family arrangement for both men and women.
A recurrent theme is the individualism of modern liberalism. In writing about America in the nineteenth century, Alex- is de Tocqueville hoped that marriage would counteract the individualizing tendencies of liberalism. It looks like instead that individualism is working to weaken the traditional institution. We are trying to understand what is gained and lost by this.
Our discussions have similarly raised questions about the relationship be- tween law, norms and culture. It seems doubtful whether public policy can affect current trends. The question then, as citizens and academics, is whether there is any way to affect our surrounding culture.
We are looking forward to continuing the conversation next semester.
2015–2016: Women in Religious Leadership
The sixth annual Boisi Center Symposium on Religion and Politics considered the topic of women in religious leadership, with particular attention to issues of ordination. A group of graduate students met six times to discuss the women’s leadership in five major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
In addition to discussing relevant readings, the group was honored to have three experts give presentations: Ruth Langer and Catherine Cornille of the BC theology department and Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School Seonjoon Young. Langer offered her knowledge on the issue of women leaders in Judaism. Cornille shared her scholarship and stories of Hindu female gurus. Young was able to offer her experience of her time as a Buddhist monk.
2016–2017: The Bible in American Political Discourse, 1960–2016
The Bible has played a foundational role in the construction of American identity and public discourse. This year’s graduate symposium, led by Boisi Center graduate research assistant Tom Fraatz, explored some touchstone debates of the last fifty years.
These included: Ronald Reagan’s nuclear apocalypticism, the end of the Cold War, and American support of Israel; the Civil Rights Movement through the works of Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bob Jones; the public display of the Ten Commandments and competing claims about their importance for the American legal tradition; the attacks of September 11 as divine retribution for American sin, represented by the infamous statements from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and Jeremiah Wright’s sermon; and debates over same-sex marriage, the legality of California’s Proposition 8, and LGBTQ issues in the Bible.
The discussions focused on six questions: What are the author’s historical circumstances? Why are they writing? How do they use the Bible? What assumptions do they make about the Bible? How persuasive are the author’s points? What lessons for today can we take from these readings?
2017–2018: Theology and Film
Starting in fall 2017, Boisi Center graduate research assistant Jack Nuelle facilitated screenings and discussions of theologically engaging or significant films from throughout world cinema. The symposium was the 8th annual in the Boisi Center series of graduate student symposia on Religion and Politics. It was made up of interested graduate students from around the BTI. Films screened, in order, were: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini; Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) by French director Robert Bresson; Calvary (2014) by Irish director John Michael McDonagh; Timbuktu (2014) by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako; The Seventh Seal (1957) by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman; and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003), by South Korean director Kim Ki-duk. The goal of the seminar was to explore four main categories of film: Scripture in film, films exploring the contemplative, films that portray religion in the modern world, and films that examine religion through a non-Western lens. Discussion touched on each film’s use of sound and music, the consistent themes of violence and suffering, the ways the sacred was represented visually, the power of grace when portrayed cinematically, and the myriad ways religion complicates and deepens modern life.
2018–2019: Vocation in the American Imagination
What does it mean to view work as a calling? The Boisi Center’s Ninth Annual Graduate Symposium on Religion and Politics centered on this question as it sits within the American imagination, from the Puritans to the present. The first meeting in October gathered fourteen graduate students from across the varying disciplines of history, theology, social work, philosophy, divinity, and political science (including a few students from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) to discuss the sermons of Richard Baxter and Jonathan Edwards. Surveying this foundational view of work as having an ultimately religious meaning, students discussed how, for the Puritans, ordinary time was structured and sacralized, with vocations prioritizing the service of God and the common good placed in a higher order than those seeking to maximize profit. The second meeting in November was led by Ph.D. student Jacob Wolf (BC political science), and tackled Alexis de Tocqueville and the relationship of religion to the development and dangers of American public life. The readings were supplemented with social-scientific data on the tendency of Americans to work at the expense of leisure. Concluding the fall was a session led by graduate students Daniel Gustafson, S.J. (Boston College STM) and Luke Proctor (Gordon-Conwell) on “broken work.” Engaged readings focused on the mores of the Southern planter class as contrasted with the Puritan middle class work ethic of the Northeast. A somber conversation led to questions of how, in a fractioning time, we might narrate America’s history of slavery with proper remorse. Several noted how ideologies of individual success tends to cover over the generational continuity carrying the burden of “broken work.” Taking the recent apology to descendants of slaves of American Jesuits at Georgetown as an example, the semester ended concluding that the deep questions about just and sacred work ought to be tackled together, in communities. “The solution to broken work,” as Proctor put it, “will be a vision of good work.”
The fall semester of the Boisi Center’s Ninth Annual Graduate Symposium on Religion and Politics concluded with a session on the history of “broken work” and slavery, including discussions of the implications of that legacy today. The spring semester’s meetings opened with readings from Jim Cullen’s The American Dream to round out the tour de force of American ideas around vocation, with BC graduate student in history, Laurel Teal, leading. What happens when “the idea of easy living” captures the national imagination, replacing the Protestant work ethic that had shaped much of American history – economic and otherwise – up to that point? The next session, led by graduate students Eryn Gammonley (BC political science) and Clarke Mitchell (BC philosophy), moved the conversation to ask what a vision for good work might look like given the history of American ideas around work and vocation. The German economist E. F. Schumacher framed the discussion, provoking questions about the scale of economies but also about the kind of education required to form people who choose good work over mere profit. Concluding the meeting were examples of other kinds of work, like that of Auguste Rodin’s sculpting, to ask how the work itself might form us and our students in addition to the framework we provide. Our final conversation was led by the Boisi Center’s graduate research assistant, Mary Elliot (BC philosophy), and Jacob Wolfe (BC political science). Finding readings to wrap up a year’s worth of provoking and rich conversations was difficult. Matthew Crawford and Josef Pieper helped us conclude, raising questions around the relationship between work and leisure, active professions, and those that tend towards the life of the mind. But this last conversation took a turn back, again, to education, as all of the participants reflected on the role of a professor in preparing students to face questions of vocation unlike our own. The symposium began with a broad sweep on “vocation in the American imagination,” but it concluded with a concrete conviction: American university students, whose roles vary widely post-graduation, call for a kind of education that prepares them for work but also for a deeper way of life, one where the vocational call leads well beyond any finite occupation.
- October 17th, 2018: Puritan Work Ethic (Baxter, Edwards, and the New Yorker)
- November 8th, 2018: Observing Americans (Huntington and Tocqueville)
- December 6th, 2018: Broken Work and Slavery (Genovese and Gustafson)
- February 27th, 2019: The American Dream (Cullen)
- March 26th, 2019: Good Work (Rilke and Schumacher)
2019–2020: Deep Stories: Narrative’s Role in American Religion and Politics
In her recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild writes, “A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. . . . And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.” Assuming this is true, our own deep stories are a blend of elements from the many narratives we hear and internalize—familial, religious, social, historical, political. And these narratives play significant and decisive roles in our lived experience and our interpretation of the world around us.
This year’s Graduate Symposium will gather students from a variety of disciplines to explore the role narratives play in the lives of Americans. The seminar will begin by reviewing perspectives on the power of narrative or story and the influence of different narratives upon one another as they shape our “deep stories.” With a particular focus on the interplay of religious and political narratives, participants will then discern the ways our narratives have been formed, how they have evolved, and how some seek to manipulate them. Then we will turn to the way stories influence American perspectives on important topics, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.
The Symposium, an informal and student-led graduate seminar, will meet approximately once a month from November through April for a free meal and discussion at the Boisi Center (24 Quincy Road, Chestnut Hill, MA). Designed to be interdisciplinary and limited to a small number of engaged participants, students will be invited to lead a session and to suggest short readings, as modeled below. All participants will be asked to commit to at least four of the six total sessions through the academic year. Meeting dates and times will be determined to best accommodate the participants’ various schedules.
Virtual Graduate Student Conference
COVID-19 has drastically altered life in almost every way, including religious life. Religious gatherings have been restricted, worship has shifted online to significantly reshaped formats, hospital chaplaincy faces new challenges, complaints of infringed religious liberty have emerged, churches have actively subverted mask or social-distancing orders, and the future of in-person worship might be forever changed.
Join the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life for its first graduate student conference exploring the impact of COVID-19 on religion in the United States. Graduate students from seventeen institutions across the nation will present papers from multiple disciplines addressing issues arising now, in the midst of COVID's impact, as well as issues linked to past pandemics and possible future issues arising from COVID's lasting influence on religion in the U.S. context.
Whether characterized by a peaceable coexistence or an acrimonious contention, the relationship between religion and politics in the United States has been intimate from the nation's founding. At times religious groups have blessed soldiers as they marched off to war, while at other times they have prophetically denounced our nation's involvement in such violence. In return, the political groups have constricted religious practices to protect vulnerable populations, while they have also provided greater protection for corporations to claim religious exemptions from perceived government imposition. Throughout U.S. history, activism in the religious or political sphere has worked to shape and reshape the other--sometimes for better outcomes and sometimes for worse.
Join us as graduate students from around the country present interesting, informative, and creative papers from a variety of disciplines that explore this relationship between activism and change in the religious and political spheres. Additionally, we will hear responses to the graduate students' papers from featured respondents, including Dan McKanan (Harvard Divinity School), Erick Berralleza, S.J. (Santa Clara University), Ken Himes, O.F.M. (Boston College), and more.
To learn more and watch each session, visit the Boisi Center's event page on Religious Activism and Political Change; Political Activism and Religious Change.
Race and Religion
3rd Annual Graduate Student Conference
Some 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his dismay “that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” To this day, approximately 80 percent of congregations are attended by a single race predominantly. Despite this racial chasm, worshipping communities and religious leaders maintain a prominent role in anti-racist activism, including, for example, the collection of antiracism resources curated by the National Council of Jewish Women or the Black Lives Matter march organized by the Muslims of Greater St. Louis. Some congregations, however, are faced with a reckoning of their problematic pasts, such as the discriminatory practices that led to the founding of the John Wesley AME Zion Church in Washington, D.C., or the sale of enslaved persons by the Society of Jesus to save Georgetown University.
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College will host its third annual graduate student conference exploring the relationship between race and religion. We invite papers addressing current, historical, and emerging issues at the intersection of these topics. As an interdisciplinary conference, we encourage submissions from graduate and professional students in any discipline, including (but not limited to) theology, philosophy, political science, sociology, history, law, peace studies, etc.