HDS Launches Religion and Public Life, New Degree Program

October 15, 2020
mural painting of pomegranates and landscape with buildings
A mural painting of pomegranates and landscape with buildings.

A message from David N. Hempton, Dean of Harvard Divinity School

Today we announce a big step forward for Harvard Divinity School—the launch of Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. At its core, Religion and Public Life (RPL) is about educating leaders to understand the civic consequences of religion, in service of building a just world at peace. It represents a new vision for the role and mission of our School that will truly shape our character and trajectory both in the years to come as well as in our tumultuous present.

A year and a half ago, when I asked a core group of our faculty to step back and consider how we could use our current resources to better address the pressing problems facing humanity, none of us could have predicted the heavy toll this year would take. Recent events have underscored to all of us the power of religion in our current moment, as we dismantle injustice, bridge partisan divides, and inspire action for a more sustainable future. We are reminded nearly every day that our work at HDS has important civic implications.

Religion and Public Life at HDS helps us address these critical issues by providing 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. It also provides a framework for students across disciplines and professionals in a wide array of fields to better understand the destructive as well as the creative power of religion in distinct contexts. Just as pathbreaking scholarship has illuminated the pervasive role of class, race, gender, and so many other important factors in addressing issues of civic importance, Religion and Public Life’s approach to understanding religion in context—or religious literacy—will prove crucial to understanding the rich complexity of modern human affairs.

Accomplishing this important work will be a school-wide effort in both academics and programming. RPL’s academic offerings will provide students with the theoretical frameworks and critical approaches needed to understand and address the religious dimensions of the most intractable issues of our time. The cornerstone of these offerings is a new, year-long degree program for experienced professionals: the master of religion and public life. RPL will also host certificate programs, courses, experiential learning, and career-focused training for students across the University, as well as Continuing and Executive Education and a rich menu of online learning options for learners outside of our degree programs.

In addition, RPL will support a broad range of programming within and beyond HDS, inspiring fresh approaches to religion in the fields of education, journalism, humanitarian action, government, entertainment media, and conflict transformation. In doing so, RPL builds on the foundation of the Religious Literacy Project, which expanded its previous work on education to cover a range of professional fields under Religious Literacy and the Professions. It also continues the work of the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative on peacebuilding. In addition to this ongoing work, RPL is a space to convene discussions and support projects on religion and power, justice, art, sustainability, health, and many more critical aspects of public life, both literally in the newly renovated Swartz Hall on Harvard’s campus and figuratively by providing a framework and support for faculty, staff, and students to collaborate on these compelling issues.

As we launch this exciting new chapter in the life of Harvard Divinity School, I want to sincerely thank all the faculty and staff whose countless hours of efforts to construct the many dimensions of the program on Religion and Public Life have led to this moment. In particular, I thank the founding faculty director, Diane L. Moore, whose tireless work building the Religious Literacy Project has culminated in this exciting new chapter. Religion and Public Life at HDS provides new opportunities for us to further advance our School’s vision "to provide an intellectual home where scholars and professionals from around the globe research and teach the varieties of religion, in service of a just world at peace across religious and cultural divides."

I welcome you to join us in this important work and look forward to seeing how it will grow and shape our world.

David N. Hempton

Dean of the Faculty of Divinity
Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies
John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity