Weatherhead Research Cluster on Religion in Public Life in Africa and the African Diaspora

In the fall of 2018, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs launched the Research Cluster on Religion in Public Life in Africa and the African Diaspora to explore the way religion has taken a central place in Africa and African diaspora affairs as well as the Global South. 

Social, economic, and political discourses are increasingly shaped by religious sensibilities and religious activities. This poses a major challenge to African nations in their commitment to creating secular states and in the constantly shifting and contested boundary between the secular and the sacred, the public and the private. 

This is significant because the Indigenous worldview and traditions have been the basis for constructing and imagining African spirituality, interfaith interactions, and engagement between religion and politics, and has had a major impact on the lives of public and private citizens. 

Specifically, the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Religion in Public Life in Africa and the African Diaspora is exploring the following themes: 

Religion and the law: public versus private spaces for religion and the juridification of religion
The cluster is looking at the relationship between law and religion in contemporary Africa and the diaspora. In so doing, we ask, among other things:

  • When and by what means do religious sodalities seek sovereignty over their followers alongside or against the state?
  • By what means do they establish the networks along which new forms of entrepreneurialism are opened?
  • How do political blocs form and reform around the polarity of faith?
  • With what historical effect?
  • Under what conditions are these processes informed, even saturated, by appeal to constitutions and legal institutions, to courts and other quasi-judicial organizations?
  • How has the law been enlisted to oppress and protect African-derived religious traditions?

Religion and commodification
The moral mission that colonized much of Africa in the nineteenth century echoed the vision that Christianity, commerce, and civilization went hand in hand. The international agents of “modernization” policies in mid-twentieth-century Africa stressed secularization, and the separation of church and state, but by the late-twentieth century, a shift was apparent: not only is much transnational development and medical aid in Africa now explicitly faith-based once more, but Indigenous Christian, Muslim, and traditionalist movements on the continent seem more comfortable now than ever before with market forces.

  • How is this to be explained?
  • How have these dynamics played out in the African diaspora, particularly with respect to issues such as tourism and race relations?
  • How do we account for the explicitly “this-worldly” emphasis of many denominations, their embrace of commerce, their turn to cutting-edge technology, the rise of Nollywood empires, and their involvement even in banking?

Religion, health, and healing
Our cluster examines liturgy, ritual, and healing practices that have evolved in Pentecostal, Protestant, and Orthodox Churches in Africa, and how these have accompanied African migrants to the United States. The expectation of miracles is central to African Christianity. A weak health care infrastructure across much of Africa and proven efficacy of traditional practices has made medical pluralism an enduring phenomenon in which religious healers offer a viable therapeutic alternative. How this shapes the approach to biomedicine and prognosis for those who actively bring faith and medicine together are key research questions. We also examine parallels with African American Christian traditions and how these two interact with each other.

The Weatherhead Research Cluster on Religion in Public Life in Africa and the African Diaspora is chaired by Professors Jacob Olupona, Kay Kaufman Shelemay, and Todne Thomas.

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