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

In the last few decades, religion has taken a central place in Africa and African diaspora affairs and indeed that of the Global South more broadly. Social, economic, and political discourses have been increasingly shaped by religious sensibilities and religious activities. In particular, the current situation 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.

Research questions center around the following themes:

1. Religion and the law: public versus private spaces for religion and the juridification of religion

We explore 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 up? How do political blocs form and reform around the polarity of faith? With what historical effect? And under what conditions are these processes informed, even saturated, by appeal to constitutions and legal institutions, to courts and other quasi-judicial organizations? Furthermore, how has the law been enlisted to oppress and protect African-derived religious traditions?

2. 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?

3. 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 and Todne Thomas.

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