Reflections on the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs: 2005-2021

Nov. 19, 2021 By Toby Volkman
Reflections on the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs: 2005-2021
A group of 11 friends take a break outside their school in Baramulla district in Kashmir. Photograph by Showkat Nanda, supported by the Magnum Foundation.

Transforming the Conversation Around Religion in World Affairs

By Toby Alice Volkman, Director of Policy Initiatives

In early 2021—sixteen years, 223 grants and more than $60 million after its inception—the Foundation announced that the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs (HRLI) would wind down its grantmaking. This decision was not intended to signal that the need to understand the role of religion in world affairs had lessened; indeed, new issues such as the rise of religious nationalism were front and center. It did, however, reflect our conviction that HRLI had contributed in significant measure to the recognition of religion as an important factor in a range of international issues; to deeper understanding of the complex roles religion plays in a myriad of contexts; and to closer, more productive ties among those working on this topic in academia, policy, and the media.

The initiative was conceived in a post–9/11 environment, a time when “religion and international affairs,” was, “for many people, simply a euphemism for work focused on the relationship between Islam and global security,” as Peter Mandaville, a political scientist at George Mason University has put it. The Foundation reasoned that a new initiative could further its goal of increasing America’s capacity for international understanding while enhancing public discourse about religion broadly understood.

From its inception in 2005, HRLI was intended to bring informed analysis of religion into relevant policy conversations through interaction with academia and the media. In the world of policy, the Foundation contended, religion was often ignored, gingerly avoided, or poorly understood. U.S. foreign policy was seen as a critical arena that could benefit from more nuanced perspectives on religion, while media and journalism—which were central to Henry R. Luce’s thinking about the practice of democracy—could play a pivotal role in enhancing public understanding of religion.

In its first three years the initiative focused on U.S. graduate schools of public policy and international affairs, with an eye toward training future policymakers, while also making responsive grants to policy and media organizations. Although few media outlets provided in-depth coverage of religion at this time, HRLI was an early supporter of Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett’s weekly radio program, launched in 2003, and of Religion News Service. One of the first four grants, to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, resulted in a report, Mixed Blessings, which validated the Foundation’s assumption that there was little capacity in the U.S. government to work with religion, and that officials were often reluctant to address what they perceived to be a complicated, sensitive topic.

In 2008, the Luce Foundation’s Board of Directors agreed to extend the initiative. At that point, the salience of religion in the world had not diminished. Islam loomed large in public consciousness in the aftermath of 9/11; the demonization of Islam and Muslims in the U.S. showed no signs of abating; and the mantra of “saving Muslim women” continued to be invoked to justify the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Religious fervor animated the endless “war on terror.”

When I joined the Foundation in 2009 as Director of Policy Initiatives, HRLI was at a key inflection point, poised to build on what had been learned since its launch, and to move in new directions. In this essay, I share my reflections on the evolution and impact of the initiative.

Toby Volkman, Dina Mahnaz Siddiqi, and Lila Abu-Lughod at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Social Difference in 2011 celebrating the publication of Women’s Rights, Muslim Family Law, and the Politics of Consent. Image courtesy of the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

A Retrospective View

As we began the process of winding down our grantmaking, I invited some of our interlocuters to share their own reflections. I wanted to know more about how HRLI had helped to “transform the conversation,” a phrase I had often heard when people spoke about the impact of the initiative.

“I don’t think there was a conversation 15-20 years ago,” responded Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. To find or invent such a conversation, she writes, was

hard and lonely work. The initiative was created in response to a gaping hole in academic and public discourse on this subject – a hole too often filled with ill-informed and politically dangerous ruminations about Islam by so-called experts. It is not possible to overstate the influence and impact of this initiative in creating and shaping a nuanced and thoughtful public conversation on a range of topics touching on religion and public international life.

Scholars in the social sciences and humanities were grappling anew with religion and secularism, but for the most part this was solo intellectual work, did not cross disciplinary divides, and those who sought to connect international affairs and religion struggled to find support. Peter Mandaville recalls:

When I started my career in the late 1990s, convincing foundations or government research funders to support research focused on religion in international affairs was an uphill struggle. One became very adept at using alternative terminology to avoid the “R” word (e.g. “values,” “culture,” “worldview”). There was always a prelude to any conversation with a funder where you felt it necessary to make the case that religion was a relevant focus in foreign affairs…HRLI changed all that by providing a dedicated line of support where the relevance of religion in international affairs was an already taken for granted point of departure. You could just get on with making your case without first being asked to prove that this kind of work is even worth considering.

Critically, HRLI also broadened the aperture. To quote Mandaville again:

By supporting projects focused on an incredibly diverse range of intersections between religion and various international issues, HRLI played an enormously important role in making space in the conversation for so much more than just Islam and security.

My priority when I joined the Foundation was to broaden the scope of HRLI grantmaking, especially to research universities. Several core principles informed these efforts: interdisciplinarity, especially in light of what was then a stark divide between the study of religion and politics/international relations; and international collaboration, as the initiative’s focus on the world required meaningful partnerships with individuals and institutions in the regions under study.

As an anthropologist, I was also committed to projects that were situated in specific times and places, engaged with local voices, and interrogated taken-for-granted concepts. It quickly became apparent that “religion” was itself a complex and ambiguous signifier, as were many other keywords that permeated both academic and policy discourse, such as secularism and sectarianism. Even the term “international” required a more capacious interpretation: we were supporting work on issues that were not only between nations, but also included non-state actors, diasporas, migrations, and digital mediations that transcended bounded territories or states.

To better understand these core concepts and the debates around them, I invited four scholars to meet at the Luce Foundation. To our surprise and delight, out of that brainstorming meeting a long-term project on the topic of religious freedom was born: housed at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Peter Danchin (each at different universities, from political science, anthropology, religious studies and law).

Over the next several years, the “Politics of Religious Freedom” project examined the many concepts and practices under the rubric of religious freedom. Workshops were held on four continents; multiple volumes, journal articles and special issues were published; op-eds and blogs and other public writing appeared. The project not only launched new courses, research, and a myriad of conversations on this contentious topic, but it provided a model of collaboration across disciplines, institutions, intellectual perspectives, and geographies, as well as varied formats for dissemination and sharing knowledge.

The conversations generated in this and many other projects raised critical questions about the category of religion. If HRLI began with an interest in remedying a perceived lack of attention to religion (in policy, media and academia), and in strengthening “religious literacy” about particular traditions, it evolved to focus on how to think about religion - who gets to define it, how, and why that matters.

From its inception, as noted above, the Board intended that HRLI would be about more than Islam. In later years, opening up the question of what we meant by religion allowed our work to extend beyond a focus on organized world religions, and to support projects on topics as diverse as lived religion and sacred landscapes in the Himalayas; indigenous knowledge and extractive industries in Latin America; and critical perspectives on humanitarianism through the lens of indigenous African traditions as well as varied forms of African Islam or Christianity.

While interrogating the category of religion, the initiative also encouraged attention to how religion works in the world, enmeshed in changing social, economic, political, and geopolitical contexts. This approach informs not just the scholarly work we have supported but, equally importantly, work in the domain of policy and media. The reports the International Crisis Group has produced, for example, examine the vastly different ways religion matters (or sometimes does not) in conflict situations in dozens of countries. The Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD, created with an HRLI grant) grapples with “right-sizing religion,” a term Peter Mandaville coined to suggest the need to attend to the role religion plays in different contexts, neither exaggerating its importance nor dismissing it.

Avoiding essentialism while still taking religion seriously, understanding its complex entanglements in politics and society and its myriad effects on the world – these challenges have shaped our approach throughout the life of initiative.

Ceremonial address to the mountain peak as part of the annual pilgrimage to Huaytapallana, the highest peak in the Huaytapallana mountain range in Huancayo, Peru. Photo by Bill Gentile. Part of a project on religion and climate change at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University.
A Buddhist sky-burial and a stupa in Tibet, with Mount Kailash in the background, a sacred place for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Bonpos. Part of the Sacred Himalaya Initiative. Photo courtesy of the India China Institute at The New School.

Accomplishments and Surprises

The initiative has generated innovative, interdisciplinary, policy-related scholarship. In religious studies, bringing in considerations of power and the state has enriched the field; bringing religion into international relations has been no less important. Grants have produced fresh, critical thinking on challenging problems in the world of policy. In addition to the politics of religious freedom, projects have addressed such topics as sectarianism, humanitarianism, migration and forced displacement, development, gender-based violence, sources of religious authority, the changing nature of political Islam, caste and inequality, minorities and citizenship, human rights, conflict and peace building, gender and the “war on terror,” and climate change.

“Retrospectively,” writes Evan Berry, a religious studies scholar at Arizona State University,

it seems to me that the most significant changes in the conversation are byproducts of scholarly frustration about the unduly narrow attempts to render religion and politics as a binary discussion about “Western secularism” versus “Muslim polities.” The Luce Program has been instrumental in supporting the work of scholars who wish to broaden and deepen the conservation to include considerations of climate change, sexual difference and gender politics, indigenous people’s struggles, humanitarianism and development issues, etc. Stated plainly, the program has helped expand academic work in this space beyond the instrumentalization of religious studies for realpolitik approaches to cultural difference.

In ways that would have been hard to anticipate at the start of HRLI, our media grants expanded in later years, including partnerships with new non-profit news organizations such as the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the GroundTruth Project. Founded in 2006 and 2014, respectively, both organizations were committed to journalist collaborations with academics, and both were excited about creating more nuanced reporting on religion and other global issues. Academics, at the same time, became increasingly interested in going beyond their critiques of journalistic representations of religion to working with reporters and news organizations. Anthropologist Suad Joseph, for example, created a training institute at University of California, Davis. Over three years, more than 50 early-career journalists interested in Muslim women throughout the world participated in seminars, were mentored throughout a year, and now form part of an international network, continuing to support each other’s work.

While much of the media work we supported reached wide audiences (on FRONTLINE, PBS NewsHour, PRI, New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, and other outlets), we were also committed to more specialized efforts, such as a public radio series, God and Government, on religion and state around the world. In recent years we have supported more experimental work: a graphic novel on ethics and health in Egypt and the U.S.; a feature film on surveillance in the Somali community in Minneapolis; the Magnum Foundation’s photographic collaborations on religion and migration; a documentary film series on religious, ethnic, and gender diversity in Indonesia; and Digital Dignity, a film and traveling multi-media installation on digital practices, religion, and the politics of belonging in India.

Also unanticipated was the impact our work would have in the policy arena. In announcing the new Office of Religion and Global Affairs in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the director, Shaun Casey, who acknowledged HRLI’s pivotal significance in bringing attention to the role of religion in policy. A grant to the American Academy of Religion subsequently supported the placement of academic Fellows in that Office. TPNRD, the network mentioned above, brings U.S. diplomats (and scholars) into transatlantic deliberations and collaborations with their counterparts in North America and Europe.

Although “religion in international affairs” is neither a field nor a discipline, work at this nexus is now well established. In 2000, the United Nations held one global meeting on religion; by 2020, each of the 60 UN agencies was hosting conversations on religion and with religious leaders. In 2020 USAID held its first "Summit on Strategic Religious Engagement" to discuss the roles of religious actors in addressing poverty, inequality, and sustainable development goals. Scholarly associations have added new sections on this topic, publications and courses have proliferated, and emerging scholars are mentored by academics who ten or fifteen years ago were still marginalized – doing the “hard and lonely work” against the grain of established practices in disciplines such as international relations or political science. HRLI grants, we are often told, have provided credibility and visibility to those who are now leading scholars working in this space.

Sister Beatrice Donnellan talks with a pair of visitors dropping off donations at Casa Vides in El Paso, Texas in August 2019. Photo Credit: Lily Moore-Eissenberg / Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting / TIME.
Participants in the first Muslim Women and the Media Training Institute seminar at University of California, Davis in February 2018. Image courtesy of Suad Joseph.

On Changing the Nature of Scholarly Practice

“We sought to cultivate a sense of “slow scholarship,” Shakman Hurd writes, reflecting on two collaborative projects she led with Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “where it was possible to think at leisure, try out ideas, retract or revise them, and experiment with knowing, presenting, and collaborating, all at a distance from the pressures of everyday academic life.”

Echoing this theme, John Paul Christy, Senior Director of U.S. Programs at the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), reminds us that beyond HRLI’s importance in supporting new research and debates, it has also “been instrumental in changing the conversation about the nature of scholarly practice, and about how and where knowledge is created and circulated.” Christy writes:

From the beginning the initiative focused on bridging diverse communities of practice (policy, media, academia) and respecting that each has its own valid claim to knowledge and understanding of global affairs. This mutual respect animated HRLI grantmaking, which made pathways available for work that broke down barriers across sectors and built trust and greater understanding where there was often suspicion and misgivings. This led to greater permeability among academia and journalism and public policy and (importantly) to work that was legible across these fields.

We see this work paying off in critical ways, not the least of which is the imprimatur that HRLI’s funding offered to experimental and publicly engaged scholarship, which was not often “counted” as valid scholarly work. The capacity to communicate with multiple audiences and to make humanistic research meaningful beyond the academy is critical to the future of the scholarly enterprise, and HRLI fostered dozens and dozens of projects that were fruitful training grounds for this work.

The Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs (RJIA) grew out of our concern that schools of journalism and communication were oddly absent – given HRLI’s interest in enhancing religion reporting – from our grantee pool. Christy convened several meetings with scholars and journalists, based on which ACLS designed a national program to complement HRLI’s project grants while strengthening individual scholars’ capacities to engage with journalists and diverse media platforms.

Since its launch in 2015, RJIA has supported 30 fellows and made 8 grants to universities, for collaboration on topics ranging from “Apocalyptic Narratives and Climate Change” to “Talking ‘Religion:’ Publics, Politics, and the Media.”

American correspondent Micah Danney as he interviews Israelis during a parade in Jerusalem, which was one of the major events of the week-long Feast of Tabernacles festival, also known as Sukkot. Photo by Heidi Levine for The GroundTruth Project.
Zaid Al-Ali speaks about the Tunisian constitutional process at the 'Reconciling Deep Reforms with Political Pluralism' conference in Tunis, organized by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. October, 2018. Image courtesy of the Hollings Center.

Looking Ahead

In 2022, the Social Science Research Council will launch a new digital platform intended to capture the initiative’s breadth, accomplishments and challenges. The platform will serve as an accessible repository of the work of our grantees, as a forum for stimulating reflections on the field, and as a catalyst for new research and conversations. In this partnership with one of HRLI’s first grantees, we aspire to create something lively and engaging, and to reach diverse audiences: scholars, students, policymakers, media producers and journalists, and practitioners of various sorts, as well as peers in philanthropy who may be inspired to support new ideas and practices at the intersection of religion and international affairs.

In considering the future, John Paul Christy points to these challenges:

HRLI projects … allowed scholars to explore how religion touched on practically every dimension of political and cultural life. That broad topical reach suggests that there are many areas of public importance – democracy, migration and immigration, environmental change, etc. – where scholars in the humanities and social sciences could be more active participants in the conversation. Of course, there are many hurdles in the way of achieving this vision, and one key challenge is to find ways to reward this valuable work as a kind of scholarly practice. But coopting traditional academic reward structures is not enough; the public sphere is hotly contested space, and both higher education and philanthropy must consider how best to train, support, and in some cases protect the scholars who are bringing their expertise into explosive debates.

I am grateful to Ambassador James T. Laney, a Member of the Luce Foundation Board from 1990-2018, now Director Emeritus, who first proposed the initiative; former President Michael Gilligan, who provided invaluable leadership and guidance; former Vice President Terry Lautz, who directed the HRLI from 2005-2008; and my steadfast interlocuter at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Hillary Wiesner, director of Carnegie's program on transnational movements in the Arab world.

In June 2021, I invited a number of grantees to reflect on the field and how the “conversation” has changed in the years since HRLI was launched. I also asked them to share thoughts on what they see as the important questions now, promising or exciting new directions, and challenges. Nearly 40 individuals responded, describing the ways our work has had an impact: on fields of inquiry, on modes of collaboration, on bridging sectors, on building enduring communities of thought and practice. Excerpts from some of these reflections are offered through the link below.

—Toby Alice Volkman, Director of Policy Initiatives

View Additional Reflections from the Field

Hitsats Refugee Camp, Tigrai Region - Northern Ethiopia, February 2018. Photo credit: Max Hirzel for Human Lines, a project at University of Notre Dame.

Religion in International Affairs

Related News

March 28, 2022Grantee News
Announcing the 2022 Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs Grantees
Religion and TheologyReligion in International Affairs
Announcing the 2022 Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs Grantees
Sept. 8, 2021Grantee News
Hope and Disappointment Under Lockdown in Kashmir
Religion in International AffairsResponding to Covid-19
Aug. 2, 2021Grantee News
A Case for De-emphasizing Religion in US Foreign Policy
Religion in International Affairs
See All