My goal is to get students to understand how and why different people take the positions they take.

Brantley Gasaway

Religion and politics can be sensitive subjects, Professor Brantley Gasaway, religious studies, is committed to helping students discuss them respectfully and analyze them critically. "My goal is to get them to understand how and why different people take the positions they take. This requires self-reflection and engagement with contrasting convictions."

Gasaway's teaching and research focus on the role religion plays in American life, especially in terms of politics and law. "While the First Amendment clearly states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, it also guarantees the free exercise of religion," he says. "As a result, religious beliefs have affected public policy and laws since the founding of this nation. Over the past four decades, the intersection of religion and politics became even more visible, especially in conflicts regarding abortion and gay rights."

In each of his courses, Gasaway also addresses issues of religious diversity. Students explore the social, political and legal challenges faced by religious minorities who fall outside mainstream Christian culture. In addition, he emphasizes diversity within American Christianity. His own research has analyzed contemporary evangelical Christians who are politically progressive rather than conservative. Their activism began in the 1960s in support of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, economic inequalities and other injustices. "Progressive evangelicals are largely non-partisan," Gasaway explains, "and believe that they have a public responsibility, as Christians, to help the poor and the marginalized."

Gasaway says he wants his students to think carefully and critically about these issues so that they can better define their own positions, defend them rationally and respectfully, and consider their consequences in a religiously pluralistic society.

"I ask students in my Religion & American Politics course to write a two-page essay at the beginning of the semester on the role religion can and should play in American public life," he says. "Then, at the end of the course, they write an eight-page paper on the same topic. Their position may have changed, or it may have deepened. Either way, it should be better articulated."

Posted Sept. 30, 2015