Social Science Research Council Fellows at Fetzer Institute

The Fetzer Institute has long held an interest in the lived experience of democracy. So rather than focusing on issues, challenges, or policy, our work in this area addresses questions like How are we expanding the idea of “we” the people? What does it mean to build mutual respect and relationships across difference? How can we get better at sharing power?

This interest, coupled with major shifts in the religious and political landscapes, prompted us three years ago to collaborate with the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Program on Religion and the Public Sphere. The result? A fellowship program to support new scholarship that could also become part of a broader public discourse, all in the interest of strengthening our social fabric.

“This work takes on the questions of diverse religious groups and their coexistence within the framework of the US Constitution, which protects the rights of all to practice their religions,” notes Fetzer’s Senior Program Officer Mohammed Mohammed. “But we also know how some religious groups and expressions are allowed to thrive and others are not.”

And this September, with midterm elections looming, we brought together 13 fellows and program advisors to share their work with each other. SSRC Program Director Alexa Dietrich framed this as an opportunity for fellows to reflect on their multidisciplinary research experience and encouraged fellows to connect their projects to issues that transcend their disciplines and research specialties. “We know that silos are antithetical to collaboration and the building of strong social relationships. At the same time, we have to work deliberately to break out of them and to work together to build more diverse knowledge bases. That is core to the mission of the SSRC,” notes Dietrich.

The work in progress presents a reflection of who we are as a people and how our religious diversity, beliefs, and practices are showing up in the public sphere—in both positive and negative ways—with topics like the following.

  • “Dreams of D-Mecca: Racial Crossings and Islamic Renewal in the ‘Two Detroits,’” Lucy Ballard, Harvard University
  • “Saving the South: The Southern Social Gospel and the White Middle Class Quest for Democratic Redemption,” Mary M. Bathory Vidaver, University of Mississippi
  • “Catholic Culture Wars: Intracommunal Debates about Muslims and the Construction of Modern Catholic Identity,” Alexandra Bayer, Boston University
  • “’Welcoming the Stranger:’ American Evangelicals and US Refugee Resettlement,” Emily Frazier, Missouri State University
  • “Black Lives Matter Revives the Role of the Sacred in the Public Sphere,” Seth Gaithers, University of North Carolina, Wilmington

Of the work, Mohammed Mohammed notes, “At the core of this fellowship is a commitment to truth. Truth in method, rigor, and accountability to our public lives, civic spaces, and public agendas. These young scholars—tech savvy, passionate, and at the beginning of their careers—are the right people to shape this conversation about how to detoxify the public sphere.

Fetzer was interested in working with SSRC because of a shared interest in the cultural aspects of democracy. On shaping the project, Mohammed states, “We didn't want Fetzer to be a sole funder—we wanted interest to come from a variety of perspectives, just like a democracy. Inviting others to contribute to the agenda provides a balance of power among the grantee, fellows, and cofunders that we think makes a difference in the success of the project.”

A new call for proposals for the next round of fellowships will be announced in December on the SSRC’s website. Plans are also underway for future workshops and convenings to continue this cross-cutting work, and to bring the conversation to broader audiences. “We look forward to continuing this exciting partnership with Fetzer, and to the contributions these early career researchers can make to the understanding and the working process of democratic renewal,” says Dietrich.

Learn more about Fetzer's faith work.