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Center leads the way in study of religion in American culture and beyond

Jan 22, 2024

Phil Goff, left, and Andrew Whitehead, inside the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture on the IUPUI campus. Phil Goff, left, and Andrew Whitehead, inside the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture on the IUPUI campus. Photo by Justin Casterline, Indiana University

Since its inception in 1989, the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture on Indiana University’s Indianapolis campus has become known across the globe as a leader in its field. The center’s focus is to increase understanding of the influence of religion in the lives of Americans through impactful research and service to the public.

The center’s reach expanded in 2020 when the Association of Religion Data Archives transitioned its operations from Penn State to its current home at IUPUI. The ARDA was recently awarded a $1.6 million grant from The John Templeton Foundation to continue its work, which complements a $2.4 million grant it previously received from Lilly Endowment Inc. The funds will help the ARDA provide important data to clergy members, community leaders, journalists and researchers as well as students and others who interact with the center.

“The goal of the ARDA is to democratize access to quality data on religion,” said Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of sociology and director of the Association of Religion Data Archives. “In the current political and social climate, knowing where folks can go for trustworthy, nonpartisan information and data is really important.”

The ARDA, which was established at Penn State in 1997, has grown to include information from the world’s foremost religion scholars and research centers. Once the decision was made to move the archive elsewhere, IU seemed like a natural transition considering the center’s reputation.

The center’s journal, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, published by Cambridge University Press, is the top academic publication regarding the study of religion in North America; copies of the journal are found in more than 9,000 libraries around the world. The center also hosts the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, the largest meeting dedicated to studying religion in North America.

Andrew Whitehead, director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, Philip Goff, executive director of the Center for the Study of R... Andrew Whitehead, director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, Philip Goff, executive director of the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture, and Joseph L. Tucker Edmonds, associate director of the center. Photo by Justin Casterline, Indiana University

“The center is interdisciplinary,” said Philip Goff, Chancellor’s Professor of American Studies and executive director of the center. “We have researchers in women’s studies, political science, history, sociology and many other fields, which was all very much by design. Current research projects include such topics as how congregations deal with polarization and how faith traditions get passed from one generation to the next.”

Goff said that making the center interdisciplinary creates more interesting conversations around religion and American culture. The center’s impact continues to grow with the inclusion of the Association of Religion Data Archives’ vast resources and the funding that will bolster the archive’s efforts.

“More than 650 different research, peer-reviewed outlets cite the ARDA as a source of data,” Whitehead said. “The ARDA serves a number of constituencies across many different disciplines. Researchers and journalists who study religion in the U.S. contact us, and we help them access quality, up-to-date data. We also serve educators, and we serve community members.”

Whitehead said that clergy and community members find the archive’s open-access community profile builder tool to be an especially useful resource. By simply searching for a certain location on the map, churches and community leaders can access current data about their communities, including social, economic and religious information, free of charge.

Clergy and community members find the Association of Religion Data Archive's open-access community profile builder tool to be a... Clergy and community members find the Association of Religion Data Archive's open-access community profile builder tool to be a useful resource.

The data is derived from the U.S. Religion Census, the American Community Surveys, U.S. Census Bureau, Pew Research Center and General Social Survey. It includes locations of different congregations, congregation sizes, and statistics on housing, race, ethnicity, language, education and income. People who use the community profile builder can even find information about individual denominations and discover data about a denomination’s beliefs and history within that community.

“Clergy members and civic and community leaders are using this data in really fascinating ways,” Whitehead said. “They’re able to plan out how to meet different needs in their communities, how they can partner with civic organizations and community services. The data the ARDA provides allows them to go into those conversations with an understanding of what and who they’re talking about.”

Whitehead, who was recently awarded the IUPUI Research Trailblazer Award as well as the School of Liberal Arts’ 2023 Outstanding Tenure Track Faculty Award, requires students taking his courses to use the tool in their own research.

“I teach ‘Sociology of Religion,’” Whitehead said. “Part of my students’ assignment is to do field research where they attend a religious service in a religious community different than what they grew up in. Before they go spend time at a worship service there, they’ll use this community profile builder to understand who’s around this community or congregation.”

Whitehead said the tool helps students understand differences among religious groups and cultures. He said the Association of Religion Data Archives has helped him in his own research as well, which aims to create better understanding of the role of Christian nationalism in the United States.

His most recent book, “American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church,” was published in 2023. Whitehead was also the lead author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” which won the 2021 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Considered one of the foremost scholars of Christian nationalism in the U.S., Whitehead has written pieces for The Washington Post, Time, NBC News and the Religion News Service. He has appeared in The New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker, CNN Today, The Economist, Rolling Stone and The Guardian to help define what Christian nationalism is and how its prevalence affects Americans’ lives and freedom.

Community faith leaders gather for a prayer vigil on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023, in Washi... Community faith leaders gather for a prayer vigil on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Speakers called for an end to Christian nationalism and denounced political violence. Photo by Nathan Howard, Getty Images

“What we find in surveys of the American public is that Christian nationalism, over and over, is associated with less support for democratic values and for racial and ethnic diversity, for diversity across religion and true religious freedom,” Whitehead said. “It tends to be a force that can pull communities apart, rather than bring them together.

“It isn’t as though Americans can’t bring values and beliefs that they draw from their religious heritage into the public sphere or even into politics, but when it’s used to limit and deny access to folks that don’t share those religious beliefs, that’s where we see the problematic aspects of it come to the fore.”

Whitehead said the research and resources provided by the Association of Religion Data Archives and the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture as a whole are intended to increase understanding and bring communities together, an endeavor that comes at a time when it is difficult for groups with varied beliefs to have productive conversations.

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Julia Hodson

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