Religion in Public Life

The role of religion on public university campuses has changed significantly in the 21st century as religious identity has been afforded increasing significance in the intersectional selves of students, faculty, and staff. While this is a positive development for many, changing attitudes toward religion have also spurred conflict and raised challenges that in some cases administrators are at a loss to address. The Religion and the Public University collaborative will bring together faculty, staff, and graduate students from several Twin Cities and coordinate campus units of the University of Minnesota to research the historical, legal, and sociological scholarship on the religion/public university relationship and to use that material to provide context for discussions and deliberations that it will host, aimed at disseminating information and developing guidelines or best practices advice for managing this complicated relationship. 

Religious diversity has been a perennial feature of North American society. From the indigenous cultures that have lived here for a millennium to European Christians of myriad perspectives, to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, to the many groups founded on this continent, North Americans have lived with religious diversity for generations.

In the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in particular, the earlier model of Protestant/Catholic/Jewish diversity, has given way to a growing knowledge of religious diversity that even in the 19th century included Ojibwe and Dakota, Eastern Orthodox, and Maronites, and by the mid-twentieth century included African American and Middle Eastern Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Jains and Baha’i. With the 1965 opening of immigration and global developments of the past several decades, religious diversity has expanded manifold.

From this long history, one might surmise that Americans would have figured out strategies for living with diversity. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case. The role of religions in public life continues to raise challenges. Contestation over religious accommodations have arisen in many locations, including Faribault, MN. Harassing hate speech has been publicly disseminated in St. Cloud. Efforts to use zoning laws to obstruct the religious use of buildings have occurred in the Twin Cities. Yet stories of cooperation among religious groups also abound: the Lutheran church that provided prayer space for Muslims students from the high school across the street, the decommissioned Catholic church sold to a Somali group for a masjid, interfaith support for Dakota events memorializing the executions and forced marches after the Dakota War.

A number of challenging questions face us regarding how religion functions. How do these many groups interact? How do they “get along”? Where are the points of contention, and how have they been addressed? What are the frameworks, legal, social, educational, economic, and religious that shape these roles and interactions? As scholars, we deal with these questions in classes, but does our responsibility extend further? Public understandings of religion, however, are shallow and growing worse. Fewer American claim to be involved in religions than ever before, and few public schools offer instruction in the religious diversity of the nation. Individuals who do espouse a religious tradition often have little knowledge of other religious groups, and, in may cases, do not every know much about their own. As religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero has stated, religious literacy in the US is at appallingly low levels and falling.

At the same time, however, the reality of religious diversity in the American public arena is bringing new challenges and controversies. From the possibility of a Mormon president during the 2012 electoral campaign to widespread efforts to limit the establishment of mosques by new immigrants, religious identity, practice, and legitimacy are debated in the public square as never before. Examples of religious conflict and cooperation, practices and public involvement appear in the media daily, spurring public discussion and debate. And with the on-set of the presidential campaign of 2016, religious identity and participation in the American public and political arena will become even more a subject for public debate.


This initiative brings together interdisciplinary scholarly research and teaching focused on the changing character of public religious expression.

The Religion in Public Life (RIPL) initiative offers a site within CLA to link scholarly analysis of religious activities, discourses, communities, and institutions with the many publics that make up the State of Minnesota. This initiative provides opportunities for both scholarly and public dialogue and analysis regarding the role of religions in public life.

We are particularly interested in assessing which religious voices are represented in public arenas and which ones are not, and we seek to explore the politics of these presences and absences as well as the degree to which religious language and imagery themselves are vocabularies through which people understand American civic life and national identity. Only through understanding these changing contexts can we successfully share our knowledge with the broader public.

Upcoming events will be posted here and announced in the News and Events section of this website.

Past Events

“Teaching about Religion in Public: A Workshop on Theories and Methods for Deepening Public Understanding.”

August 24-25, 2015.

Faculty and graduate students from around the region engaged in a 2-day workshop on Funded in part by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, the workshop was designed to provide those who teach about religion in universities with an “opportunity to think critically through the public responsibilities—i.e. responsibilities outside the classroom—that our research and teaching engenders.”

Questions addressed included How can we transport our teaching responsibilities outside of the classroom to raise the level of knowledge about and advance productive discussions regarding religion within the public arena?  How is the classroom itself a public space and how does our classroom teaching influence other publics? How should scholars of religion address the challenges of publicly engaged teaching?   As articulated in our précis for the workshop, the intention was “to provide us, scholars of religion, an opportunity to think critically through the public responsibilities—i.e. responsibilities outside the classroom—that our research and teaching engenders.”

“Urban Religion Colloquium with Deborah Dash Moore.”  Center for Jewish Studies, University of Minnesota

March 23, 2016

The Religious Studies Program co-sponsored this public symposium hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies.  Four speakers—Deborah Dash Moore (University of Michigan), Jon Butler (Yale, University of Minnesota), Jeanne Halgren Kilde (University of Minnesota), and Marilyn J. Chiat (Independent Scholar)—discussed approaches to understanding urban religious groups

“Teaching about Religions in Public: Considering Positionality and Social Location in Order to Create Safe Spaces for Discussion:  A Conversation with Dr. Elaine Howard Ecklund (Rice University)”

March 24, 2016

Dr. Ecklund presented a paper on her work directing Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program. 

[1] Pew Survey on America’s Changing Religious Landscape; Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

“Teaching Religion in Public: Re-reading Abington v. Schempp for the Twenty-First Century”

March 7, 2019

Dr. Winnifred Fallers Sullivan presented the anual Roetzel Family Lecture. She examined the ways in which law haunts and constrains the teaching of religion at public universities under disestablishment. She also inspected the obligations of teachers at public institutions through a close reading of a widely misunderstood case, Abington v. Schempp—the US Supreme Court’s 1963 decision ending Bible-reading in public schools.

Religion, Public Education, and Diversity: A Pre-Conference Colloquium

April 9, 2021

How should public universities navigate the complexities, contentions, and opportunities of religion and spirituality on campus as it engages its students, faculty and staff? This colloquium brought together faculty leaders and scholars in the field of religious studies with administrators from several public institutions in the midwest to discuss this question and the changing role of religion on our campuses. Formatted as a colloquium, this event welcomed our audience members as participants in these conversations.