Religion and Public Life Forward Strategic Plan 2022–24
Letter from Dean David N. Hempton Is just peace possible in our lifetime? It is an ambition we hold close to our hearts, knowing it’s not a destination but a process that requires profound collaboration. In 2020, we embarked on a major step forward for Harvard Divinity School’s investment in a just world at peace—the launch of Religion and Public Life (RPL). RPL leverages Harvard Divinity School’s historic strengths in scholarship and ministry studies, creating a third pillar of curricular focus that educates leaders about imaginative possibilities and harmful consequences of religion in public life. RPL represents a new vision that will shape HDS’s character and trajectory both in the years to come and in our tumultuous present. RPL’s deep commitments to advancing just peace through a nuanced understanding of the power of religion is designed to facilitate vital and important new collaborations with engaged practitioners in the wider world and across Harvard University’s professional schools. It offers new opportunities for faculty, students, and professional and lifelong learners to grapple with, and respond to, the pressing challenges that face our world today. RPL’s work could not be more timely. The heavy toll of recent tragedies underscore the power of religion in our current moment as we seek to dismantle injustice, bridge partisan divides, and provide support for those laboring toward a better world. Our roadmap to just peace shows us that we cannot seriously tackle issues of gun violence, climate crisis, transgender rights, public health, and global conflict, including Israel/Palestine, without a deep engagement with the religious dimensions of these issues. I am deeply grateful to the HDS faculty group led by RPL’s faculty director, Diane L. Moore, to RPL’s stakeholder-driven Strategic Planning Committee, and to the entire HDS community for undertaking this careful process to distill a clear and concrete path forward for Religion and Public Life at HDS. The result—Religion and Public Life Forward—is designed to achieve the greatest impact in real-world application through a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary experiential learning and collaboration, across Harvard and within global networks of activists, scholars, and practitioners. Accomplishing the work that lies ahead, while continuing to act as good stewards to the resources entrusted to us, will require all of us. We are eager to rise to that challenge.
With best wishes,
David N. Hempton Dean, Harvard Divinity School
Letter from RPL Faculty Director Diane L. Moore Religion and Public Life (RPL) rests on a set of core convictions: religion is a powerful force entwined in all aspects of civic and political life; its power is harnessed for both good and great harm; and a nuanced understanding of the power of religion in human experience is essential for realizing a more just and equitable future. RPL seeks to equip students and lifelong learners across disciplines with tools to understand the power of religion in specific contexts in service of a just world at peace. A further conviction animates our vision: that as scholars of religion, we cannot do this work in isolation. If we are to truly engage the existential challenges of our times, we must work in deep and equal partnership with others— educators, humanitarian actors, policymakers, journalists, public health experts, filmmakers, artists, organizers, and others engaged in the so-called “secular professions.” It is only through on-the-ground collaboration with those who share a vision of just peace that new understandings—and new possibilities— can emerge. Throughout this process and in every aspect of its implementation, we are guided by deep intersectional commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion. These do not stand apart but must be deeply embedded at every level of our work. They are foundational to the very notion of “just peace.” A nuanced understanding of religion is an indispensable prerequisite for our collective practices of just peace. These core beliefs are already being realized in practice. We recently marked the conclusion of RPL’s inaugural year in joyful celebration of our first Master of Religion and Public Life graduating class. A full cohort of MTS and MDiv students is now enrolled in the Certificate in Religion and Public Life program. Thirty-three students are embarking on domestic and international internships this summer. Throughout the year, our entire community has been deeply enriched by RPL’s ongoing programs and through the presence of 20 remarkable resident and nonresident RPL Fellows who supported teaching, mentored students, and engaged in their own work to advance the public understanding of religion in service of a just world at peace. I am deeply grateful to the invested stakeholders who formed RPL’s Strategic Planning Committee to develop this plan, Religion and Public Life Forward. Their work and wisdom have shaped RPL’s mission, illuminating its purpose and value to HDS, the Harvard community, and the broader public. The result is increased emphasis on partnership and expanded opportunity for experiential, interdisciplinary learning with real-world impact. In shaping a long-term vision, the committee wisely counseled that we limit RPL’s concrete planning to the next two years. This initial stage requires emphasis on experimentation, assessment, and learning. While grounded in our vision and core commitments, we must remain open and nimble, being responsive to the needs of our students and faculty, and to the world that continues to change around us. I encourage you to engage thoughtfully with the RPL Forward strategy outlined here and to share your feedback. Above all, I invite you to join us in RPL’s vital mission. Warmly,
Diane L. Moore Faculty Director, Religion and Public Life
STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT RPL Forward was developed through a structured process co-designed by RPL’s Leadership Team and Harvard’s Center for Workforce Development (CWD). It was led by Diane L. Moore and a 14-member RPL Strategic Planning committee composed of faculty, staff, Dean’s Council members, fellows, students, and alumnx. In addition to committee involvement, the plan reflects the contributions of many stakeholders who participated in listening sessions, group discussions, one-on-one conversations, and surveys.
Findings Two listening sessions anchored the planning process—one with former and current RPL Fellows, and one with current and former students. Fellows stressed the power of RPL’s just peace foundations and the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration, learning, and teaching. Students and alumnx emphasized the transformational nature of the RPL experience, which provides students with unique opportunities to apply analytical skills to projects, coursework, internships, and immersive travel— what one student dubbed “a syllabus that is translatable to the streets.” The listening sessions also pointed toward future directions, including the importance of building deeper connections between students and fellows and building and strengthening networks of practitioners who seek to remain deeply engaged in the work of advancing just peace through the application of religious literacy principles. As leaders who expect to create webs of influence that shape approach and practice across a wider range of fields and vocations, this points to significant potential and need for expanded professional and lifelong learning.
“I value being part of a cohort at the cuttingedge intersection of religion, justice, activism, and decolonial approaches. The relationships I’ve cultivated in this program have been invaluable for my own work. I have acquired a framework for actualizing projects that have been in my head for a while.” Brant Rosen, Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative Fellow
RPL FORWARD Over the course of its deliberations, the committee clarified RPL’s core mission, approach, and long-term vision. It identified four areas of strategic priority. Recognizing that RPL remains in a start-up phase, the committee limited RPL’s 14 objectives to two years (2022–24), emphasizing, at this stage, the importance of experimentation, assessment, and learning. These goals reflect RPL’s foundational commitments to religious literacy and to just peace. They also affirm RPL’s focus on interdisciplinary approaches, deep collaboration, experimentation, and real-world application.
“The just peace framing is what brings us together as a cohort—a shared commitment. I see that as well in the students’ earnest desire to bring change to the world. In my own work, the fellowship is enabling me to bring new tools to thinking about the profound changes underway in the humanitarian response arena.” Mike Delaney, RPL Humanitarian Action Fellow
“RPL’s nondenominational approach and real-world applications will help us do what we need to do—truly understand religion as the powerful force that it is—in order to fully and completely address the challenges we face.” Ralph James, Dean’s Leadership Council; Member, RPL Strategic Planning Committee.
Mission Religion and Public Life promotes the public understanding of religion in service of a just world at peace.
Approach We collaborate across disciplines and vocations to examine religion in context, advancing leadership to deepen understanding of the causes of injustice while opening imaginative possibilities for addressing the urgent challenges of our time.
Ten-Year Vision By 2032, RPL alumnx, fellows, and professional and lifelong learning participants are integrating religious literacy and just peace principles into a wide range of vocations, professions, and arenas. They are creating webs of influence that shape approach and practice, opening new possibilities for addressing critical issues of social importance. HDS faculty increasingly emphasize the public dimensions of religion in their teaching, research, and professional and lifelong learning. Across Harvard University, including its professional schools, a robust understanding of religion is recognized as essential. HDS’s crossdisciplinary convening power will have expanded in response to this growing expectation. In the public square, religious literacy and just peace principles are increasingly mainstreamed into justice initiatives, as evidenced in public discourse and approach.
“The beauty of the RPL program is that it places the onus of understanding and engaging the power of religion on everyone. Religion is not just for the experts. RPL levels the responsibility because religion is everywhere, and all have access to it. It’s saying this is important enough that everyone should own it.” Rhon Manigault-Bryant, RPL Racial Justice Fellow
“We cannot hope to seriously address any justice issues currently plaguing our society without an analysis and approach that accounts for, and engages, the power of religion. This is precisely what RPL aims to do.” Gregory Khalil, Telos, former Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative Fellow; Member, RPL Strategic Planning Committee
2022–24 GOALS I. Strengthen RPL foundations 1. Test Religion and Public Life (RPL) hypothesis through a structured learning and assessment agenda.
2. Develop scholar/practitioner intellectual foundations in the form of white papers, best practices, case studies, and publications.
Just peace building
3. Continue current Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative focus on Israel/Palestine, while developing a model and approach for the development of an additional regional focus. 4. Develop strong RPL academic programs through the Master of Religion and Public Life (MRPL) and Certificate in Religion and Public Life (CRPL) that provide students with applicable skills and experience.
II. Build the RPL community 5. Recruit an annual cadre of 12–15 engaged Practitioner Fellows. 6. Build and support intentional networks/communities of practice among fellows, alumnx, students, and other stakeholders. 7. Deepen HDS faculty engagement with RPL.
is enhanced by the application of religious literacy principles. RPL’s offerings provide students, practitioners, and fellows with tools both to develop a deeper understanding of the causes of injustice and to generate fresh insights into possibilities for
8. Deepen HDS and Harvard student engagement with RPL.
addressing the pressing
9. Identify promising Harvard and other institutional collaborations that align with faculty interest and student demand (“sweet spots”).
challenges of our times.
III. Influence the public realm 10. Develop a core suite of curricula and experiential learning opportunities for practitioners in diverse fields. 11. Sharpen RPL strategic messaging and expand overall public communications to core audiences (profiles, case studies, timely news stories and commentaries, etc.).
IV. Build a sustainable program 12. Build around the initial core of RPL donor investment to raise $2M more through FY24. 13. Create an advisory board to track progress and engage in the next strategic planning process. 14. Support and strengthen a diverse, intellectually strong, empowered, creative, curious, and cohesive RPL team that takes full advantage of individual strengths and collective wisdom.
“Dr. Moore and the RPL program helped me come to terms with the civic consequences of religious illiteracy in ways that have forced me to reconsider my firmest convictions as a public school educator. As educators, we must always seek ways to improve ourselves and the curriculum, and this graduate program exceeded all expectations in how it supported me in researching and writing my final project.” John Camardella, former Religious Literacy Project Education Fellow, MRPL ’22 focusing on education
“The MRPL has been a life-changing experience for me, personally and professionally, such that it shattered many of my assumptions around how the world works—especially when it comes to the normalized assumption of secularity as irreligious, the separation of church and state, and the distinction between devotional expression of religion versus the study of religion.” Ans Irfan, MRPL ’22 focusing on public health
NEXT STEPS Implementation The plan is a beginning. Implementation will involve ongoing collaboration among the dean, the RPL faculty director, senior leaders, staff, faculty members, fellows, students, alumnx, and supporters. Recognizing the ambition outlined here, year 1 (2022–23) will place emphasis on reinforcing RPL’s foundations, particularly in strengthening HDS’s academic programming through the MRPL and CRPL and in providing expanded opportunities for HDS faculty engagement. In year 2 (2023–24), we will focus on expanding online and in-person professional and lifelong learning opportunities and deepening institutional collaboration across Harvard’s professional schools. Beyond this, RPL’s leadership team has translated the plan’s high-level goals into detailed objectives that will evolve as work planning and ongoing learning and assessment proceed. The plan anticipates the formation of an RPL advisory board to reflect on our progress after year 1 and to adjust accordingly. The process and approach for RPL’s subsequent strategic plan will be agreed upon by October 2023.
Join Us As a roadmap created through an engaged and collaborative process, RPL Forward is a living document. We welcome your feedback and engagement as, together, we realize its ambition. We are eager to explore new collaborations. If you are a prospective student, RPL Fellow, or lifelong learner, we invite you to explore opportunities for engagement. We look forward to your participation in our community of committed scholars, students, professionals, and engaged citizens. If you are interested in supporting this important work financially, we welcome a conversation with you about opportunities. Please feel free to contact Lori Stevens, associate dean for development and external relations.
“Religion and Public Life frames religion as a powerful force in human affairs, inspiring both violence and compassion. Yet, it also holds that capacious understandings of religion enhance its ability to generate kindness, courage, and beauty.” Susan Weaver, MRPL ’22 focusing on law.
“RPL has given me a vocabulary and a holistic space to think about how to respond to things vocationally and academically. In the classroom, we have space for personal vulnerability and to unpack it, applying the vocabulary of structural violence. The holistic, cultural approach has been very forward-looking and grounding.” Yaseen Hashmi, HDS student
WHY RPL? Despite the power of religion, there are few places where citizens and professionals can develop the kind of robust understanding of religion that is essential for active citizenship and innovative leadership. RPL stands apart in its explicit normative commitments to advancing just peace in collaboration with professionals in a variety of vocations. As the only nonsectarian program of its kind in the United States, RPL promotes understanding of all the world’s major religious traditions and their relevance to public life. Finally, by leveraging the vast resources of Harvard University and its professional schools, RPL is uniquely positioned to shape both discourse and action in a wide range of fields and endeavors.
JUST PEACE Just peace is an aspiration that envisions a world where all forms of violence— direct, structural, cultural, and epistemic—are significantly diminished, unleashing full human and planetary flourishing. Just peacebuilding is the process of critical reflection and action toward the realization of this aspiration.
A NON-DEVOTIONAL APPROACH RPL provides a way to understand religion in context, with special attention to questions of power, peace, and conflict. Our approach is nonsectarian and academic. By this, we mean that we do not situate ourselves within any particular religious tradition, nor do we advance or endorse any particular religious viewpoint as ultimately “True” in an absolute sense. Our goal is to deepen understanding of the power of religion in the service of building a more just and peaceful world.
RELIGIOUS LITERACY Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social, political, and cultural life. It fosters the skills and knowledge that enable citizens to participate in civic life and community with a more robust understanding of the power of religion in their contexts.
PROGRAMS RPL programming rests on two central pillars, each with distinctive programming: Religious Literacy and the Professions, and Religion, Conflict, and Peace. These initiatives are located within a wider canopy of offerings designed to support dynamic communities of scholars, teachers, practitioners, and students committed to deepening the public understanding of religion.
CURRENT RPL PROFESSIONAL FOCI Education, Government, Journalism, Humanitarian Action, Media and Entertainment, Community Organizing
CURRENT AREAS OF TOPICAL CONCENTRATION Racial Justice, Native and Indigenous Rights, Climate Change, Refugee and Immigrant Rights
CURRENT CONFLICT AND PEACE REGIONAL FOCUS Israel/Palestine
Religion and Public Life Harvard Divinity School 14 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138 Visit us online: rpl.hds.harvard.edu | Email: email@example.com