The Case for Law and Religion

By April Bogle
Director of Public Relations,
Center for the Study of Law and Religion


One could say that the modern study of law and religion had its beginning when a vision of Jesus Christ appeared to future legal scholar Harold J. Berman, a Jew, as he fled for his life on a German train in 1939. Hitler had just invaded Poland, and Berman feared the imminent end of civilization. In his despair, he saw the scarred and tragic face of Jesus. "I suddenly realized that I was not entitled to such despair, that it was not I but another, God himself, who bore the burden of human destiny, and that it was rather for me to believe in him even though human history was at an end."

"One Cannot Flourish Without the Other"

Berman used this life-changing experience to inform and shape his scholarship -- and a modern field of study. He believed that "law and religion are two different but interrelated . . . dimensions of social experience -- in all societies. . . . Despite the tension between them, one cannot flourish without the other."

Fast-forward seventy years, and this field of study is well ensconced and world-renowned at Emory University in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), owing in large part to the influence and presence of Berman. Not only was he the mentor of CSLR's founding director, Frank S. Alexander, and the scholar who succeeded Alexander as director, John Witte Jr., but Berman also spent the last twenty-two years of his life teaching at Emory Law School and serving as the CSLR's preëminent senior fellow.

To the founders of the Law and Religion Program, the need for focused scholarship and teaching in the field was paramount. According to Alexander, "We based the joint-degree program in the legal academy, to boost legal education's receptivity to the idea of linking religion and law. At that time virtually no law school in the country was doing serious scholarship or teaching related to religion. Indeed, most law schools were hostile to the study of theology, religion, and issues of church and state."

The Need to Understand How Law and Religion Interact

At the beginning of the 1990s, as evidence of the need for their program, Witte and Alexander posited the tumultuous world events of the 1980s. The Berlin Wall had crumbled. The Soviet Union was dissolving. African autocrats were flinching. Apartheid was fading. Latin American dictators were falling. Fundamentalist Islamic factions were emerging. Since 1973, thirty new democracies had been born. And democratic agitation had reached even Tiananmen Square. Surely these events proved the need to understand how law and religion interact.

In 1991 the two men launched "Christianity and Democracy," their first major international research project, securing participation from fifty scholars around the globe. They would demonstrate how Christianity had influenced democracy throughout history, and determine what it could -- and should -- contribute in the future. The project culminated in an international conference, "Christianity and Democracy in Global Context," attracting eight hundred scholars, lawyers, theologians, clergy, and laypersons from five continents and more than five hundred additional Emory participants. Former President Jimmy Carter opened the conference, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu closed it. In between, some forty distinguished authorities took up the contributions of Christianity to democratic ideas and institutions in their respective homelands. Protestants and Catholics, Africans and Americans, freedom fighters and prime ministers shared the same stage and compared views on conditions in Europe, Latin America, North America, Africa, and Asia. According to Witte, "The conference put the discourse of law and religion on the map. It demonstrated . . . that there was a thirst . . . to deal with these hard questions . . . about what contributions religious communities . . . could make to the new democratic revolution that was breaking out around the world."

With the success of this conference, the Law and Religion Program had demonstrated its capacity to lead the discourse on a major world issue, and it continued immediately to the next major project, "Religion and Human Rights in Global Perspective." Drawing on a team of twenty-five human rights scholars and activists, the project sought to map the field of religious rights theoretically, legally, and in the activist communities -- and to identify the major problems and pressure points.

By the year 2000, the Law and Religion Program had proven its legitimacy, thanks to the financial support of several benefactors. The Pew Charitable Trusts awarded Emory a $3.2 million grant to establish the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (initially called the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion), elevating it from an academic program to a "Center of Excellence," one of ten such centers Pew was funding throughout the country.

With its intellectual and financial worth confirmed, the center had realized its full potential -- dozens of new volumes were rolling off the presses, world-renowned scholars were taking part in international conferences and other public forums, the very best students were enrolling in the joint-degree program (which had graduated some seventy-five students through 2009), and hundreds of students were taking its cross-listed courses each year. The CSLR had become the place where students and faculty could indeed find discussions of justice.

Suddenly, a quarter of a century had gone by. Since the Emory program’s founding in 1982, thirty other interdisciplinary law and religion programs have emerged around the country. Witte, Alexander, and hundreds of distinguished scholars successfully proved the case for the study of law and religion. But the trial of this interaction continues.