The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

by Caroline Ralston

Established in 1989, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture sought to better understand and educate others about religion in North America. Executive Director and Chancellor’s Professor Philip Goff, who joined the staff in 2000, says the program has two different missions for its two different audiences.

"Our academic mission is to do top-notch research in order to understand the complexity of religion in North America," Goff said. "In addition, we’re dedicated to educating the broad public. We want to come out of the ivory tower and have public teaching programs to help the average person better navigate these topics."

Ironically, Goff almost never joined the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts faculty. When founding director Conrad Cherry announced his retirement, Goff was teaching in Los Angeles and didn’t even consider applying. "I was confident I wouldn’t get the position," he explained. But he was nominated for the post and later moved to Indianapolis to take the lead of the program.

The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture produces the top academic journal on American religions in the entire nation. Now in its 26th year, the publication holds such a high standard that it tends to reject approximately 90% of the submitted articles. This prestigious journal is published biannually and is a source of great pride for the center.

Although the center keeps him plenty busy, Goff is currently working on his own projects, including co-authoring a textbook with a professor at Northwestern University. The textbook will place a greater emphasis on the mobility of religion throughout North American history and the ways in which religion influences a region and vice versa.

The center is currently conducting a series of studies related to a wide range of topics. It just finished an extensive project on how Americans use the Bible and scriptures in their daily lives—the biggest study ever taken on the subject, in fact. This four-year project began by conducting a national survey to gather information, which in turn was analyzed by historians. The study will be published in January by Oxford University Press.

"In my opinion, the best part about the center is teamwork—the way sociologists, political scientists and historians work side-by-side in the same office," Goff said. "The only way to understand this subject is to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the past." This relationship can be seen every day in the center as scholars from different disciplines collaborate to reach a common goal.

Looking forward, the researchers are starting a project about the way someone’s day-to-day practices "give their life meaning," such as singing in the car, doing yoga or getting tattoos. Most recently, the American Studies Ph.D. program was approved for the 2017 school year. Goff expressed his excitement in working directly with students as the center continues its scholarly and public teaching work.