“Challenging the Ontological Boundaries of Religious Practices in International Relations Scholarship” (article, 2018, International Studies Review)

Summary: Though scholars now view religion as a legitimate topic of study in International Relations, most continue to ignore practices like prayer, despite the fact that prayer is present in global political contexts, including in the service-advocacy work of transnational faith-based organizations (FBOs). In addition, FBO funders like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) require religious organizations to separate prayer from projects funded by these agencies due to contradictory perceptions about both the dangers and the inconsequence of incorporating “inherently” religious activities into development projects. The neglect of prayer in international relations scholarship and funding policies is, I contend, due to common ontologies of religious practice that link prayer with the transcendental, emotional, and private. Such ontologies lead scholars and others to assume that prayer is, and should be, materially and analytically distinct from the “real” work of FBOs. Drawing on interviews and participant-observation of three FBOs working in areas of peace, development, and human rights, I argue that common ontologies of prayer employed by scholars of international relations and FBO funders do not accurately reflect the ontologies of FBOs themselves. Moreover, because scholars rely on such ontologies, they miss the ways that prayer manifests as a central, consequential, and sometimes political practice in the transnational work of FBOs.

“Teaching Religion, Conflict, and Peace,” (featured in a special issue of Peace Review titled “Teaching Peace and War” and guest edited by Amanda Donahoe and  Annick T.R. Webber)

Summary: This article engages with some of the unique challenges of teaching religion (vis-à-vis conflict and peace) in the classroom. Does religion produce divisions that lead to conflict? Or are religions inherently peaceful—providing a key resource for peacebuilding? Such questions represent common themes about the role of religion in contexts of conflict and peace. Many scholars and policymakers consider the inherent danger of introducing religion into public engagements, especially in international contexts, to be a truism. On the other hand, defenders of religion, including many religious leaders and organizations, tend to stress the underlying values of peace that can be found in all (or many) religions. These two narratives about religion dominate the discursive landscape both within and outside of academia, making a university classroom discussion about the role of religion in war and peace particularly fraught. In order to move past these dichotomous assumptions about religion, it is helpful, I suggest, to encourage a direct engagement with students’ own understandings about religion. In this brief discussion, I outline one way to do that and reveal the benefits for a university course taking a critical approach to the study of religion in peace and conflict, or in global politics, more generally.

“Training in Critical Interpretivism, Within and Beyond the Academy” (book chapter with Marcos Scauso and Cecelia Lynch, 2018, in The SAGE Handbook of History, Philosophy and Sociology of International Relations, edited by Andreas Gofas, Inanna Hamati-Ataya, and Nicholas Onuf.”

Summary: This chapter shows how critical interpretivist approaches to International Relations are important and useful for professionals as well as scholars, and how IR instructors can make such approaches intelligible to both.

“Humanitarianism’s Proselytism Problem” (article, with Cecelia Lynch, 2016, International Studies Quarterly)

Summary: Debates about the ethics of humanitarianism increasingly recognize the significance of faith-based organizations in the provision of aid. Critics charge that the primary problem with faith-based groups, especially Christian organizations, is their propensity to proselytize. We agree that proselytism is problematic. However, we argue that the focus on religious agents alone indicates a secularist presumption and lack of knowledge about the complexity of religious ethics that a) tend to mask significant differences among Christian groups in their ethics of aid, and b) prevent scholars from addressing an additional form of undue pressure in aid provision. We call this undue pressure “donor proselytism.” Our interviews with Christian groups in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S. demonstrate the contestation among Christian humanitarians about what constitutes proselytism. Our interviews and NGO conference observations also show how donor pressures shape aid to conform to neoliberal conceptions of efficiency, sustainability, and measurable results. Ultimately, we assert that donor proselytism is in fact the more pervasive of the two. Both scholars and policy-makers, therefore, should take into account the complexity of religious ethics regarding proselytism as well as the power of donor proselytism to affect the lives of those receiving humanitarian assistance.