there has been plenty of ink spilled on the influence of the Religious Right in politics, but its influence as a major independent variable has waned considerably, hence less fodder for the journals.
Agreed, and I think that's due to it being a fairly unreliable (weak, easily influenced by exogenous factors) independent variable. For instance, tracking data in polling such as the American National Election Study shows a less than sexy (highly technical political science jargon at use) correlation between religions and voting patterns. Also, strong correlations, such as U.S. Jews to Liberalism, or weak but positive correlations, such as U.S. Catholics to Liberalism are not necessarily influenced by the religion itself, but more likely by socio-economic factors, historical/cultural trends.
You're right though, when there appears to be a story, e.g. "Evangelicals won't vote for..." academia, much like the media, tends to get more interested. When voting trends can be largely and better explained by other factors, e.g. economic indicators, length of party incumbency, etc. interest seems to fade a bit. What's always twisted my brain a bit was that Religious Studies typically attempts to study religions without the consideration of God or
demons various deities. Would it be impossible to factor in? Perhaps difficult and extremely limited, but I don't believe so. Of course if it was suggested that God be factored in, most would probably abandon their humanities credentials and claim that this would violate the principles of social science.
On the last paragraph, George Marsden has made some interesting observations (below is just a teaser):
"A few years ago a professor of religion at a major private university remarked to me that he believed it was inappropriate for anyone who practiced a particular religion to teach about that religion. To do so, he thought, would be to transgress standards of scientific detachment required for the proper study of religion. One can imagine the response to some parallel proposals. What if someone suggested that no feminist should teach the history of women, or no gay person teach gay studies, or no political liberal should teach American political hisory? Or -for those who see religion as mainly praxis- perhaps the analog should be that no musician should be allowed to teach an instrument that she herself plays... One of the historical questions I have asked is why that should be the case. Why do we have a dominant academic culture that typically teaches young scholars that to suggest that their faith might be relevant to their scholarship is a fatal breach of good taste? Why is self censorship concerning explicit religious identification so taken for granted? Why do even many Christian scholars accept such academic standards as a matter of course? One scholar at a Christian institution said it took ten years of teaching to unlearn the lessons from his graduate training that he should suppress his faith. Why do we have an educational system where such accultration of believers does not seem remarkable?" -George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship
At the end of his 1994 book, The Soul of the American University, George Marsden advanced a modest proposal for an enhanced role for religious faith in today's scholarship. This "unscientific postscript" helped spark a heated debate that spilled out of the pages of academic journals and The Chronicle of Higher Education into mainstream media such as The New York Times, and marked Marsden as one of the leading participants in the debates concerning religion and public life. Marsden now gives his proposal a fuller treatment in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, a thoughtful and thought-provoking book on the relationship of religious faith and intellectual scholarship.
More than a response to Marsden's critics, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship takes the next step towards demonstrating what the ancient relationship of faith and learning might mean for the academy today. Marsden argues forcefully that mainstream American higher education needs to be more open to explicit expressions of faith and to accept what faith means in an intellectual context. While other defining elements of a scholar's identity, such as race or gender, are routinely taken into consideration and welcomed as providing new perspectives, Marsden points out, the perspective of the believing Christian is dismissed as irrelevant or, worse, antithetical to the scholarly enterprise.
Marsden begins by examining why Christian perspectives are not welcome in the academy. He rebuts the various arguments commonly given for excluding religious viewpoints, such as the argument that faith is insufficiently empirical for scholarly pursuits (although the idea of complete scientific objectivity is consider naive in most fields today), the fear that traditional Christianity will reassert its historical role as oppressor of divergent views, and the received dogma of the separation of church and state, which stretches far beyond the actual law in the popular imagination. Marsden insists that scholars have both a religious and an intellectual obligation not to leave their deeply held religious beliefs at the gate of the academy. Such beliefs, he contends, can make a significant difference in scholarship, in campus life, and in countless other ways. Perhaps most importantly, Christian scholars have both the responsibility and the intellectual ammunition to argue against some of the prevailing ideologies held uncritically by many in the academy, such as naturalistic reductionism or unthinking moral relativism.
Contemporary university culture is hollow at its core, Marsden writes. Not only does it lack a spiritual center, but it is without any real alternative. He argues that a religiously diverse culture will be an intellectually richer one, and it is time that scholars and institutions who take the intellectual dimensions of their faith seriously become active participants in the highest level of academic discourse. Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with this conclusion, Marsden's thoughtful, well-argued book is necessary reading for all sides of the debate on religion's role in education and culture.
George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written numerous books, including The Soul of the American University, Fundamentalism and American Culture, and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.