Centre News

Students explore religion in politics by traveling cross-country for class

March 14, 2013 By Elizabeth Trollinger       
Earle CT class Professor Jonathon Earle and his students in front of the Bahá'í
House of Worship for North America. Earle’s CentreTerm class,
“God in Global Landscapes,” visited various religious sites
across America.

Earle CT class Earle’s CentreTerm course broadened his students’
understanding of religion and politics and how they
intermingle. “I have a newfound respect for all religions and
the important role that they play in politics around the world,”
says Elizabeth Manson ’16.

Centre students are now getting close to the halfway point of the spring semester, and yet, for many of them, their CentreTerm classes in January still affect them greatly. Students in Visiting Assistant Professor of History Jonathon Earle’s CentreTerm class, “God in Global Landscapes,” continue to sing the praises of both the professor and the course.

Earle designed the class as a way for first-year students to discover the complex relationship between politics and religion in the modern world.

“We explored how religion and politics mutually shape each other—from the impact of evangelicalism on American politics to African Pentecostalism and globalization,” Earle says. “Historically, religion and politics have often worked hand in hand to influence social experience and practices of belonging, but scholars and students often fail to recognize this interdependence. So, my main objective was to help students begin to see the creative ways in which communities use religious imagination to shape political practice.”

The course drew in students with a variety of interests, many of whom were excited about the opportunity to visit important religious sites across the country as part of the curriculum.

“I wanted to take this class because I’ve always been interested in religion and wanted to sample how religion functions in the modern world,” says Gray Whitsett ’16.

“I took this class initially because I love traveling, so that opportunity was really appealing,” says Alex Ferrera ’16. “I also am considering a major in religion or political science, so the theme of ‘God in Global Landscapes’ was one that I felt encompassed my interest in religion and current events.”

When choosing which sites to visit with the class, Earle was able to represent multiple religious bodies and cultures.

“I wanted us to visit communities that clearly illuminated the interconnection of religion and politics,” he says. “We began in Dearborn, Mich., where we visited the Arab American Museum and the Islamic Center of America, the country’s largest mosque and oldest Shīa mosque. During our time in Dearborn, we also visited ACCESS, the largest Arab-American human services non-profit in the United States. In Chicago, we visited a Chinese Christian community in Chinatown and the Isaiah Israel Synagogue, the oldest Reformed congregation in the Midwest.

“We spent an afternoon at the Bahá'í House of Worship for North America, one of only seven such temples in the world,” Earle continues. “Finally, in Milwaukee, we spent a day at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where six members were killed in August 2012. In many ways, this was the most moving event during our visit. The entire trip was an unforgettable experience. We were shown amazing hospitality.”

Students in the class were moved by the places they visited—and the people they met along the way.

“My favorite place that we visited was Dearborn, where we visited the Islamic Center. I think the thing that impacted me the most was how they explained their beliefs in relation to the other Abrahamic religions,” Ferrera says. “To me, this was absolutely fascinating. This view from Islam was one that changed a lot about my perception of the world and the people who populate it.”

“My favorite site we visited was the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, the location of the shooting. It was profoundly influential on me, talking in depth with someone who had lost his uncle and mother to the gunfire,” says Whitsett. “Their commitment to remaining a passive, positive community was extremely inspirational.”

“The temple was so gracious and welcoming and we got to experience the Sikh religion first hand. The temple also talked so openly about the shooting that happened there without any sense of resentment,” agrees Elizabeth Manson ’16. “This sight affected me so much because of the sense of community we felt inside the temple as well as the Sikhs’ commitment to their religion. They mentioned that if all people took the time to gain understanding of those that were different from themselves, maybe ignorance and ignorant action—like the shooting that took place there in August—wouldn’t happen.”

Thanks to seeing various religious communities firsthand, the students walked away from the course with newfound understanding about the relationship between religion, society and global citizenship, themes that would have been difficult to explore fully in the confines of a classroom.

“The most important thing that I feel like I took away was the exposure to all types of religions, and the understanding that all religions share common ground that most people would never understand unless they are open minded to learn from others,” says Manson. “Without this course, I don’t think I would have ever found myself sitting and worshiping among Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists or the Baha'i, but after doing so, I have a newfound respect for all religions and the important role that they play in politics around the world.”

“The interactions we shared with members of varying communities was one of the innumerable things I took away from this class,” Ferrara says. “When people put labels on other people, they discount the fundamental humanity that we all share. Studying the differences helped me see the similarities.”

Students also can’t say enough about the teacher leading the charge.

“Dr. Earle was the most impressive professor I’ve ever had and he will be hard to top,” Manson says. “His teaching and this course really shaped my views about religion and the stereotypes that are attached to them. He is absolutely amazing!”

Based on that response, Earle seems to have achieved his goal for the course—and ensured that students won’t soon forget what they learned.

“I hope that students now have a clear conceptual framework to explore religion and politics,” he says. “Above all, I hope that students will build upon these experiences for the rest of their lives.”

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail elizabeth.trollinger@centre.edu with your feedback.

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