History, policy, and religion: a conversation
Tom Smith and Helen Sunderland (Doing History in Public) talk to Judd Birdsall, Managing Director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies based at Clare College, Cambridge
Doing History in Public: Hi Judd. Could you tell us a bit more about CIRIS and its work?
Judd Birdsall (CIRIS): The Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (CIRIS) is a multi-disciplinary research centre at Clare College, Cambridge. We aim to provide students, practitioners, and the general public with credible and engaging insights that will shape new scholarship, sound policy, and constructive debate on the role of faith in international affairs.
To those ends, we host seminars and lectures in Cambridge, we support the work of several Cambridge PhD students working on relevant topics, and we serve as the secretariat for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD). The TPNRD fosters collaboration on religion-related issues among officials and diplomats from the UN, EU, US, Canada, and about a dozen European countries.
DHP: And what led you to want to bridge the gap between religion, academia, and policymaking?
Birdsall: Academics and policymakers speak very different languages and operate with different professional challenges and incentives. It can be hard to bridge those gaps, especially on a topic as complex and sensitive as religion. And yet policymakers need greater religious literacy if they are going to create and implement effective policies and programmes on religion-related issues and scholars of religion (and religious leaders) need great policy literacy if they are going to have a positive impact on how governments analyse and engage religious communities.
When I was serving in the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff I brought together some colleagues to start a group we called the Forum on Religion and Global Affairs. The Forum mainly focused on bringing scholars of religion and international affairs to give lectures at the Department. When I came to Cambridge for my PhD in 2011 I had the idea creating something like that forum, but in reverse: an academic centre that engages diplomats.
Because policymakers and academics speak different professional languages, CIRIS encourages what we might call ‘translational scholarship’. We hold events and produce publications that package the insights of academics in a format that is useful for policymakers and other kinds of practitioners. As part of our work for the TPNRD we commission policy-literate academics to write reports on key topics at the intersection of religion and diplomacy. For instance, for our most recent TPNRD conference we commissioned a report on religion and the Sustainable Development Goals and a report on international perceptions of Western religious freedom advocacy.
DHP: What’s the role of historians within CIRIS?
Birdsall: A major role. Our president, Professor Andrew Preston, is a leading historian of religion and diplomacy. His monumental, prize-winning book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith traces the history of religion in American foreign relations from the Puritans to Barack Obama. Several of our graduate research associates are historians. Many of the events we host have a historical focus.
DHP: How well do you think the goals of public history and of policymaking align, and where do you wish there were more dialogue between the two?
Birdsall: If we understand ‘public history’ to mean the effort to make historical knowledge accessible to the broader public, beyond the academy, then I think the goals of public history and public policymaking are very much aligned, at least conceptually. The goal of policymaking is to foster a better future, and in order to do that policymakers must have a robust understanding of the way things are now and how and why they came to be that way.
When it comes to policies concerning religion, such as the promotion of freedom of religion and belief, an appreciation for history is essential. During my time State Department when I worked on religious freedom issues in Southeast Asia it wasn’t enough for me to know the present status of legislation, government practice, and societal (in)tolerance in the region. In order to be effective in my job I had to have a solid grasp on how current religious restrictions and sectarian tensions stemmed from the legacies of war, colonialism, the historic expansions of and contestations between religious groups, etc. Studying history provides practitioners with perspective and patience.
I have been encouraged by growing number and salience of research centres and think thanks connecting history and policy, including on the subject of religion. The creation of both CIRIS and the TPNRD was inspired in part by the British Council’s ‘Bridging Voices‘ programme, which developed “an inclusive transatlantic network for academics and civil society to conduct research, build capacity to advance the field of religion and international affairs and create pathways of engagement with policymakers.”
I’d like to know more about your work too: ‘Doing History in Public’ is a cheeky name. Is there something cheeky, even salacious, about doing history in public?
DHP: Certainly, the idea of ‘doing history in public’ suggests ‘exposing’ the ‘secrets’ of the historian’s craft, and offering a peek into the practice which often takes place behind the closed doors of the academy or archive. Perhaps even more than this, though, the name emphasizes that ‘doing history’ is an active, ongoing process which reaches beyond professional institutions. It should be dynamic and sometimes audacious, looking to attract attention and overturn preconceptions.
Birdsall: So do you think historians have some responsibility to share their knowledge and reflections outside their academic guild?
DHP: Of course! Historians’ work has huge potential to inform public discourse and policy, as well as to enrich our personal understandings of who we are and the world around us. We need to go further than this though. Historians should share their practice – how to critique sources, uncover marginalized voices, navigate ethical responsibilities to historical subjects, and present narratives sensitive to personal, institutional, racial, and cultural bias. This sharing needs to go both ways. Historians should reshape their research agendas around concerns outside of academia and involve a broader audience in the development and dissemination of their work.
Birdsall: But it seems that some professional historians who write for academic audiences have a tendency to look down on historians who write for a more popular level. Why is that?
DHP: For many professional historians in the academic context, institutional affiliation and seniority continue to carry considerable weight. Perhaps there’s a degree of anxiety and defensiveness among some of these historians, as universities and governments increasingly demand outreach and collaboration in ways which could be seen to put an insular environment at risk. As such, there’s a tendency to describe popular history in terms of what is lost rather than gained. Often mistakenly, the differences in style and approach needed to write for a popular audience are seen as ‘dumbing down’ rigorous academic argument and research. There’s also a perception that popular historians pander to an audience only interested in certain types of history (for example the Tudors or the World Wars), though it’s a myth that academic historians aren’t also subject to external pressures – they often have to follow what’s ‘fashionable’ to secure funding and book contracts. Having said that, in recent years there’s been a proliferation of history written for a popular audience as increasing numbers of historians within the academy turn their hands to such writing, and also look to exploit new technologies to increase their impact.
Birdsall: So what are some recent examples of where public discourse, or perhaps even public policy, has been enriched by historians ‘doing history in public’?
DHP: To give a concrete example, we might point to the excellent work done by the History & Policy group, in particular their Historical Child Sex Abuse Project. In terms of wider public discourse, the voice of the historian is really important. We’re at a moment in which historical memory and historical knowledge too often become subservient to ideological agendas, as we’ve seen in Donald Trump’s numerous historical misunderstandings, in the debate over Confederate monuments in the United States, and even in the anger provoked by the fact that there were black soldiers in Roman Britain. Clear-headed interventions by professional historians, grounded in rigorous research and method, are so important in such instances, and at their best help us find solutions which both respect the value of memory while ensuring it is properly contextualized.