All Things Considered

September 30, 2005

Religion is relevant in many spheres, and Byron Johnson, director of Baylor's Center for Religious Inquiry Across Disciplines (CRIAD), wants to get that message across.
"My own particular bias is that religion is relevant in many different areas and disciplines, but it has been marginalized, neglected and understudied," says Johnson, who came to Baylor last fall when CRIAD was launched. "So how do we get caught up? That is what I hope we are able to do here."
The center seems a natural fit for a University intent upon becoming a top-tier research institution while at the same time strengthening its Protestant heritage. It was that thinking that prompted Graduate School Dean Larry Lyon to begin discussions about it in fall 2000.
"On all the things one might study in the academic world, it seemed to me Baylor probably has more scholars capable of studying religion in some way or other proportionately than other universities," Lyon says. CRIAD is part of the Graduate School.
Johnson had been involved with similar think tanks on religious issues at Vanderbilt, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, where he was a lecturer in the Department of Politics and where he remains a senior fellow in the religion and civil society program. At Penn, he directed its Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society to national recognition in less than two years. 
He believes CRIAD can become a national player with a similar timeframe. "All it takes is getting the right kind of scholars together to do the right kind of work and then to make sure the work is released in a strategic manner and that it's widely disseminated," he says. "You can have national impact."
In September last year, Baylor announced that Johnson had received a $700,000 grant from the Department of Justice and the Office on Violence Against Women to continue to develop the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative. This project provides training and technical assistance support to host national training conferences to establish fatality review teams within state and local jurisdictions, as well as within the military. These teams provide a way of reviewing domestic homicides with the underlying objectives of preventing them in the future, preserving the safety of battered women, and holding accountable both the perpetrators of domestic violence and the multiple agencies and organizations that come into contact with the parties.
"There are now about 35 states that have teams," says Johnson, a sociologist whose research often focuses on criminology. "This has become a national movement of sorts."
Another large study came through in the spring. The John Templeton Foundation provided a $716,000 grant for what is called "the Baylor Survey," in which Baylor scholars, mostly from sociology, will conduct a longitudinal survey of Americans' religious beliefs, practices and values.
"We are partnering with the Gallup Organization, which will do the field work. This survey will give us some of the most unusual data on religion ever collected in this country," Johnson says. "We know that Americans are very religious people, but we don't know much more than that. This will be one of the first instruments which will allow us to dig deep and to conduct follow-up surveys."
Some of the data will become available to Baylor researchers by Thanksgiving, with the lion's share ready for study next spring, he says. 
Johnson has other proposals in the pipeline such as a project that will study the role of religion in China. This study will involve faculty in the departments of political science and modern foreign languages. He also hopes to see collaboration with the hard sciences and the arts in the near future.
In addition to providing national recognition for Baylor, Johnson hopes the center's work will benefit the larger faith community. He cites his own research that shows religion helps at-risk youth stay out of trouble, off drugs and out of gangs. 
"I think it's important that we begin to connect with the churches out there," he says. "There's all kind of research that validates a Christian worldview that would be useful for congregations to have. I think it's a disservice to the body of believers that they don't even know this work exists."