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Religion Scholar at Rutgers Developed Insight into Ethics of Faith

James Turner Johnson wins 2015 Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award

James T Johnson 300x300In England, three teenage Muslim girls fled their homes and families to join ISIS.

In Kentucky, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis cited her beliefs as an Apostolic Christian in refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis issued an encyclical on climate change, serving notice to the world's Roman Catholics that caring for the environment is both an urgent priority and a spiritual value.

For Rutgers professor James Turner Johnson, these major news stories, all coming in the last few months, testify to the preeminent role that religion continues to play in world affairs, and the role that secular scholars like himself and his colleagues must play in studying the subject.

"The study of religion we do at Rutgers provides the background and critical framework to look at these contemporary developments and make our own informed judgements," said Johnson, a professor in the Department of Religion in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Johnson, who joined the Rutgers faculty in 1969 and is retiring at the end of the fall 2015 semester, is among a generation of scholars who helped establish religion studies as an academic field in secular public colleges and universities.

Next week he'll receive one of the university's highest honors as the 2015 recipient of the Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award, given to a faculty member for outstanding scholarship and exceptional service to the university community.

An award ceremony featuring a public lecture by Johnson will take place Tuesday, September 29 at the Alexander Library. The lecture is titled "The Role of the Study of Religion in a Secular University and a Secular Society."

"I'm deeply honored to receive this award that in the past has been given to people that I have enormous respect for," Johnson said in a recent interview. "I'm also thrilled that someone from the field of religion has been chosen."

At Rutgers, religion is a rich, multi-disciplinary major that employs history, psychology, sociology and other fields in its examination of faith traditions. Graduates from the department include Ella Watson-Stryker, who was among the Ebola fighters honored as Time magazine's 2014 person of the year.

"The study of religion is really a microcosm of what a liberal arts education should be," Johnson said.

Widely recognized for his expertise in the ethics of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, Johnson created the popular "Just War and Jihad" course at Rutgers, which traced the origins of those concepts and analyzed how they're used in contemporary discourse.

Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, with the public feeling devastated and confused, Johnson brought his insights to a panel discussion organized by the Pew Research Center where he noted a commonality between the Christian-influenced concept of just war and the Islamic idea of jihad by the sword.

"There is good reason to say from the standpoint of Islam, as well as from the standpoint of just war tradition, that the attacks of 9/11 were indeed evil and that there is a just necessity for a response to them," he declared during the 2001 discussion.

Johnson grew up in Memphis and attended Brown University where he initially was on track to major in physics, before switching to mathematical economics.

"I was on my way to being a quant before anyone even called it that," he quipped.

But after graduating from Brown, he pursued a doctorate in religious ethics. 

"I made up my mind that what I really wanted to do was to study human ethical thinking," he said. "And I concluded that the framework of religion provided the most comprehensive way of getting into ethics."

The Gorenstein Memorial Award Ceremony for Professor Johnson took place September 29, 2015.  Read the university's full statement on the 2015 award.



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