Julie Chamberlain began GW’s Ph.D. program in American Studies in the fall of 2012 and advanced to candidacy in 2015. She is currently completing her dissertation, titled “Cultivating Compassion: Global Religious Icons and the American Moral Imagination, 1975-Present.” Melani McAlister is her dissertation advisor, and Kip Kosek and Elaine Peña sit on her committee. She is the 2017 recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s International Dissertation Research Grant and a 2016 Cosmos Club Foundation Scholar. Her work has also been supported by the Study for the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, and the Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs at Texas A&M. This and other support has enabled her to conduct research across the United States as well as in India and South Africa.
Prior to GW, Julie received her M.A. in Religion from Duke University and her B.A. in Philosophy and Spanish from Auburn University. Before enrolling at GW, she administered international exchange programs for the U.S. Department of State, USAID, and other organizations through the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She is currently teaching an undergraduate seminar based on her dissertation, titled ‘Religious Icons in American Culture and Politics.” She has also taught the undergraduate lecture course on U.S. Religion and Politics. She has been a Teaching Assistant for a range of other courses, including U.S.-Middle East Cultural Encounters, America in the Sixties, The American City, Twentieth Century U.S. Immigration, Sexuality in U.S. History, and Early American Cultural History.
Her dissertation, Cultivating Compassion, sits at the intersection of U.S. religion and politics, transnational studies, and media and cultural history. At the broadest level it examines the changing nature of religion, global politics, and morality in American life since the 1970s. More specifically, it explores the globalization of Americans’ moral imaginations by analyzing how four prominent “global” religious icons—Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama—captured Americans’ ethical and religious sensibilities through discourses of suffering and compassion, and channeled them into a range of global ecumenical movements.
Drawing on religious, cultural, and government archives, each chapter focuses on one figure, tracing the ways in which their witness to human suffering galvanized U.S. audiences in the face of particular global crises, such as genocide, poverty, and racism, and how they became symbols of morality across national borders. She demonstrates how, in a period marked by deep anxieties about the role of the U.S. in the world, Americans turned to these figures as moral authorities uniquely equipped to contend with the brutality of the modern world as well as with the moral bankruptcy of “Western civilization” itself.
She frames her analysis by tracing the emergence of what she terms “compassionate cosmopolitanism,” a globalized brand of popular spirituality in which religion became sutured to compassion and to the pursuit of world peace. She explores how this moral imagination coalesced around each figure, how each came to embody compassion for U.S. audiences—modeling for them what it looked and felt like—and how their campaigns for compassion targeted certain groups both domestically and internationally. The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to each of these icons between 1979 and 1989, played a central role. This position enabled them to serve not only as cultural intermediaries but also as unofficial diplomats--leaders especially adept at navigating Americans’ often-ambivalent relationship with the Third World. Their rising popularity also bolstered the idea that state leaders and conventional power politics were no longer capable of solving the world’s most pressing problems. Through this platform, these icons challenged conventional understandings of the world’s problems and its solutions, encouraging Americans to rethink global suffering on explicitly spiritual grounds.
By turning our attention to “global” rather than domestic religious leaders, this project disrupts dominant narratives of U.S. history in the past 40 years, providing a more holistic picture of religion’s enduring authority in modern American life. In particular, it contributes to scholarship on American religious history, religious studies, transnational studies, cultural history, and American foreign relations (particularly with regard to U.S. humanitarianism and human rights).
At Duke, Julie focused primarily on American evangelicalism. For her thesis, titled “New Monasticism, Racial Reconciliation, and the Search for Legitimation,” she conducted a yearlong ethnographic project with an intentional community of Christians in Durham, North Carolina, who are part of a burgeoning movement known as New Monasticism. In it, she explored how the members of the Rutba House–preponderantly white, middle class, and evangelical–practiced racial reconciliation and “submission” in an attempt to subvert white power and legitimate their place within the black church tradition. This research contributes to growing scholarship on “progressive evangelicalism,” as well as to the study of religion and race in the United States. Though no longer studying evangelicalism exclusively, her dissertation asks how American evangelicals have taken up, as well as rejected, the influence of Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, particularly with respect to interfaith and interracial relations and the development of “compassionate conservatism” as a political philosophy.
Julie is happy to discuss her work, especially regarding potential conference collaborations. You can reach her through email at [email protected].