When Corwin Smidt started doing research as a graduate student in the 1970s, he says “most of the academic field at the time thought religion had no real impact on politics.”
But, less than a year after he wrote his dissertation on political party identification, Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States. To Smidt, “that sort of began a discussion on the role of religion in politics.”
In the coming years, Smidt attended professional meetings in his field. That’s where he noticed some scholars using survey data and classifying people religiously in an incorrect manner. One example he cited was a paper in which a scholar used survey data to classify the United Church of Christ, a “liberal” mainline denomination and as a fundamentalist denomination. This misrepresentation didn’t sit right with Smidt, and he knew he needed to do something about it.
Pioneering over settling
“I had gone to seminary for a year and my father was a pastor and I always was interested in religion,” said Smidt, “so I thought ‘well, you know this might be an area where I can contribute and help the profession move along in a better direction.’”
That wondering of Smidt’s proved to be quite the understatement. He would spend nearly the next four decades in the “gang of four,” a group of scholars who pioneered the study and research at the intersection of American religion and politics. Smidt and his three colleagues were honored for this work this past summer with the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Political Science Association, the premiere political science association in the United States and the world.
“Those four were key people in the 1980s in starting to focus the attention of political science on the intersection of religion and politics,” said Kevin den Dulk, associate provost at Calvin University. “Not only were they pathbreaking in terms of the use of methods of political science to show the impact of religion in public life, but they also started to convene younger scholars in ways that developed networks that became a subculture of political science.”
Smidt’s ability to do this work was catalyzed by the creation of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin. He started teaching at Calvin in the late 1970s and was around when the Henry Institute launched in 1997. He was the institute’s first director.
Paving a path for future professionals
“Just about anyone in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who is doing empirical political science and wanted to think about the intersection of religion and politics went through a seminar at the Henry Institute,” said den Dulk, who not only went through a seminar himself, but also succeeded Smidt as the institute’s second director.
Micah Watson is the current director of the Henry Institute. He sees how the foundation Smidt laid at Calvin continues to open opportunities for students today. “Since Corwin started at Calvin in 1997, I’d put our record of giving students opportunities in this area against anybody in the country,” said Watson, citing specifically the Civitas Lab, which pairs undergraduate students with well-respected professors on important research projects. “We have students playing in the minor leagues with big league ball players and then they have their names appear in an Oxford book.”
Integrating faith and religion
“The Henry Institute was created to be a place that would foster and sponsor real Christian social science research and publications that would impact the field and that would be useable by people in the church, educated laypeople,” said Watson. “It’s this idea that religion and faith matter for public life, matters on a scholarly level, and on a church level. Those are not sealed off from each other but can and should inform each other.”
This idea of integrating faith and religion is not only central to Smidt’s work, but central to the mission of Calvin University.
“We don’t quarter off the things that matter,” said Watson. “An academic institution that draws experts from all disciplines and purposely brings them together is better reflecting the world we live in. Calvin is not a Bible school, but it is formed and grounded by faith, and we want to take that faith into the world, into history, into water politics and the drain commission, because every square inch matters. A virtue of the Henry Institute is inspired by that ethos and part of its mission is to further that.”
Lifelong passion and pursuit
While Smidt may be retired from teaching after four decades in the academy, he still serves as a senior research fellow with the Henry Institute. And his scholarship isn’t slowing down. According to Watson, “the guy is active enough right now to be getting tenure. He’s involved in scholarship, doing stuff internationally in Serbia, Netherlands, Romania, publishing articles on the 2020 election, talking with churches, teaching a CALL class, it’s who he is, he’s still contributing to the institute and Calvin’s mission in a way that’s robust.”
For Smidt, it’s a labor of love. While he doesn’t do this work for recognition, he’s humbled to have received such a prestigious honor for his life’s work. He’s also grateful to over the past 40 years to have been able to help shape how the study of American religion and politics has been conducted and who has conducted it.
Earning respect from the guild
“It’s really humbling in some ways, and I’m appreciative in other ways, because it does recognize sort of a lifetime of research and writing that has now been appreciated by others working in the field,” said Smidt.
“Smidt and the other three in the gang of four are very well-respected in the secular guild,” said den Dulk. “No one would look at them as not being careful because they were motivated by their faith. It might be because of their faith that they are especially careful.”