Each year, the American Academy of Religion presents the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion to an individual whose work has helped advance the public understanding of religion. The more than two dozen recipients of the Marty Award include many of guiding lights in the study of religion. Some awardees have been recognized for breakthrough books that brought scholarly insight to broader readership, others for bridging the conversation between adherents and outsiders; and others for bringing subfields within the study of religion to maturity, impacting the academy and broader society.
The winner of the 2022 Marty Award is Anthea Butler, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The American Academy of Religion celebrates Professor Butler’s distinguished record of scholarship on race, gender, and religion in American religious history as well as her innovative and multidimensional efforts to engage diverse publics and the media.
Dr. Butler is the author of two monographs: White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Ferris/UNC Press, 2021) and Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (UNC Press, 2007). In addition to numerous journal articles and book chapters, her most recent contribution “Church” is included in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (Random House, 2021). She was the recipient of a Luce/ACLS Fellowship in Religion, Journalism, and International Affairs in 2018 and a Presidential Fellowship at Yale Divinity School in 2019. She is co-director for The Crossroads Project, and currently serves as the President of the American Society of Church History.
These impeccable academic credentials only partially account for why the Committee for the Public Understanding of Religion unanimously moved to name Dr. Butler as this year’s Marty Award winner. Her work in advancing the public understanding of religion is exemplary: for more than a decade, Dr. Butler has contributed prolifically and powerfully to public digital and media conversations about religion in U.S. politics. Her public writing career began at The Revealer in 2005 writing about race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, she has written over 300 articles/op-eds over the course of her career, including for Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and Religion News Service. She is currently a MSNBC Daily contributor, appears regularly on MSNBC, and was a key consultant with WGBH/PBS for its documentary shows Billy Graham, Aimee Semple McPherson, The Black Church, and God in America.
Social media has become increasingly important to the public understanding of religion: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other such platforms are not without complications, but they are critical spaces where ideas and information are circulated in our virtual public sphere. Dr. Butler has been active on Twitter for more than a decade and is one of the most followed scholars of religion on the platform. Engaging social media requires a set of communications skills that have not traditionally been valued in the academy, and exposure on social media subjects poses risks and pressures that many academics may wish to avoid. Dr. Butler (@AntheaButler) has successfully used Twitter to share her various scholarly projects, her op-ed writing, and to draw on her knowledge, charisma, and character to reach new audiences. Her contributions to the public understanding of religion cannot be fully appreciated apart from her willingness to navigate the social media landscape to engage the public, journalists, and scholars.
Dr. Butler is the first Black woman to receive the Marty Award. The Committee for the Public Understanding noted the bravery and clarity of purpose required for the kind of public voice she has achieved. The committee also praised her candor and leadership: Dr. Butler’s confident and outspoken online persona is an inspiration and guide star for scholars who wish to contribute to the public understanding of religion while staying true to themselves.