Brian K. Pennington

Regions Director Candidate


Brian K. Pennington is a historian of modern Hinduism interested in colonial-era religion in India, the history of religion in South Asia, and religion and violence. He is the author of Was Hinduism Invented?: Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (Oxford UP 2004/2007), editor of Teaching Religion and Violence (Oxford UP 2012), and co-editor, with Amy L. Allocco, of Ritual Innovation: Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion (SUNY Press, 2018). His current book in progress, God's Fifth Abode: Entrepreneurial Hinduism in the Indian Himalayas, is based on over a decade of field research in the North Indian pilgrimage city of Uttarkashi. From 1998-2014 Pennington taught at Maryville College in East Tennessee where he also served as department chair. Since 2014, he has been Director of the Elon University Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society.

Pennington has served on a number of committees for the AAR and currently chairs its Committee on Teaching and Learning. He is Chair of the Executive Committee of the Conference on the Study of Religions of India, former member of the Board of Directors of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies, and past President of the American Academy of Religion, Southeast Region.

Candidate Statement

I remember well my first encounter with the AAR as a young graduate student at a Southeastern regional meeting in 1994. As my more senior grad school peers presented their first papers and interacted with poise with senior faculty from the region’s best graduate institutions, I wondered whether I could ever develop the confidence and disciplinary knowledge to comport myself similarly. For the ensuing years as I took my first part-time and full-time teaching jobs, the AAR Southeast became a primary professional training ground for me. It was where I learned how to give effective scholarly presentations, formed networks of professional friendships, and assumed my first leadership positions in the guild. Now deep into my mid-career years, I proudly watch my own students present their first academic papers to some of the very scholars whose work they had admiringly read.

I have served the regions in a number of capacities and at all levels for more than 20 years, from program unit chair to President of the AAR SE (2006-2007). I began assuming national leadership roles on behalf of the AAR’s ten regions in 2006. As Chair of the AAR’s Regions Committee and later its 2010-11 Regions Task Force, I led the discussions that resulted in the incorporation of the regions as Limited Liability Corporations and worked with the Regional Coordinators, AAR staff, and AAR counsel to develop the language for those incorporation documents, which now ensure best fiduciary practices among our regions. I admire the work that the current AAR/SBL joint Regions Task Force is undertaking to explore further how our societies’ regional bodies can best serve their members and will be energized by the opportunity to implement its recommendations.

I have served the AAR in several other roles and thereby come to appreciate the diversity of work that our members do. The two most recent groups of AAR colleagues with whom I worked confronted inequities across institutions. In the Steering Group for the Religious Literacy initiative, which produced the first set of national guidelines for what college graduates in any higher education setting should learn about religion, we became keenly aware of how many institutions in the US do not adequately support faculty teaching religion. In my current role as Chair of the Committee on Teaching and Learning, committee members who have labored as contingent faculty and online teachers have been invaluable as we worked to develop resources, including a regular webinar series, for assisting AAR members pivoting to pandemic teaching contexts.

As Regions Director, I would bring to the AAR Board of Directors both long-term experience in the regions themselves and the field-wide perspective that my other work in the AAR and as director of a thriving center for the study of religion at my own university have afforded me. Our current national moment will put our guild and institutions to yet unanticipated tests. Should my colleagues judge me the right person for this role, I would energetically devote myself to the challenges our field faces.