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Sarah Barringer Gordon wins Guggenheim for her scholarship on law and religion

April 20, 2015

In recognition of her acclaimed work on the intersections of law and religion in American history, Penn Law professor Sarah Barringer Gordon has been awarded a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. 

She also received a supplemental fellowship for Constitutional Studies from the Dorothy Tapper Goldman Foundation.

Gordon, the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, is a noted scholar and commentator on religion in American public life and the law of church and state.

She is one of two Guggenheim recipients from the University of Pennsylvania this year. Historian Kathleen M. Brown, a scholar of gender and race in early American and the Atlantic world, also was awarded a fellowship.

The Guggenheim is a midcareer award given to those who have “already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”

“Sally Gordon is one of the nation’s foremost scholars of the complex interaction of law and religion throughout the history of the United States. Her work provides nuanced examinations of how these fundamental institutions have shaped each other’s development,” said Wendell Pritchett, Penn Law Interim Dean and Presidential Professor. “I am incredibly pleased that she and her work have received this prestigious, and well-deserved, honor.”

Gordon was awarded the fellowship for her project Freedom’s Holy Light: Disestablishment in America, 1776–1876. In her work, she argues that the separation of church and state in many jurisdictions was integrally linked to the protection of slavery in the early Republic.  By ensuring that religious ideas had no impact on political life, she contends, the structures of power that were vital to slaveholders were immune to religious interference.

Yet the divides over slavery that tore the country apart first severed congregations and then entire denominations. The reintegration of politics and religion that followed set the stage for a new era, one that featured extensive new political powers for religious organizations, including generous tax benefits, contracts with governments, and the capacity to acquire and hold substantial wealth.

“It is truly an honor to receive this award,” said Gordon. “The Guggenheim Fellowship will give me the time and support I need to complete my latest project, which I hope shows the importance of how rigorous interdisciplinary work is vital to understanding the way we approach both law and religion.”

Her first book, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), won the Mormon History Association’s and the Utah Historical Society’s best book awards in 2003. Her second, The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2010), explored the world of church and state in the twentieth century.

Guggenheim Fellowships have no special conditions, and they are intended to provide recipients with extended time to work, and as much creative freedom as possible.

The Guggenheim Foundation received over 3,100 applications this year, and 175 scholars and artists were awarded fellowships. Gordon is one of three law professors to receive a fellowship in 2015.

Since 1925, the foundation has given $325 million to nearly 18,000 individuals, which include Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Fields Medalists.