Thurmond Professor of Political Science Laura Olson recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Religion and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.
The Suzanne Hoeber Rudolph Outstanding Scholar Award recognizes a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to the field of religion and politics. Olson was nominated and selected by her peers to receive this award.
“It is an indication that my scholarship has been useful and impactful,” Olson said. “It was also a wonderful experience to receive the award in person after several years of not seeing my close friends and colleagues in the religion and politics community.”
Throughout her career, Olson’s research has focused on contemporary religion and politics with an emphasis on public opinion and civic engagement. She has been a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Italy (University of Bari, 2020), president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (2020), and editor-in-chief of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Her work has appeared in leading scholarly journals including Political Research Quarterly, Social Science Quarterly, and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Among other projects, she has done work on the progressive community-organizing work of urban clergy and congregations, the public role of mainline Protestantism, and other progressive manifestations of the relationship between religion and politics. Many of her publications make connections across disciplinary boundaries, whether through co-authorship or audience.
One of the most rewarding research projects she has worked on ended with a published article she coauthored in 2006 about how people’s religious commitments and beliefs shape their attitudes about same-sex marriage. She is also proud of her coauthored book, Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices, which is about to go into its 7th edition and was once cited in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion.
Her career-long research on religious commitments and same-sex relationships was inspired by a paper she wrote in college. As an undergraduate in the late 1980s, she had her first introduction to people from different religious backgrounds than her own. She came to understand that people often interpret politics through the lens of their religious beliefs. Meanwhile, a professor suggested a paper topic for his class that combined religion and politics.
“I chose that topic and have not stopped thinking or writing about how religion and politics intersect ever since,” she said.
At Clemson, she teaches classes about how religion intersects with U.S. politics, world politics, and more. Just as she was inspired by her professor to research religion and politics, she is inspiring her students to do so as well. After taking Olson’s religion and world politics class, Whitney Jordan asked Olson to be her mentor for her senior honors thesis. She is writing her thesis on the intersectional role of gender and religion on vote choice in the 2008 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
“She has been the most amazing mentor, a constant source of encouragement, and has motivated me to pursue my interest in learning more about religion and politics. She has allowed me to ask questions when I need more clarification and always reminds me that all questions are valid, no matter how small they may seem,” Jordan said. “It has been such a wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. Olson, and I am so thankful for her guidance throughout my time at Clemson, both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Jeff Peake, the Department of Political Science chair, said that Olson is the most decorated professor in their department and that her career encompasses what it is to be a true scholar in political science.
“She is one of our best teachers and an outstanding mentor for graduate students, bringing her research into the classroom on a routine basis. Laura’s research is impactful and multidisciplinary, having shaped multiple disciplines’ understanding of religion and politics,” Peake said. “She continues to expand her research and teaching horizons, with her recent research in global contexts. All of us in the department are proud to have Laura as a colleague, and excited for her to be recognized with such a prestigious national award.”
The Department of Political Science is a part of the Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven schools and departments – Communication; Nursing; Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management; Political Science; Psychology; Public Health Sciences; and Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice – to further its mission in “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.
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