James Calvin Davis

Professor of Religion

Phone: work802.443.3221
Office Hours: On Leave Spring and Fall 2014
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Professor Davis began teaching at Middlebury College in 2001.  He offers courses in social ethics and American religious history.  In both his teaching and his writing, Professor Davis is interested in the ways religious traditions have contributed to debates over moral issues, political freedom, and civic responsibility in the United States.

An expert in Anglo-American Calvinism, Professor Davis is the author of a monograph on the Puritan firebrand for religious freedom, Roger Williams (The Moral Theology of Roger Williams, WJK Press 2004), as well as editor of On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Harvard, 2008).  This latter book represents the first collection of Williams's writings to be generally accessible in nearly fifty years.  

More recently Professor Davis has written In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us (Westminster John Knox, 2010).  In this book, he considers religion's impact on moral and political debates in America's past and argues for the benefit of a robust, respectful, and diverse religious contribution to contemporary public discourse.

Besides teaching in the Religion Department, Professor Davis currently serves as the Academic Director of the Privilege & Poverty Initiative, a new opportunity for Middlebury students to study the causes and consequences of poverty in a deliberate sequence of classroom learning and internship experience.



indicates offered in the current term
indicates offered in the upcoming term[s]

FYSE 1322 - Ethics in Literature and Film      

The Moral of the Story: Exploring Ethics through Literature and Film
Ethics is the study of how we ought to live and the people we ought to be. For millennia, theologians and philosophers have constructed arguments that inform our understanding of morality, but for much longer people have told stories that address perennial questions in ethics. What is human dignity? How should we balance respect for the individual with society's needs? Is the pursuit of perfection noble or dangerous? In this seminar we will explore foundational themes in ethics as they are raised in classic English literature, contemporary novels, and films. Readings will include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, and Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. Films may include Gattaca, Talk to Her, and Dirty Pretty Things.


Fall 2010

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RELI 0190 - Intro to Religious Ethics      

Ethics and Abrahamic Religion ET, WT
Ethics is the study of the values and convictions by which individuals and communities determine what is right, wrong, good, and bad. For many, religion is a lens through which to understand those moral values. In this course we will explore the varied contributions that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have made to debates over issues like violence, sex, the environment, human rights, and social justice. In the process of understanding these traditions and their impact on global moral discourse, students also will develop skills in ethical reasoning through class discussion and from the perspective of their own worldviews. 3 hrs. lect., 1 hr. disc.


Fall 2011, Spring 2015

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RELI 0275 - Separation of Church and State      

Separation of Church and State: Religious Foundations for an American Ide AR, ET
This course will consider the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, with special attention given to the ways in which different definitions of "religion" and "politics" can affect the interpretation of their relationship. Our study of this American doctrine will begin with its historical foundations in the thought of Roger Williams, William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. We then will trace the evolution of interpretation through Supreme Court jurisprudence on church/state relations, primarily from the twentieth century. Finally, we will pay specific attention to the consequences of our interpretation on current debates over issues like school vouchers, faith-based initiatives, and the tax-status of religious organizations. 3 hrs. lect./disc.


Spring 2012

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RELI 0293 - Religion and Bioethics      

Religion and Bioethics ET*
This course is an introduction to bioethics, or the principles, virtues, and other moral norms that guide decision-making in the health sciences. We will focus on moral norms accepted by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and humanistic traditions and embedded in a liberal, pluralistic society. We will consider the implications for euthanasia and assisted suicide, abortion, assisted reproduction, genetics, research on human subjects, and other health care issues that occupy public debate. Popular films and numerous actual and hypothetical cases that raise important issues in bioethics will be used throughout the course. 3 hrs. lect./disc.


Fall 2010, Fall 2013

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RELI 0298 - Privilege and Poverty      

Privilege and Poverty: The Ethics of Economic Inequality
In this course we will study the ethical implications of domestic and global economic inequality. Drawing from history, economics, sociology, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, we will examine the causes and consequences of inequality, critically evaluate our usage of the terms “privilege” and “poverty,” and consider the range of moral responses individuals and society might have to inequality. We will ask whether it is unfair, unfortunate, or necessary that some citizens live with significantly less material wealth than others, and whether those who experience “privilege” have any moral responsibility to those who exist in “poverty.”


Spring 2013

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RELI 0376 - Religion and American Politics      

Religion and American Politics AR, ET
Does religion belong in politics? Should religious reasons be permitted in public political debate? Should candidates for office publicly declare their religious beliefs? Are orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam fundamentally incompatible with democratic principles? This course examines these and similar questions regarding the relationship between religion and American democracy. We will study the role religion does in fact play in American politics, but primarily we will ask what role, if any, religion should play in politics. We will consider this last question by consulting a number of important contemporary political philosophers and theologians. (One of the following courses: RELI 0190, RELI 0275, RELI 0293, PSCI 0101, PSCI 0102, PSCI 0104, PSCI 0107, or any course in Philosophy) 3 hrs. sem.


Spring 2011, Fall 2012

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RELI 0396 - War and Peace and Christianity      

War and Peace in Christian Thought ET, WT
Both pacifism and just war thinking have deep roots in the Christian tradition. Important figures in Christian history have argued that in certain circumstances war may be a regrettable but justifiable engagement, while others have maintained that killing of any kind, even in the name of the state, is wrong. This seminar will look at the historical development of both approaches to war and peace in Christian thought, from the early church to the present day. Figures and movements we will encounter will include Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, the Quakers, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King. 3 hrs. sem. (RELI 0130, RELI 0190, or by approval)


Fall 2013

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RELI 0398 - Amer Religion & Social Justice      

American Religion and Social Justice
Religious communities and organizations have contributed significantly to moral and social reform movements throughout U.S. history. From the colonial period to the present, religion has helped shape the discourse around issues like economic justice, racial equality, women’s rights, immigration, environmentalism, and LGBTQ rights. In this course we will study religious involvement in these social justice movements, critically examining the theologies that inspired both reform and resistance to social change. Throughout the course, we will consider the impact religion may have had—positive and negative—on struggles for social justice in the United States. 3 hrs. sem.


Spring 2015

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RELI 0500 - Independent Research      

Independent Research
(Approval Required)

Fall 2010, Winter 2011, Spring 2011, Fall 2011, Winter 2012, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Winter 2013, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2015

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RELI 0601 - Senior Project in Religion      

Senior Project
(Approval Required)

Fall 2010, Winter 2011, Spring 2011, Fall 2011, Winter 2012, Spring 2012

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RELI 0700 - Senior Project in Religion      

Senior Project
(Approval Required)

Fall 2010, Winter 2011, Spring 2011, Fall 2011, Winter 2012, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Winter 2013, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2015

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RELI 0701 - Senior Thesis in Religion      

Senior Research for Honors Candidates
Approval required

Fall 2012, Winter 2013, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2014, Spring 2015

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