Keeley Harris, '21, hikes with her co-researcher and their guide to a sacred cave in Cambodian holy mountain Phnom Kulen.

Keeley Harris, '21

April 20, 2021
Jepson Scholar to continue her exploration of leadership, religion at Oxford

Excitement and gratitude. These were the emotions Keeley Harris, ’21, said she experienced upon learning in early April that the Jepson School of Leadership Studies had named her a Jepson Scholar. She will receive an all-expenses-paid scholarship to pursue a Master of Studies in Theology at the University of Oxford in the fall.

The scholarship to Oxford makes it possible for the senior from Brookhaven, Ga., to build on what she has learned in leadership studies and religious studies, her two undergraduate majors. Through her classes, she has explored the connection between leadership and ethics, social justice, and prejudice. 

“Religion or the lack of religion has a tremendous influence on leaders’ decision-making processes, how they determine the right thing to do,” Harris said. “As the dominant religion in the West today, Christianity has shaped many of our leaders and formed a lot of our norms and structures.”

Outside the classroom, she has pursued opportunities to apply her learning in real-world contexts.

One such opportunity was a fall 2019 study-abroad program in Cambodia. Harris joined a research team working to document the religious significance of Phnom Kulen, a Cambodian mountain dotted with Buddhist and Hindu shrines.

“In addition to the international Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims, the local people frequent the mountain to worship spirits, including the spirit they believe protects the mountain,” she said. “We interviewed local village elders, Buddhist monks, and caretakers of the shrines to try to understand how local and international religions connect to this holy site.”

Harris gained more hands-on experience during her summer 2020 Jepson internship in Atlanta at Trinity Presbyterian, the church her family attends. The Jepson School awarded her a Burrus Fellowship to support her internship with the church’s youth ministry.

“Trinity Presbyterian serves mostly affluent, white families,” the blue-eyed blonde said. “My internship gave me a good opportunity to discuss the Black Lives Matter protests with the church’s teens. We watched movies with racial justice themes, like ‘Just Mercy’ and ‘The Hate U Give.’ Then we discussed how we could be allies.”

This year, she undertook a Jepson honors thesis, with the support of faculty advisor Kristin Bezio. Her thesis delves into the effect of the obscure Christian sect Socinianism on American leaders, governance, and politics from the Colonial era through the present day. Socinianism promoted religious tolerance and separation of church, both radical ideas at the time the sect developed in mid-sixteenth-century Poland, she said.

“Socinians emphasized reading scripture, reason, and individualism,” Harris said. “They denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, because they couldn’t find support for these beliefs in scripture. They believed anyone could reach salvation by studying scripture. Socinianism, known as Unitarianism by the time it reached Colonial America, goes hand-in-hand with the Enlightenment and humanism.”

Religious tolerance and separation of church and state, ideas embraced by Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, became a part of the new democracy’s ethos.

Later in her thesis, Harris attributes some of the current polarization in America to a lack of understanding between what she describes as generally more religious-leaning conservatives and more secular-leaning liberals. Both sides could benefit from respectfully working to gain a better grasp of the other’s perspective, she argues.   

“Leaders are shaped by their religious beliefs. How do they make decisions? Whom do they prioritize? How do they create a more equitable world? These are some of the most important questions we can ask.”

Photo: Keeley Harris, left, her research partner, center, and their guide, right, hiked to a sacred cave in Cambodia's holy mountain, Phnom Kulen.