PhD Interview: Savannah H. Finver


The Ohio State University

Areas of Interest/Research:

Religion and law, religion and culture, New Religions, minority religions, American religions, social theory, legal studies, philosophy, poststructuralism

What is it about your field that you love researching?

This is a tough question to answer because I find so much about religious studies fascinating! Ever since I found my way into the field, though, I’ve been most interested in questions about religion and law, specifically about how “religion” as a legal category in the United States impacts questions of civil rights. I’m also especially interested in looking at how practitioners of minority religions navigate the U.S. legal system, which relies heavily on Protestant Christian notions of what “religion” ought to look like. I’ve often found in reading case law that minority religions tend to struggle the most when it comes to equitable access to the special rights and privileges granted to religions in the U.S. through the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

The “big idea” I’m examining in my scholarship now is that “religion” as a legal category fundamentally shapes the lives and bodies of practitioners here in the United States. I argue, in the manner of the poststructuralist tradition, that the language, discourse, rhetoric, and the particular categories we use have important material implications for the lives of the people who operate under those categories. Because I see language as an important aspect of reality construction, I aim to demonstrate in all of my work that “religion” as a legal category often comes with consequences for material bodies and culture that must be further explored if we want to be able to address critical problems of legal discrimination among diverse groups.

What is your current research about?

My current research has focused primarily on the competing rhetorics that are produced around contemporary abortion debates in the United States. My most recent project examined the sense of “vision” as a locus of connection between discourse and bodies—that is, that the language we use produces particular visual fields which in turn cause us to interpret our realities in different ways. In particular, I examine the difference between the terms “fetal tissue” and “unborn child” and the kinds of visuals that come to mind when we utilize these terms in our debates. Because “fetal tissue” is more often associated with so-called “secular” rhetorics and “unborn child” is more often associated with so-called “religious” rhetorics, I examine the implications of how “religion” as a legal category both impacts the debates around abortion and raises other critical questions about how we draw boundaries around what qualifies as “religious,” who or what qualifies as a “person” or “citizen,” and how these boundaries impact the ways in which the legal system allocates rights to its citizens.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

I don’t think I have a particular academic “hero” because I admire different qualities in all of my mentors that I hope to someday embody in my own academic journey. Some of my mentors I value for their intellectual insights, some for their incredible teaching abilities, some because they’ve been so supportive of my own intellectual pursuits and professional development. My favorite philosopher is Jacques Derrida, for example, but I have no desire to reproduce his writing style or his attitude.  If I had to pick a singular hero, I suppose it would have to be my undergraduate supervisor, Craig Martin. I admire Dr. Martin for many reasons. He was the one who brought me into the field, but more importantly, I admire his pedagogical skills and his ability to translate difficult theoretical and philosophical problems into language that undergraduates can understand. Because I highly value both teaching and public scholarship, I hope that my writing and communication skills will someday reach the same level of clarity (or at least get close!).

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

Some of the most formative books for me so far have been Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and Craig Martin’s Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion, and the Private Sphere. Derrida’s and Foucault’s theories of language and power inform every project I undertake, while Wenger and Martin’s works have helped me think more specifically about religion as a legal and political category in the United States. All of these are books I return to regularly and cite frequently in my work.

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

Where can we follow you online?

Personal website:

Twitter: @SavHFin

Facebook: Savannah Finver

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

Cats. Definitely always cats. One can never talk too much about cats or share too many pictures of one’s cats.

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I don’t really have time at this particular moment to focus on much other than my dissertation at this point, but two organizations I’m currently a part of that contain a bit of a research component are The Religious Studies Project (for which I serve as a Features Editor and Interviewer) and the Ohio State University’s Center for the Study of Religion (for which I serve as the Graduate Research Associate). The Religious Studies Project is a free podcast where graduate students and early career scholars interview our more senior colleagues in the field about their research interests and current projects. OSU’s Center for the Study of Religion functions in lieu of a religious studies department, which the university unfortunately doesn’t have (though the department of Comparative Studies does offer a religious studies major and minor and various graduate specializations relating to religion). As the graduate associate for the Center, I do a lot of administrative work, marketing, and helping out with events organized and hosted by the Center. The best part of working there has been the Center’s fundamentally interdisciplinary community, which has allowed me to network with scholars outside of my department and discipline in ways I probably would not have been able to without this role.

Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.


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