Our History

In a letter written by Robert C. “Bob” Nusbaum in November of 1995, Mr. Nusbaum writes, “I venture to guess that more persons have been slaughtered in the name of religion than from any other cause… In this continuing saga of man’s inhumanity to man, the one bright light that goes beyond mere tolerance is Jefferson’s Statue for Religious Freedom. It laid the foundation for the First Amendment, and has served as a beacon for all enlightened constitutions ever since… “  That insightful letter sparked the beginnings of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan University.

The Center for the Study of Religious Freedom (CSRF) was launched in the fall of 1996 through the efforts of a diverse group of supporters from Virginia Wesleyan and the larger community. In 2020, the CSRF was renamed the Robert Nusbaum Center to reflect the vision and honor the legacy of the Center’s Founding Fellow Mr. Bob Nusbaum.

The Center's first full-time director, Dr. Catharine Cookson (1998 – 2004), brought together campus and community in engaging and meaningful partnerships. She created a “safe-zone” where practitioners of all faiths could trust that religious issues and community controversies could be addressed in a fair and impartial manner. She served until her death in 2004. In 2005, a memorial Peace Garden, located just outside the Center offices on the Virginia Wesleyan campus, was dedicated in her honor. The annual Cookson Endowed Lectureship was also established in her honor.

The challenge of the Center is so immense because the issue is a timeless issue. We’re dealing with public perceptions and pressures and what neighbors do to each other out of fear.

Catharine Cookson

Dr. Paul Rasor, served as the Joan P. and Macon F. Brock, Jr., Director of the Center from 2005 – 2014. Dr. Rasor focused on developing resources for the Center, specifically through building a collection of books that focus on religious freedom and developing funds for lectureships. A collection of over 2,000 volumes is housed in the Virginia Wesleyan Hofheimer Library. The collection emphasizes topics related to the mission that include constitutional law, religious freedom and church-state relations, religion and law, the role of religion in public and political life, and the global dimensions of religious freedom, including international human rights. It also includes books on world religions, theology and religious studies, philosophy, history, and education, and other topical areas.

Principles such as religious freedom are not self-defining. They carry only the meaning we give them.

Paul Rasor

At the start of the fall 2014 semester, the Center welcomed Dr. Craig Wansink (Joan P. and Macon F. Brock, Jr., Director), Ms. Kelly Jackson (Associate Director) and Dr. Eric Mazur (Center Fellow for Religion, Law, and Politics). Under their leadership, the Center strives to be a hub for the campus and broader community to engage in civil discussions about difficult issues.  Center initiatives aim to cultivate mutual understanding amidst our differences, build civic skills, and empower individuals to be effective agents of change in in their own communities, and in the world.

Disagreement and division are part and parcel not just of the human condition, but also of society. From America’s foundations, civic life was characterized by a clash of values not between religion and the state, but between different views of religion and different views of the state. People like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were statesmen who recognized the necessity of addressing issues—politics and religion—that others saw as contentious. Politics and religion are not the only issues of contention in the modern American context. Issues relating to race, gender, and sexuality, for instance, create huge chasms between well-intentioned people of different perspectives. How can those issues be addressed, without rancor or screams? Without passive-aggressive silence? Without unfair characterizations? That is what the Center seeks to do.

Craig Wansink