Skip to main content

Northwestern alumnus Jeffrey Wheatley explores American fanaticism and game design

December 18, 2023


Alumnus Dr. Jeffrey Wheatley talks about his latest book manuscript, his time at Northwestern and his involvement in the creation of a game design major at Iowa State University.

Wheatley defended his dissertation “Policing Fanaticism, Religion, & Race in the American Empire, 1830–1930” in 2020, earning his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Northwestern University. Today, he is in his fourth year as an assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State University.

Wheatley said his main task now is the finalization of his book manuscript, which is tentatively entitled “American Fanatics: Spirited Rebellion and the Policing of Religion.” He said it is an enhanced and updated version of his Ph.D. dissertation. His book centers on religious fanaticism in 19th century United States.

The Northwestern alumnus said he is interested in when Americans started using this language: what they mean by it, who is being labeled fanatical and the effects of being labeled this way. He said he views this from the perspective of religious institutions, in terms of who are they calling fanatical in sermons, and who the U.S. government considers dangerous because of their religion.

Wheatley said while we have this ideal of religious freedom, which does quite a bit of good, there are always exceptions. “There are certain groups, that are often already marginalized, especially racialized groups and religious groups that have ideas that are outside of the mainstream that are going to, rightly or wrongly, be viewed as not having a form of religion that we can tolerate,” he said.

He said his book looks at some of these groups whose religion is deemed too dangerous, violent or subversive. Wheatley explores how, since enslaved people were viewing and understanding Christianity through their oppression, their religion itself was targeted. The scholar said he discusses how the government determined these Black religious leaders and practices were dangerous, so they were surveilled, policed and sometimes outright executed. Some other religious groups included are Native American groups, those within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and abolitionists.

Wheatley said he first became fascinated with religious studies during his undergraduate years at Arizona State University. Although he was a history and literature major, he said every time he had a choice, he found himself writing about religion. He said a lot of fun, weird and even frustrating questions emerge from thinking about how to study religion using academic standards and standards of modern scholarship.

Wheatley said religious studies does not have a single approach.  “There’s lots of room for debate, and you don’t always get that in other fields in the same way,” he said.

While doing his M.A. in Religious Studies at Florida State University, Wheatley said the opportunity to go to Northwestern to work with Sylvester Johnson came up. He said Johnson is an innovative thinker who was working on a project on African American religion, challenging all religious studies and specifically American religious history to think about the United States not as a nation but as an empire.

He said he thought of this empire where religion and race are intimately connected and how it functions, so for inclusion into the United States, part of it is being recognized as fully human and part of it is you become part of the empire.

Wheatley said while Johnson’s nuanced and critical ideas were a key drawing point for him, there were other things to love about Northwestern’s religious studies department as well.

“I knew it was a supportive program, in terms of finances and funds, but Northwestern was also supportive emotionally and academically,” he said. “They want to treat you like a full human, and they want you to succeed, so I knew that was the kind of place for me.”

He said he has fond memories of his time at Northwestern, which is why he gets excited when he sees his old colleagues and mentors. Wheatley recalled how the department’s professors made sure humanity was there when studying religion. Another important aspect of his time at NU was when he got to design his own class entitled “A History of the Devil.” Wheatley said he reflects on that course as his introduction into his proper direction of teaching as a more advanced scholar.


                          Course image for ‘A History of the Devil’ Spring 2019/ Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Wheatley

Wheatley’s advice to current graduate students is for them to not allow the academic world to consume their life. “Getting outside of it is what gives you more perspective about what makes graduate school and Northwestern’s department, in particular, special and unique,” he said.

Wheatley now teaches four religious studies courses at Iowa State. He said his favorite course to teach is Religion & Popular Culture. He said he thought of this course while teaching “A History of the Devil” and knew he wanted to develop it at Iowa State. It is about how pop culture presents different religious traditions and how religious studies has these concepts that help us understand popular culture differently, Wheatley said. Apart from this course, he teaches Religion in America, Religion, Law and Justice and Catholicism. 

“I really enjoy seeing students from semester to semester develop their skills, their writing get better, their thinking get sharper and gain confidence in themselves and their ideas,” he said.

The Iowa State professor said he has taken a different direction recently that he has really enjoyed. “One thing I learned at Northwestern is to take a cue from the students sometimes," he said. 

Wheatley said his students were particularly interested in games, so he began incorporating games into one of his courses and even allowed them to create a game for their final. When other faculty discussed creating a game design major, Wheatley said he jumped at the chance to partake in its’ creation. He said that it has been a challenging yet revitalizing endeavor. Wheatley's job in helping create this game design major is to consider what role the humanities can have when people think ethically about games but also to create great games that are fun and compelling to spend time in.


“I really enjoy the challenge of it and am starting to do more research on the relevance of some basic religious studies concepts for what makes games compelling in the first place,” Wheatley said.

Dr. Wheatley has seen continued success and has been accepted into the 2023 Young Scholars in American Religion Cohort.                                     

For more information on Dr. Jeffrey Wheatley visit: