Religion and Politics in America with Dr. Matthew Gunning of Georgia Gwinnett College - Conversation with the Rabbi

Episode 8

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Published on:

13th May 2021

Religion and Politics in America with Dr. Matthew Gunning of Georgia Gwinnett College

Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Dr. Matthew Gunning about religion and politics in America. We dig into topics such as: 

  • Patterns in how religious affiliation impacts voting in US politics 
  • What the increase in "religiously unaffiliated" means 
  • What the Trump presidency revealed about differences between religious conservative groups (e.g., Mormons and White evangelicals) 
  • Voters who adopt conservative issue positions but vote for Democratic candidates 
  • And more ...

Dr. Matthew Gunning is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He has taught courses on Congress, the presidency, political parties, Georgia government, comparative politics, American government and interest groups. He has published works in The Journal of Politics and Social Science History, and written a book chapter on Georgia voting law reforms. His dissertation explored patterns of roll call voting in southern state legislatures and the Georgia legislature over time. Dr. Gunning's academic interests include: Congress, political parties and elections, Georgia and southern politics, U.S. presidency, and comparative legislatures. Currently he is working on expanding his research on the Georgia Assembly into a book.

Additional Resources:

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Transcript
Announcer:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi -- featuring open, honest dialogue and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to another Conversation with the Rabbi. I'm Adrian McIntyre. Our guest today is Dr. Matthew Gunning. He's an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College. We're going to talk about American politics, certainly a subject that gets a lot of airplay in today's world. And I think we're going to have some interesting conversations about some of the nuances you might not have heard in some of the other mainstream media discussions. Our host for this conversation is of course, Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center. Good morning, Rabbi.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Good morning Adrian, and good morning Dr. Gunning. Thank you very much for joining us for a Conversation with the Rabbi. How are you today?

Matthew Gunning:

I'm good. Happy to be here.

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm fascinated, as somebody who has left academia myself many years ago, that the things that brought us to our own expertise, to the subjects we research, the things we teach, are often in ways that don't get talked about in academia deeply personal. Tell us a little bit about your work, and what you do, and what got you to that point, kind of how this all played out for you.

Matthew Gunning:

Well, I was a nerd even as a little kid, so I hand drew electoral college maps as a teenager to figure out what was the pivotal state in every election in American history. As you can imagine, I was a lot of fun at parties as I would tell you about the importance of Ohio in the 1884 election. So my entryway to political science was really a deep interest in electoral politics. And so this is really how I traveled down that route. I worked on a House campaign in my local area as a college graduate. I worked on a presidential campaign in 1992, and later I did an internship for a member of Congress. And then I worked for a member of Congress. And then lastly, I worked for the Embassy of Morocco in Washington, DC as their congressional liaison which gave me, a Midwestern kid who didn't know very much about Middle Eastern politics, a whole new look at Arab-Israeli talks. And this was during the 1990s, so the Clinton administration trying to shepherd some improvements in some negotiations ...

Adrian McIntyre:

The Oslo Accords, and that whole ...

Matthew Gunning:

Yes! So I mean, this was all ... I had some Washington experience before I went back to grad school to get a PhD and become a professor who talks about things. So anyways, I joke with my students that I actually did practice politics so when I teach you, it's not just a case of those who can't, do teach. I did a little bit of that. But my own background is I come from a family where my mother's side is Mennonite. And so for viewers that might not know, Mennonite is a very small Christian denomination, Protestant denomination in the United States. And it is kind of a sister, theologically, it's a sister to the Amish. So if you've heard of the Amish, the Amish don't use modern conveniences like electricity and gas powered engines, and these kinds of things. I distantly have Amish relatives on my mother's side. The Mennonites use modern equipment, but they have a heavy emphasis on piety and modesty. So they don't wear bright colors, you don't buy a red car if you're Mennonite. Black and blue and dark colors are acceptable as modest colors. My grandmother who's still alive, she's in her nineties, she has never cut her hair, she doesn't wear jewelry, she's never worn makeup. And so this is the background on my mother's side. And they're pacifists, which makes them very different from most Americans and most Protestants and most Christians in the United States. My father's side is more of a traditional Protestant sort of Church of Christ background. And so in my own family, my parents had a born again Christian experience when I was 10 and we attended an evangelical church growing up. And so that's my particular connection to the topic of religion. And so one of the things that ... I grew up in a small town Midwestern area, and virtually everyone I interacted with at least nominally claimed to be a Christian or had some connection to a Christian denomination. I remember a neighbor lady once talking about another family and she said, "Well, they're French Catholic not German Catholic." And so those were the kind of distinctions that I was aware of. And it wasn't until I went to college that I really met somebody who was of the Jewish faith, for example. And later when I went to work for the Embassy of Morocco, it was really the first time I had interacted on a daily basis with someone who was Muslim. And so these were tremendous eye-opening experiences to me as I got into my late teens and twenties and I realized that the religious lens is a powerful lens that shapes and colors the perception of not just politics, but many other things in terms of culture. And so I started off as someone deeply interested in politics, but then to understand why people hold political views that they do, I realized that I was needing to understand the connection of religion and how that religion acts as a lens or a focal point for political beliefs.

Adrian McIntyre:

I want to hear a little bit more as we go along. I'm just going to put a pin in this for us to come back to later, because I think the fact that you are speaking to us from Georgia and that Georgia has been in the news a lot recently, but really if folks were paying attention, they would have noticed that Atlanta became the center of culture and pretty much everything long before this election cycle. So there's a lot of really interesting local and state level dynamics that you as a professor at a university that has wide open doors to many different folks, you're going to be kind of in the thick of, and I don't think that most people far away from that understand the unique mixture of things that are going down in your area. So I hope you'll touch on that. But I know that Rabbi Beyo is going to have some very interesting questions as well. I want to have him see where this conversation is going to go. Because he and I have talked a lot about American politics, about what's been happening lately, how some of it is good, how some of it is not good. Rabbi Beyo, this is your chance to really engage with an expert here. What's on your mind?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I love the interplay of topics that Matthew brings because it's politics and religion. It's the two topics that I love the most besides history. So it's like, it's amazing. So I get to speak to an expert. I always say that America is the most religious country in the world, among the democracies in the world. And this always strikes people that I say these that are not experts in the field as, "Oh, no, but that's not true. Look at all the X, Y, and Z that happens in America." And then I go back and I say, "No, but listen. Look, America is the only country that I know of among democracies where the president swears on the Bible when he takes office. Or that you have to swear on a Bible when you go to court or that you need to... Or on every dollar it's written, 'in God we trust'." So it's not only the assumption that God exists, but also we trust in God. It's higher than just saying, "I believe God exists. I trust in God." Can you tell us more this intertwine between religion and politics in America especially in a country that purposely says, "Oh, no, there is a separation of church and state." It seems a contradiction, and how does that play especially in the last election?

Matthew Gunning:

There are so many ways I could answer that question. So I will have to make choices here. I would think of a couple things. One, I want to just for a moment visit Mr. James Madison. I talk about this when I teach my intro students, and I say Thomas Jefferson is often credited with the concept of separation of church and state. But I said, honestly, it's James Madison who should receive a lot more of attention. James Madison was the young man of the American revolution. He was in his twenties, and he was a protégé of [Thomas Jefferson]. And as a Virginia legislator, he was personally a member of the Anglican church. So he was a church attender, but he also believed that faith was in essence a private thing and should not be a matter of state policy. And during the colonial era, the state of Virginia had an officially established church, his own church, the one he attended. And as a state legislator, he led the effort to have the state of Virginia stop sending money to his own church. He didn't believe that the government should be favoring or advantaging any one particular faith or religious viewpoint. But later he will be the primary drafter of the First Amendment. And the First Amendment has two sides when it comes to religion, which is the individual has the freedom to practice their religion. So in other words, if a student at a public school wants to have a prayer group during their lunchtime, they can, but the state cannot favor and advantage a religion. So a state funded teacher such as myself or anyone that works at a public school cannot lead students in a prayer. So it's this strange two sides of a coin that we have in the United States and I would say some of this goes back to these sort of Enlightenment influenced leaders like James Madison in particular. So we have this juxtaposition of affirming that religious faith is something that everybody can have and exercise, but also trying to create a little bit of distance from favoring one thing. And I think this goes back really far. So if we look at the American Revolution, we have people, mostly Protestant who are coming, but even among Protestants, we have lots of different groups. So we have Lutheran and we have Congregationalists and Episcopalians, in other places we're going to get what will become the Methodists and other types of groups. And so even though early America was overwhelmingly Christian and overwhelmingly Protestant, they were still very different versions of the church. And so in many of these colonies, there was sort of a common understanding that most Americans shared a similar religious viewpoint, but they attended very different religious organizations. And so there was this distinction between sort of shared assumptions and not wanting the government to be invested in any particular organization. And I just want to affirm that you are absolutely correct when you made the statement that America is unusually religious. If you look at advanced industrial democracies and you look at survey questions such as, do you believe that God exists? Do you believe that there's a heaven and hell in the Christian way of talking about it? Or do you believe that there is like a divine revelation, these kinds of questions, the Americans are off the charts compared to Western European countries or Australia and Japan and kind of the countries we would consider peer societies or peer countries that we compare ourselves to. And so from an anthropological / sociological point, we are the exception. We are the outlier to a general trend, which is that wealthy, advanced industrialized democracies tend to be secular and less of an adherence to religious faith is a very common trend when we look across the world at kind of sister democracies.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I don't want to take it to the historical side on why we are the way we are, but I would like to understand from you, what are the ramifications in today's politics? We just went through a very, very difficult and contentious election. Some even believe that the current president should not be the president and that former president Trump is the legitimate president. That's how contentious these elections were. And where does religion plays its role in these elections?

Matthew Gunning:

There's really two important trends for us to understand how religion is intersecting with American politics. One is the trend in religion, which is we are seeing a shift in the percentage of people who identify with no religion, or non-religion when they're asked the question. So we're seeing an increase of the unaligned, religiously unaffiliated, people use different terms. So we're seeing a decline in the percentage of people who identify historically, which is Christian, which was the largest religious belief found in American population. And then that's overlaid with another trend which has to do with race and ethnicity in the United States, which is that the United States is trending away from being majority White, which is how people might commonly define themselves, to becoming a polyethnic, majority non-White nation. And the Census Bureau says we're on that trajectory. These two things overlap. And one of the powerful things that we see ... there was a good article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago that said "The Decline of White Christian America." So we're seeing a decline in the percentage of Christian people and we're seeing a decline in the percentage of people who are White, and White and Christian is very strongly correlated with support for Republicans. If we look at the two parties in the United States we find that White Protestants, in particular, very strongly tend to favor the Republican Party and White Protestants who are in the evangelical category are roughly about 80% Republican voting. So there's a very strong link between religion, ethnicity, and Republican identification. And if we go to the other party, the Democratic Party is kind of 50/50. So the Democratic Party, which tends to win many non-White voters is roughly about half non-White voters, and it's roughly about White voters who tend to be more liberal and who tend to be more of the religiously unaffiliated. But if we look at the Latino and Black voters, many of those are churchgoers. So the Democratic Party is this more of a hybrid mix of more secular White voters, who tend to be liberal, and more religiously attuned Black Protestants and Latinos, who might be Catholic or Protestant but are often churchgoers and who often have, if we asked them, conservative positions maybe on, say, abortion or same-sex marriage, or these kinds of social issues. But for them their ethnic identity trumps those specific issues. So we've got two things going on. And one of the things that was very important in the Trump era or the Trump period is that in many ways he connected to a White identity that was overlaid with a White Protestant layer as well. It's one of the reasons that we see this kind of polarization, both by religion and by education, and even by place. So increasingly we see the metropolitan areas which tend to be a little bit more secular, tend to be more highly educated are voting very differently from rural America. And in many parts of rural America, they're much more religiously active, much more religiously attending and those areas became more Republican and metropolitan areas became more Democratic voting. So we've got these layers of connection. We've got religion, we've got race and ethnicity, and then we've got geography: metropolitan versus rural.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, it's always very interesting for me as a little bit of an outsider because I'm an immigrant and I became an American citizen just last December. So I was very fortunate to be able to vote at this time for the first time in the elections. And it's always very interesting for me, I've lived in this country for almost 16 years, every time during elections, the map. So you have certain areas, entire states that are so clearly leaning one side, and then you have the major cities, the major metropolitan cities. Like, I lived in Georgia, and Atlanta is definitely not Georgia. Atlanta is Atlanta and then you have Georgia. And probably the same is becoming now here in Arizona, that Phoenix is becoming Phoenix, and it's different than the rest of Arizona. And this, we see it all over, like probably LA is different than many parts of California, et cetera. And these elections, they culminated in also, unfortunately, with some violence. Where do you see that going? Do you think that ... are we unfortunately heading towards more of that or, and it's a two-part question, can religious leaders, because America is so religious, because even the "non" are more religiously affiliated than in Europe, for example. Where is the place of religion and religious leaders in finding again, a common denominator where we can disagree on who we're going to vote, but then we're going to unite the next day as Americans?

Matthew Gunning:

It's a great question. And I wish I had a telescope into the future, and I could tell you exactly how things will play out. First let's take the polarization side. This is not the first time in American history, that the country has been deeply polarized with respect to geography. If we go back obviously to the pre-Civil war, there was a very strong polarization between the free states and the slave states that ended it in a very destructive Civil War, which freed imprisoned Black people, which was great. But it also destroyed lots of property, destroyed lots of lives and it left the Southern region of the United States, the poorest region for a hundred years. And so there was long-term consequences, both for persons and for the nation, for that tremendous destruction. And then for a hundred years after the American Civil War, if you just click on Wikipedia and you start clicking through presidential elections and you look at the county maps, you could draw a line between North and the South. So Northern counties usually voted Republican and Southern counties usually voted Democratic. And so if we look at the 1880s and 1890s, we had a very strong geographical polarization. In the 1880s and 1890s, which it was associated with industrialization and that shift from agriculture to industry, that did not lead to a Civil War. So we had sort of progressive reforms, the political system found ways to muddle through that tense time. And then when we got to the Great Depression, a lot of that polarization really receded. And for most of the 1900s or the 20th century, we had a very depolarized era. And so it's interesting to me as a political scientist and a political historian, I grew up in that era and I tended to assume that that was normal politics, but perhaps polarization is the normal and what I grew up with was, in fact, the exception, a very depolarized period. So we have experienced with polarization, some of it that leads to war and some of it that doesn't lead to war. I'm not of the school of thought that polarization irrevocably leads us into violence. It can, but it doesn't have to.

Adrian McIntyre:

You raise a really interesting point. I read one of Heather Cox Richardson's essays a few days ago where she was talking about the fact that from roughly the 1930s to the late 80s, there was something of what was called "the liberal consensus" in American government, and that all the presidential administrations from FDR through Jimmy Carter, regardless of which party they were representing, shared a common outlook on the role of government, what government should do, and the kinds of programs and so on. Of course there continued to be debates and some of the issues. It's Ronald Reagan's election and his first speech where he says, "Government is not a solution to the problem, government is the problem," that begins to create one of the fractures that we now see as a major fault line today. But your point that maybe the consensus is the aberration, I think that's really interesting. I hadn't thought that before. I sort of had in mind, we need to get back to a more congenial relationship between different affiliations in American politics but maybe that's a mistaken assumption.

Matthew Gunning:

I'd like to come to the second part of Michael's question, which was what is the role for faith leaders. And this goes a little bit to your point, Adrian. So if we go back a hundred years ago or 150 years ago, faith leaders were important as were other leaders of institutions, right? So we had labor leaders and we had faith leaders and we had industrial leaders. And one of the dramatic impacts of the Internet is the great leveling. So today Donald Trump, well, up until recently, Donald Trump could tweet out to his followers and skip the news media and skip all these intervening institutions that used to provide some structure or some organization to American politics. Today we have AOC or Marjorie Taylor Green, both female members of the House who have very different policies, but they have large Twitter followings, and they communicate directly to people and they don't really go through these intermediary institutional leaders. And religious leaders are probably some of the few institutional leaders that have trust from the people who attend their congregations and their assemblies, and they are one of the few things that still maybe have the same sort of authority that we used to see institutional leaders have a hundred years ago. And so one of the things that we have learned from political psychology is that if you want to form a consensus, if you want to bridge a divide, what doesn't work is showing people the right set of facts. And so I would say liberals are probably more guilty of this than conservatives. Liberals will say, "Well, if I just show you the facts, you're going to see that my side is right and you're going to have to agree with me." That usually doesn't persuade people. So the research on psychology, political psychology, says that the way to build a consensus or an agreement is to begin by having a conversation about values. What do you value? So let's say we have a conservative Christian who says, they believe that God charged humans with managing the earth. And we have a liberal secular person that says, "I don't want the earth to be trashed and I want to preserve it." Well, if you begin with a conversation about both of these groups care about the planet and care about keeping the planet healthy and a good place to live, then it's a lot easier to start from a position of shared values to then specific policy proposals. Okay, well if we both care about the earth, how would we know that this is bad for the earth? Or what could we do affirmatively to change things? And so in particular, because religious leaders frequently speak in the language of values, I think that they are in a very strong position to act as connecting points between divided and polarized America. So in particular, your interests of interfaith and cross-faith connections, you are familiar with how these conversations work and that there are shared values. People who attend different religious faiths, they certainly don't agree on many points, but there are things that they agree about.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Absolutely. But you said that the F word, facts. It has become a very, very bad word lately. What are facts today? Over the last number of years, it's no secret for those who know me that my politics and my wife's politics differ on many issues, and on many issues we are the same. And it's fascinating to me how her facts and my facts often are very different. How can we resolve that? Because in order to have a true conversation, as you said about values, we need to agree to what are the playing fields. And what these last elections with the Internet and Twitter and all of those things, and whatever it's called, "fake news," and everybody blames the other ... what is the solution? How can we get rid of all the fakeness and go back to, okay, a shared understanding of what some premises are. Or maybe, as you said, maybe this is the new reality, and we're going to need to be, each one of us, much more involved in politics and much more involved and knowledgeable to be able to make the proper choice.

Matthew Gunning:

Probably early in that conversation. So if you began with a conversation about, look, we share values, we want to encourage parents to be able to raise their children. Okay, that's a shared value. How would we know if our laws and our practices facilitate that? We may have to have a conversation about how we're going to measure things, how we're going to assess the facts. One of the things that I do every couple of semesters is I teach our statistics program for political scientists. And measurement is a thorny problem even for social scientists, we will fiercely disagree at times about what's the best way to measure segregation. What's the best way to measure racial animosity. So political scientists will disagree with each other. But part of that is having a good faith conversation about we're all interested in measuring something, and we may have slightly different ideas about what's the best way to do it. But in part, by having that conversation and achieving some level of consensus or agreement, it leads to greater buy-in. So whatever we agree as our yardstick, if we both agree to that yardstick, and then the yardstick shows us something, we're both more likely to say, "Okay, we need to tackle this problem."

Adrian McIntyre:

So this brings us to a really, really important topic, and I'm thrilled that as a trained political scientist, your mind automatically goes to measurement. And of course, for those of us in the human sciences, we're dealing with methodology and challenges to that and all the rest. But for everyday folks, this maps onto something that I think is a real issue, which is what are the sources of information? And I think unfortunately there's interpretation, which for us comes as a secondary step in the process, where gathering the information, collecting data comes before the analysis of it. So that's a little complex. It doesn't map on exactly because for many folks today, the sources of information is already an interpretation. Now that sounds very theoretical and abstract. I have a bad habit on this show of asking impossible questions to try to tie 16 different domains together and I'm about to do that. We need to talk about "the media." And I use that term carefully because it means so many different things to so many different people. But for most folks, whatever we mean when we say "the media" has typically been where they get information. And I think back to a few decades ago when there was a lot fewer media outlets and many of those held themselves to a standard of objectivity, which ought to be problematized and understood, because it was not in fact objective, et cetera. But there came to be a set of sources of information -- with particular ties to the Christian Right, it must be said -- that began to shape the way people think about the events of the day. You grew up originally in a Mennonite context, I grew up in a radio station, a Christian radio station. And we used to run James Dobson's "Focus on The Family" on our station in the 70s and 80s. And that morphed into Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition and so on. Then with a more secular twist we have in the same general market, because I grew up in Southern California Rush Limbaugh emerges without an explicitly Christian narrative, but a very heavy-handed, shaping the conversation point of thing. Fast forward to today where the sources of information have multiplied, and whether it's YouTube or TikTok or wherever folks are getting their inputs, do we even have a hope of restoring some kind of agreement about where we're getting information about what's happening and then what we're going to do about it? I think what you said was admirable, and yet I'm left wondering how do we solve this broader question about where people get the raw material for thought.

Matthew Gunning:

This is a hard question. There's just no two ways about it. And again, I'm going to step back for a moment and take a broader historical perspective. If we think of new technologies. New information technologies are historically very disruptive. When the printing press came out ... Clay Shirky has written this great essay like ten years ago about the printing press. The printing press comes out and this is in Western Europe, which at that time is dominated by the Catholic Church. And these Protestants start translating the Bible into local tongues. And people can read the Bible in English and in German and Italian and these other languages. And then some of these people ...

Adrian McIntyre:

Hopi ...

Matthew Gunning:

Yeah. Then these people start to say, "Well, that's not what the Church taught us." And then it leads to the Protestant or contributes to the Protestant reformation, which then leads to wars across Europe and people being tortured and executed for what they believe in. It's very disruptive. So when the Internet came along in my lifetime, there had been these things called newspapers you could buy everywhere for 50 cents, and it was paid for by print ads. And they're almost all dead in the sense that people don't really read the newspaper in print hardly anymore, they read it online, there's still a thing called the Atlanta General Constitution, but it's like 50% smaller in terms of content. And they laid off half of their reporters. Again, it's very disruptive so today we have blogs and we have other free media platforms. People like free news, so they go to free news. And I would say, we're still in the middle of that transformation and it's disruptive and it's messy. And it's not clear what's on the other side of this voyage. If we look at new technologies, there often is a period of chaos and then there are new social norms that manifest. And again, you're the anthropologist so I'm probably being overly glib as a political scientist. But when Bluetooth first came out, people would walk around in restaurants having conversations with somebody and then other people would give them dirty looks. And eventually there became norms about, well, if you're going to carry on that conversation, maybe you need to step outside the restaurant or something like that. Or even when telephones first came, people would jump up and answer it, and then they got answering machines, and there's you don't call certain hours in the night. Don't call after 10, your friends are not likely to be happy about that. So I would say for one thing, we're in the middle of a very disruptive transformation and there's been some great ... I've heard some great stuff about people who are trying to deal with disinformation on these platforms, and it's not an easy problem to solve. And in many ways we need new norms about what is trustworthy.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I'm going to step back for a moment, what we are highlighting is the problem of the source of authority or the source of truth, which goes back to the initial connection that Matthew's passion and work and expertise is: religion and politics. What is the source of truth? At what point your students are going to say, "Dr. Gunning no, you're wrong." But you're going to say, "But I have 30 years experience and what I have studied ..." "No, no, no. That's your opinion. I have my opinion and I'm going to blog it and I'm going to have 5 million people agree with me. It doesn't matter that you are an expert." I love it when people come to me and they want to tell me what Judaism is or interpretations of certain verses from a Jewish perspective. And I'm like... I remember this girl many years ago, she told me, "I know everything about Judaism. I took a seminar in college." [laughs] And I'm like, "Okay, yes, you do know everything." And so the source of truth and the source of ... It all becomes opinion. So you have your opinion and I have my opinion. But that's not the way it should work. There should be some truths. There should be some accepted truths in religion, in science, in politics even, in history. History is about historical facts. Not about my opinion. Yeah, we can have interpretations about certain historical facts. So what are you going to do when your students tell you, "That's your opinion, doctor. I got my own opinion and I'm going to blog about it."

Matthew Gunning:

When I teach methods for political scientists, I say upfront that for the most part, political science is an empirical field of study. And we believe that there are things that are measurable. If you believe that a certain phenomenon is happening, then you should be able to show that with some kind of measurement. And we're not for the most part dominated by postmodernists. There are some postmodernist political scientists, and that tends to be more the humanities types of fields. And so as a group of political scientists, we tend to begin from the point of view that if there's trends out there, they're measurable. And that's shared rubric, our shared yardstick for how we engage with each other as researchers. And so if a student comes to me and they say, "You're wrong," and I would say, "Well, okay, bring me your data. Bring me your data. If you think X is happening, show me that X is happening." And so that tends to be how I handle those kinds of things in political science.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But then how do we show to all those millions of people that still today believe that the elections were stolen? It's like, you know, how do we take it from outside the classroom to the town square and say, "Yeah, I'm very sorry. You wanted Trump to win, maybe I did too, maybe everybody else wanted, but he lost. Move on."

Matthew Gunning:

I would say two things. One, I think that's one of the reasons that we're seeing a bit of a realignment among White voters with a college education. I think that there is still a lot of reliance upon a shared yardstick on the left side of the spectrum. And I personally know people who've usually voted Republican in the last couple of cycles, they've said, "Look, this is crazy. I can't vote for this." And these are not liberal people, but they're like, "These people are using a crazy yardstick and I'm not using a crazy yardstick." So one of the big trends is we're seeing this divide between people with a college degree and those without, and you can interpret that as a class divide, which certainly there's an aspect. But there also is I think something important that happens to many people when they go to college, which is they kind of buy into maybe a certain kind of yardstick or certain way of assessing things. So that's ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But what do you say to those from the other side that say, "No, colleges are just full of liberal professors and that's why those that have a degree vote the way they vote, because they've been brainwashed by those liberal professors." And so you enter into this kind of ... to me, I hate those kinds of conversations because it's like talking, you know, what's the sex of angels.

Matthew Gunning:

That's a good question.

Adrian McIntyre:

We should have that as a topic for an episode by the way.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yes, we should.

Adrian McIntyre:

That was not on my radar, but I will now not sleep until I know the answer to this question.

Matthew Gunning:

I think that's how Constantinople fell, right? Weren't they debating the sex of angels? Oh no, that was the number of angels that could be on the head of a pin or something.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yes. Exactly the same type of questions. What advice can you give to your students and to our listeners to say, let's use a yardstick that makes sense so that we can recognize crazy, and then we can debate, among us of what is ... We can debate on politics. We can agree on values. We can even disagree on values, but let's do it within a framework that that is normal, that makes sense.

Matthew Gunning:

I don't have an easy answer to this question. One of the things that strikes me is that on the left side of the spectrum, there tends to be a shared framework. But on the left, you still have people who sort of have what you might call anti-science, like say anti-vax people, for example. I think there's more of this especially with disputing the election results, clearly that was more on the right side of the spectrum. And in some ways only people on the right side of the spectrum can reshape this. People on the left aren't going to be able to reshape that because of political psychology. People trust people on their own team. So there's nothing that Joe Biden can say that is going to bring right-of-center people back to a shared yardstick. That can only happen if people on the right side of the spectrum, the conservative side, they're the ones that assert, "Look, there is an empirical reality. Covid is real. You should wear a mask." And one of the things that's fascinating to me is that you see differences. So in particular, if you look at LDS -- or as they're popularly known, Mormon people -- they tend to be pretty science-based. And if you look at Republican politicians in Utah, which are overwhelmingly LDS in that state, they have pretty empirical based policies and they're more conservative. People on the left might not like all their policies but they tend to be rooted in data and science and these kinds of things. And so it's not as though you can't have that on the right side of the spectrum, but it really is going to take some assertion from leaders on that side to restore some kind of a shared yardstick. And so you see people like Mitt Romney, who's pretty science-y, if I can use a non-technical term, I think Mitt Romney still operates, he's a numbers guy came out of Bain Capital and it's dollars and cents and analytics. So he's used to these kinds of things. And this is one of the big splits you even see in religion between say LDS people who are very conservative and White evangelicals, who are very conservative, but much more likely to fall into sort of prosperity gospel and get rich quick schemes and sort of multilevel marketing types of things. And it is an issue. So I come out of that evangelical Christian milieu, and there's just a lot of people who attend church who sort of fall for gimmicks and things that are not out there. And it takes leadership within those communities. So the Mormon leaders are more willing to stand up and say, "this is not right, or this is what we stand for." But for it to happen in White evangelicals, it's going to take leaders on that side to put that into place.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Which now this explains maybe why did overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews also voted for Trump or vote for Republicans, because on the issue of science or non-science, I think that they're very close cousins, first cousins, with the White evangelicals. I think that maybe the issue ... Orthodox Jews voted for Trump, not only because of politics of Israel, but maybe also in what you mentioned is what is your approach to science? I went to a school like that, and my kids also, were they taught us that dinosaurs never existed and God created the bones of the dinosaurs to test our faith. Gravity doesn't exist, it's just the will of God that the leaf falls in a certain way. It's not because of the Law of Gravity. So that's interesting, because I've always thought and most people I think, think that the majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump because of policies vis-a-vis Israel. But you did not say directly, but what you were suggesting is that, and what I'm suggesting is that, maybe it's their view vis-a-vis religion and science that has led maybe also to vote in the way that they voted.

Matthew Gunning:

If you interview a evangelical Christian, they believe in divine revelation, they believe that God speaks to people which probably Orthodox Jews believe that as well. Again, I know precious little about Orthodoxy, so I'm very cautious about what I'm saying here as a point of comparison. But if you believe that there is a God and God intervenes, so they believe literally New Testament miracles where Jesus multiplies the fishes or ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Oh, that did not happen?

Matthew Gunning:

Well, not everyone agrees that. Like secular people would be very skeptical of that, right? You know, Daniel in the lion's den, where God protects, you know ...

Adrian McIntyre:

You mean the fleece was wet but the ground was dry? Trying to understand this metaphysics here.

Matthew Gunning:

If your faith leaves open the possibility that there are these things that don't fit into the scientific worldview, I think it can leave people more vulnerable to other alternative viewpoints of ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, very interesting.

Matthew Gunning:

... medicine, of health, and of politics. Like, well, maybe they didn't really happen. Maybe science is wrong. I already believe science is wrong over here, well, maybe science is wrong over there as well. And science gets stuff wrong. I don't want to make it sound like science is omnipotent. No, science gets stuff wrong all the time but it's open to revision and new data.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Sure.

Adrian McIntyre:

Science is premised on the idea that falsifying your hypothesis is a valid outcome from the process. And so actually seeking quote unquote, the truth, whatever that means, by seeking to disprove yourself as a way of validating it is an interesting framework that's not widely shared. I want to wrap up our conversation here. Dr. Gunning, you teach in a four-year university, it's relatively new and you've got 15,000 students, which must represent a very interesting set of views and outlooks and so on. You teach small classes in a relatively specific field. And at the same time, this gives you a perspective on the future. What are you seeing? What are you hearing, and what is this making you think about with regard to the future?

Matthew Gunning:

That's correct. My school is 12 years old and we are in Gwinnett County, which used to be overwhelmingly White, but in 2010 became majority non-White, so it's a very diverse county. My particular state House district is about one quarter Black, one quarter White, one quarter Latino, and quarter Asian, so it's extremely diverse. My particular street is very diverse, and my house is the gay house on the street. So we fit in with that. My students are very diverse, a lot of first or second generation immigrant families, a lot of first generation to go to college. And I would say honestly that there have been times where I have despaired about politics in the last half decade, but my students gave me hope. They're excited to be Americans, my immigrant families. They're very hardworking. They work 20 to 40 hours a week, and they go to college. They're hungry to learn things and they want to make this place a better place. And so it's a continual source of encouragement for me as now that I'm getting into middle age, and I see that some of the problems that I was optimistic might be solved in my twenties and those problems are not being solved or maybe they've gotten worse. Sometimes it makes me discouraged, but I see these new generations rising and I have hope, and it encourages me to see them build the next America that will come after I'm gone. I'm about the age of their parents or even slightly older and so their generation will create a new society and it will be different from the one that you and I live in. And I do have some hope. I guess that would be the positive note we could end on.

Adrian McIntyre:

Dr. Matthew Gunning is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He's a specialist in American politics, and he's out there teaching future generations of American voters. Thanks very much for joining us for this conversation.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you very much, Dr. Gunning. Hopefully you will join us again for a second part of this conversation. Thank you once again and have a wonderful day.

Matthew Gunning:

Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi on your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithTheRabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.

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About the Podcast

Conversation with the Rabbi
Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, talks with an eclectic mix of faith-based and secular leaders from around the world.
In an era of political division and polarized debate, we are losing our ability to hear each other. The volume of our disagreements is at an all-time high, while our ability to communicate with kindness and empathy is at an all-time low. This podcast seeks to change that by engaging people from different backgrounds and beliefs in good old-fashioned conversation.

Listen in as Rabbi Michael Beyo and anthropologist Dr. Adrian McIntyre spend time listening, sharing, and discovering common ground in an effort to understand and appreciate the wondrous diversity of our human family. From interfaith dialogues to discussions with business and nonprofit leaders, this podcast shines a spotlight on the different ways we can learn to live, work, and worship together in a contentious and conflicted world.

We invite you to use these conversations as a lens to open up new understandings of self and the other, to develop empathy for diverse viewpoints, and to explore what is possible when we listen to others with respect.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Rabbi Michael Beyo

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Rabbi Michael Beyo is CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, Arizona. He was born in Milan, Italy and has lived in Italy, England, France, Israel, and the United States. An Orthodox Jewish scholar with a successful career providing religious guidance to all the Jewish denominations, he was ordained as a rabbi in Israel, where he earned three Rabbinical Ordinations of the highest honor. In 2015 Rabbi Beyo moved to Arizona from Atlanta, where he had served as the Chief Development Officer for Hillel of Georgia, overseeing 12 colleges and universities. Prior to that he served as the Executive Director and Rabbi of Boston University Hillel, as well as the Jewish Chaplain for Boston University. Rabbi Beyo brings over 25 years of professional, entrepreneurial and non-profit experience in education, cultural, humanitarian, social and religious sectors. He successfully ran several start-ups in Israel before dedicating his career to the nonprofit world.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

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Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.