What does it mean to have a democracy that is friendly and open to a true diversity of religious beliefs/experiences?
Today, Jeremi speaks with Ashlyn Hand, Ph.D. candidate in the LBJ School, to discuss religion in foreign and domestic politics.
This week Zachary recites a poem titled “Life and Death”.
Ashlyn is an expert on religion and politics in the United States. She is currently researching and writing a dissertation on religion and American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Unknown Speaker 0:05
This is Democracy, a podcast that explores the interracial intergenerational and intersection of unheard voices living in the world’s most
Unknown Speaker 0:13
Jeremi Suri 0:17
Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. Today we’re going to discuss an issue that’s very prominent in the news and issue that has been central to American history from the very beginning, and an issue that is likely to be central to the next few years of the renewal of our democracy. And that is the question of religion and democracy. How do we reconcile religious beliefs, which are often focused on other worldly concerns with a democracy that’s hyper concerned with the condition of human beings in this world? This is not a new issue, as I’ve said, but it does seem to be an issue that’s getting more pension and becoming more controversial in recent years. We’re going to talk to one of the most important experts working on these issues in the United States today. Someone who comes from a religious background herself but but even more important, is a leading social scientist of religion and American policymaking Ashlyn hand she is a PhD candidate finishing her dissertation at the LBJ School here at UT. Ashlyn Welcome to our show.
Ashlyn Hand 1:27
Thank you so much for having me. It’s a privilege to be here. It’s
Jeremi Suri 1:29
wonderful to have you. We will start of course, with our scene setting poem from Mr. Zachary Siri, what’s the title of your poem today’s life and death,
Zachary Suri 1:38
life and death. Okay, you’re tackling the big issues today. Hmm. Let’s hear it. Religion is life and death when we pray into the fluorescence when we scribble our commandments on the tabernacle walls of our living rooms, when we sing of the sins of 1000, ancient kings and the hero’s journey of life and David, who gave death to death and Goliath. And when we chose to into the promise of the life brought forth from the rubble of Solomon’s walls after the customary law hymes religion is life and death. And we definitely save here the Messiah for the world are for life before it is created. And we forced death upon it when it begins to talk when it begins to scream, and to rage against the dying of the mosquito light bulbs. And it is life for which we scream against the never ending fuselage on the capital on, but death that we refuse to see in the eyes of the homeless fanatic just sailing around the Horn of Africa, mentally waiting for death. Religion is death and religion is life. And religion is everything that seeps out of librarians briefcases, onto the floor, under the floor of buses air conditioned out of their mind by crazy diesel engines that wander past the borders of life. And religion is all the dust and death beneath the pantry shelves of supermarkets, that rolls off the grocery carts and the children’s shoes. And religion is life and death. And sometimes you don’t understand the specific cocktail of loving the buffet platter of God departed. And sometimes we sometimes we don’t understand religion, sometimes we don’t understand the religious was sometimes we’re able to see that religion is life and death and everything in between.
Jeremi Suri 3:13
Like the buffet of life, and what was it,
Ashlyn Hand 3:16
the Kundalini departed?
Jeremi Suri 3:19
That’s extraordinary. Zachary, a very thoughtful, moving poem. What what what are you saying in your phone?
Zachary Suri 3:25
My phone was really about how, how religion is so important in our daily lives and how it influences us all all around us, even if we don’t see it, and how contrasting religion can be, and how contradictory but also, how clear cut at the same time? necessary? It is.
Jeremi Suri 3:47
Yeah, right. So Ashlyn religion has has been central to our history since our founding, and all the many ways our society was founded by many groups. Why does it seem like it’s become more divisive for us as a society in recent years?
Ashlyn Hand 4:05
Here’s a good question. And one, I’m not sure I would frame quite that way. Because I do think the question of religion and politics has been difficult in our own society, since its founding, it’s also been difficult on a world stage door. And so the history of religion in general, no matter what the faith is, no matter what the geography is, is littered with examples and stories of such heartache that’s born out of religion and such division, right. But also such unity. I know, we’ll get there eventually. And such beauty too. So that rich combination, and it goes back to what Zachary was saying the contradictory forces that combine I think I’ve been represented in the United States since our founding. But I, I would say, we’re just now getting to a point where we’re realizing how ambitious the First Amendment really is interesting. Because of the conceptualization of pluralism, changing, because the founding of the United States were mainly talking about different Protestant sex. And then we kind of see that continuing to grow continuing to expand to including conversation about whether or not we can have a Catholic president right. And the Kennedy campaign, it was a huge issue is a huge issue. And now we’ve you know, moved past that or seems like we have moved past that. thing, it’s Diana, who talks about, it was actually the change in our immigration laws in the mid 60s, ending some of our exclusionary policies that then allowed for greater influx of religious diversity, but now we have a very different religious landscape. And the profound ambition that’s embedded in the First Amendment is still is coming out a new new and distinct ways. And I think I think you see the broadening and the more complex hated pluralist system just based on more diverse religions here in the United States combining with a rise of the nuns, if you will, right, or the those that carry no religious faith and not that religion is
Jeremi Suri 6:12
difficult. Yes. And and what are the things that make it particularly difficult now? Because you’re obviously correct, that religious divisions have been with us from the start, and social and political ways. And we’ve come together at moments, but those divisions have always been there. At certain moments, though, it does seem like in our current moment that the division seemed more evident than the sources of unity. And why do you think that’s
Ashlyn Hand 6:37
definitely out of punctuation? Whether or not it’s the only punctuation? Of course not, but we’re at a punctuation and I think it’s, at least in part because of the political polarization that we’re experiencing in this day and age. And so the rhetoric from the Trump, Hillary, you know, the clinton Trump campaign, I think it’s carrying over right, and I think, has, has made certain conversations that used to be able to occur without vitriol have an added sense of not quite sure the word I’m getting out there, but an added sense of pain underneath your defensiveness that leads to a lack of empathy for other groups.
Jeremi Suri 7:20
And I guess one thing that historians have long struggled with is to what extent is, is the religion driving the politics or the politics driving the religion? Of course, it’s some of both. But when people come forward and say, I like this candidate, or I hate this candidate, because of her or his religious beliefs, are they using that to justify lower taxes or social programs they want? Or is it the religion that’s driving them? And how do we understand these you write on foreign policy? And particularly, how do you how do you understand this? And that?
Ashlyn Hand 7:52
It’s a great question, I think, I think, particularly because there isn’t an answer, because the rhetoric often looks the same. So to me, the way that you have to ask actually get to that is what are the action showing. And so if somebody is espousing a value that comes from their faith, maybe it’s a universal one, maybe it’s not like human dignity, but then you see in their policy choices over and over again, that they are clearly not, like not giving that to each person, and they’re clearly not consistent in the way that they’re conferring dignity on people, then to me, it’s like, you start wondering what other incentives are behind here, right, what else is going on what other goal might be here that has nothing to do with things with dignity altogether? The opposite could be could be true as well, somebody you know, says something that almost has become a common refrain. And it’s easy to write them off as not being sincere. Sure. But that’s also untrue. A lot of the time when people had do have sincerely religious beliefs, and that those values that they have, from their faith, come out in their policy decisions, which is what we want.
Jeremi Suri 8:55
Absolutely. Do you think that social media, which has been a topic of mine, many of our discussions and other new forms of communication, mass communication, and also personal communication? Do they make it harder to differentiate real belief from rationalization? I think
Ashlyn Hand 9:12
so. I do. I think so. I think it I think it makes it more difficult. Because a, I think we have an ability to speak without as much thought, right and get it and get our message out to as many people as we can. And that’s problematic. But then I also think that we know that our social media groups are segmented, based on faith, sometimes based on communities and identities, that we get stuck in those. And it’s easier to say things that you know, exactly how your audience is going to respond to right, which, again, there’s questions of other incentives come in immediately. It’s
Jeremi Suri 9:49
interesting, because it’s almost as if the tendencies we’ve talked about to create affinity groups and segregated groups, through social media, or then reading enforced, again, by what’s a pre existing, perhaps a set of divisions along religious and racial and ethnic lines.
Ashlyn Hand 10:06
Absolutely. There’s also an element of taking advantage of sincere believers, that happens, I think that when there is sincere belief, and that that’s moving in a specific direction, then it makes sense to me that then people would recognize that almost as a vulnerability or something to exploit interesting,
Jeremi Suri 10:25
I think this is a really good point. So that takes us to the current controversy over abortion laws, sure, in states like Alabama, and a number of other states, and then states like Oregon, which are going in the opposite direction, and trying to make abortions available to everyone, not without cost. So how do we understand not the different positions individuals take? I think that’s a personal choice, right. But why this is becoming such a major issue today? Why are certain states trying to prevent even young girls who have been raped from having access to abortion? Why other states trying to make this more accessible to the wider population? What’s going on here?
Ashlyn Hand 11:07
So I thought a lot about this issue. And I think part of what we see that’s going on is the fact that there’s a policy opening that that the republican or maybe I should say, conservatives on this issue, pro life community more broadly, are seeing for the first time and it’s real, it there’s a change on the Supreme Court. For the first time, I think in the last three decades, we’ve had an actual possibility of seeing Roe v. Wade being reconsidered, and not, I think, is unique to this period. And I think that’s because of that some of the laws, as extreme as they may seem, are pragmatic in that way of getting kicked up of getting kicked up hoping that those lawsuits, you know, it’s hard to watch when you see the ACLU immediately come into file, file, different ledger file different. What’s the word I’m looking for litigation litigation against against these various laws, and particularly thinking of Alabama right now, that, thinking about that, and wondering if that’s not exactly what they wanted? And in making a controversial case and trying to get it? I think it is, it is what they want and getting into the wall. So deed and smart. And it makes sense. So I think that i think that that’s what we’re seeing is that for the first time, the religious right, has a real voice that they haven’t had in a long time. I think that the combination of that is a backlash from progressives that heighten the intensity and heighten the rhetoric around this issue to make it even more black as seem like it’s even more black and white, when the majority of Americans fall somewhere in the gray horse of believing that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances. Some, of course, think it should be legal and all on the other side, there are some that think it should be legal, you know, that there should be no exceptions. And then it’s a life right when it begins, and that we need to protect that. So I do think when you’re talking about stuff, like bodily autonomy, and like when life begins, it makes sense that the, those are the religious questions. Sure,
Jeremi Suri 13:24
sure. But it does seem similar to the the gun issue, that the vast majority of Americans religious, for different denominations are somewhere in the middle, you know, maybe somewhere 30% closer to one direction, or 30% closer to other. And what seems so striking about our moment about this punctuation is you so wisely called it is that the policy debate is pulling to the extremes that represent almost no one or so it seems.
Ashlyn Hand 13:55
And I think that’s I think that’s less true. For the art and community. There is a strong art in pro life community that things there should be no exceptions. So I think there’s a
Jeremi Suri 14:06
larger girls who have been raised, I think,
Ashlyn Hand 14:07
yeah, there. I mean, there is. Yeah.
And I think that that I think that’s a larger community, then people maybe that we’re going back to the partial birth abortion, who would say, No, you can have an abortion up into the last moment. Like that’s a smaller, smaller community. It’s not created you have a question?
Zachary Suri 14:26
Well, I was wondering how you see, like, with the rise of all these new laws, how do you see us reconciling these two views? Because I think it’s something that it’s really hard for, because like one state for many different states to live in contrast between these issues. Do you think there’s a way to resolve these different religious divisions in a way that doesn’t deny people’s religious beliefs but actually unites them?
Ashlyn Hand 14:56
I eat not to be negative. And Jeremy might, you know, get onto me for that. I would say I think this issue No, I think this issue is that is that polarizing, for good reason. But I do think there’s a whole lot of questions that how do we reconcile is how many times we get stuck on this particular piece of it. And that’s like, if you know, you have somebody that’s ardently pro choice, and someone that’s ardently pro life, no longer being able to speak about anything, not just abortion, in my view, like a pragmatic approach, there would be recognize you’re not going to come to the middle on abortion, because your fundamental your worldviews are so fundamentally different, that this is going to be something that is pulling on both sides. But let’s talk about like, caring for young moms. Right? Let’s talk about revolutionising the pre K system to where we have things to do. Let’s talk about comprehensive sex ed, let’s talk about kind of these broader issues that and again, maybe even still, there’s going to be differences. And some of those you’ll be able to do with in some communities, some you won’t. But I do think that there’s actually more room for commonality when you do respect each other’s sincerely held convictions.
Jeremi Suri 16:09
And I guess the tragedy of our current moment, just building on your excellent point is that the way these issues are now framed makes it harder and harder to have those conversations about the areas where we do have common existence, for example, in many communities, including Austin, there’s a backlash against sex ed, coming from the very groups that are trying to restrict access to abortion, which which, which seems like a contradiction, but it’s because the issue has become so polarized, right? Sure,
Ashlyn Hand 16:36
sure. And again, that’s what I mean by you’re gonna have to find the communities that you can relate to, and you can find this commonality. So maybe with the Far far no sex education in schools, like none of it whatsoever, maybe, then we’re just going to talk about what do we do for pre K education, or there’s still room for growth, and there’s still room for conversations. But you, you’re not always going to be the one to decide what those conversations are, right. And so some of it, in my view, is the humility of saying, I’m open to working with you, even though I think we should be working on these things. It’s still saying like, I’m open to working with you, even if I don’t get to set the priorities. And I think that that’s, that’s useful.
Jeremi Suri 17:17
That’s very useful in it. And it relates to some of the the groundbreaking research you’re doing, which is on how certain political figures have found ways to do this. So So what do we learn from that research? How do how do we, you know, put the meat on the bones of what you just described? How and in a world as swirling with controversy, where people are sort of waiting attack dogs and waiting to jump on you for, for moving to the middle? How, how can we draw inspiration from figures in prior periods?
Ashlyn Hand 17:48
So I would say if I look back on my own research, which is compared the way that presidential administrations in particular, have looked at International Religious Freedom abroad, and the different strategies that the United States takes to promote religious freedom elsewhere, I think I’ve come up with two overarching lessons that might have something to say, for our current day, and our domestic context, because the connections between our foreign policy and our domestic policy in this area, aren’t that separate, right? So first of all, is that we have to know the religious context in which we’re operating. And so whether that’s a different country like China, where religion is all bit suppressed in almost every faith, versus some place like Saudi Arabia, where there’s a theocracy that is dominating a society. Those are just two examples that actually look like, in some ways, what we’re experiencing here now, which is there are new new trends, there’s new changes, the new diverse groups of people, religions growing and it’s waning, all of those are happening at the same time. And so the first thing we need to do is, is really extend empathy, where we are, and to learn about other faiths to learn about what other belief systems hold to be most precious. Because I think it’s in learning about a society and and learning about the differences and diversities that are encompassed in the United States that we might actually find those areas that I mentioned to you, Zachary earlier, the find those areas of commonality, where even if we’re not going to make any progress on the abortion issue, maybe we really can do something to help young mothers. And I don’t think that can happen unless you know, what the context that you’re working in
Jeremi Suri 19:40
is. And it seems that’s an issue when you’re dealing in a international space, or you’re dealing close to home. Absolutely. I mean, in some ways, for many people, myself included, parts of Alabama are more foreign, then than parts of Europe or Asia, which raises the question that’s been with us, and will continue to be at the center of our podcast, how do we do that? How do we get out of our bubbles? What you’re basically saying is we have to understand people who live and think and view the world and fundamentally different ways. How do we do that? That’s so hard. It seems, every episode that that’s an issue for us.
Ashlyn Hand 20:17
Sure. I mean, it is happening. That’s one thing I would say some of it is what can we do is individually, some of it is the fact that I think, you know, Robert Putnam book, American grace, he talks about just the overwhelming growth of interfaith marriages, talks about the one like, one major thing we can do to promote inter religious dialogue is having one person in our social structure that is of a different faith, and that it only takes one to then attract multiple. And so I think there are small things we can do to really open up about our own religious beliefs. Because that’s another thing is like now in certain places, and I would say the Academy is one where it can be really difficult to talk about religion and to share that part of life. Because you think it’s going to be associated with a whole nother set of assumptions about you that aren’t real. And so I think that if we can open up about what we do believe and how we process that, but in a way that is hoping to start dialogue instead of ended that that, that that’s really a first step.
Jeremi Suri 21:17
It’s a great a great idea, Zachary, is that something you see happening with young people or people opening up and connecting across religions and your
Zachary Suri 21:25
service, I really think there’s a lot of progress, especially because you’re talking about like integration in our religious marriages. And I think that that’s something that’s really helpful, actually, when we’re talking about, like religious diversity, because when people feel like they’re from different backgrounds, and more comfortable with different backgrounds, and I’ve noticed, particularly in school, I think that the tolerance for other religion has really improved. But I do think that there’s still a lot of ignorance and uncomfortable. And a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about these issues, like people who don’t, you don’t even know that certain faiths are present in their classrooms, or certain people believe certain things. And I think that’s really important that we understand those backgrounds, and understand that that, that some of these religious beliefs aren’t far off. They’re actually very close, we just don’t understand it.
Jeremi Suri 22:16
That’s a really important point. So the last question I wanted to ask both of you, Ashland and Zachary is, in light of this really enlightening discussion about the sources of what we might call religious politics, and the the limitations, but also the opportunities that exists, especially opportunities for dialogue and for opening one’s mind. What would be the productive way for one of our listeners who is very, very angry at the recent abortion laws in a place like Alabama, or the opposite? Someone was very angry that others are very angry about this. What would be the productive ways you would counsel as an expert in this area? Ashlyn? How would you counsel someone to channel their anger into a productive mechanism for bringing people together, rather than reinforcing the division?
Ashlyn Hand 23:12
I think I’d go back to what I mentioned earlier, finding ways to get involved that might be outside of just reactionary. So starting to think about things that you can do individually, that would be productive, but also active. So that getting involved whether it’s, you know, if you find yourself completely dismayed by the events of the last few weeks, if you get involved and keep talking, keep speaking. And that’s one thing, I think is important to say this is not there are severe, they’re very clear differences that are sincere and that are going to be maintained. And so I’m what I’m not saying is try to, you know, weaken your position, because that’s not it. What I would ask is, is to look at the United States, and maybe go back to how you felt in 2016. And maybe you were super excited that Trump won, something tells me more of our listeners probably weren’t. But savior at that moment, remember that have almost It was almost 5050 in the United States. And I guarantee you can find some empathy for half of the population. So if you start from a place of this is not us versus them, this is not the elites versus anything else. They’re religious people have sincere belief on sides of all kinds of issues. And if you can start from a place of empathy and benefit of the doubt, assume benefit of that out first, then decide what you want to do with it. If you assume that if it out first, then find something active you can do, to find a new way to make a connection. So whether I’m going back to the same examples, but if we’re still using the abortion case, go back to what are things besides just saying how angry you are, that you can do to help women who find themselves in the situation, right? What’s in that you can do in your own neighborhood, to where might be able to even help one person who finds themselves in this situation. I think
Jeremi Suri 25:12
that’s such great advice, right? Find ways to channel your anger into helping those that you want to help use that as additional motivation. And that’s traditionally what we’ve done as a society. We’ve had controversies like this throughout our history, but social groups, often non governmental groups have different kinds of groups of students, groups of anti war protesters, groups of anti communist wherever they are, my groups have come together, the whole civil rights movement was built around churches doing this exactly. Does that seem realistic for young men and women of your age to do this? Yes,
Zachary Suri 25:47
I think that that’s something that I think that respectful conversation is actually something that that kids are actually learning or or not learning at a very young age. Because of it, I think there’s a lot more conversation and discussion. But I also think that we still, the problem is, I think we still need to and we still have to have discussions about controversial issues, because those issues still need to be addressed. I think the problem is that, I do see that sometimes there’s a problem because people just try and avoid those issues, instead of actually addressing them, right. And I think we need to move beyond those differences when it comes to other issues. But there also needs to be a time when we can discuss them. I don’t think there’s a good time and a good place and a good way to discuss
Jeremi Suri 26:35
and we need to make time and make space for that. Right.
Zachary Suri 26:37
When last thing
Ashlyn Hand 26:38
I’ll say on that point, I think when small piece of advice I might offer there is to limit the scope of conversation at one given time. So because we’re in this polarized world, and we are making like even naturally, we’ve been trained to make assumptions about what other people believe or think, based on maybe some silliest things is what they look like or what gender they are, or what religion they are we we take that to mean something that it doesn’t mean. And so that that would be kind of as you’re going into those conversations, part of the way to make them safer, is to limit them, and be clear about what it is that you’re talking about and what you’re going to what you’re going to put off on hold. Because I think our problem is that we try to take on that entire conversation in one sitting, and then it bleeds into now we’re talking about seven different social issues and it’s overwhelming and religion is mixed up in the middle. And and in that context, when you throw everything together and Zachary’s cafe cocktail buffet, as he put it in in his opening poem,
Jeremi Suri 27:35
then the most outrageous stuff always jumps to the top. Right. This has been such a valuable kind of conversation. I think one of the major insights here is, despite our differences, the opportunities that exist, especially for those who are not stuck in political positions around these issues, to return in a sense to basics, and have conversations around the common issues that motivate religious belief in a certain way. We have to spend less time arguing over doctrine and labels, and more time talking about the things we believe in, that bring us together and that is the American tradition. This is what Tocqueville noticed, right that Americans go to different kinds of churches, and different kinds of synagogues and mosques, but yet, they’re able to find ways to work together and talk together. And I think I think that’s very possible. I think we’ve modeled that here. So, thank you, Ashlyn. Thank you, Zachary. For an enlightening discussion. Today, I think we’ve done a remarkable job of highlighting the challenges and opportunities in our democracy. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. This is Democracy.
Unknown Speaker 28:50
This podcast is produced by the liberal lights development studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Music In this episode was written and recorded by Harrison Lemke and you can find his music at Harrison lemke.com.
Unknown Speaker 29:04
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