Center Spotlight | Matthew Wilson

Center Spotlight highlights Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson lectures at an SMU Tower Center event.

This month’s Center Spotlight highlights Matthew Wilson, SMU Tower Center senior fellow, associate professor of political science, and founding director of the Center for Faith and Learning. We asked him about the changing role of religion in domestic politics and which area of the world he is most fascinated with currently.

Do you think religion is having an increasing effect on politics in the U.S., or is its impact receding as the country becomes less religious?

Religion continues to be a major motivator of political action for a lot of people in the United States. But, there has also been a self-consciously secular or anti-religious counter mobilization that animates a lot of people on the left in the United States.  What we have seen develop in recent years is that not only is there a religiously motivated political faction, but there is a countervailing faction of Americans that have been motivated by their wariness, or suspicion or animosity with regard to religion. So we’ve got these contending forces in our politics.

Are our politics becoming more polarized? And if so, does religion play a role in that?

Religion is part of it. But first of all it’s definitely true that our politics is more polarized than it has been at any time in recent memory. It’s hard to compare today to, for example the time before the Civil War, but if we look at politics since the beginning of the 20th century, so over 100 years, we’re more polarized now than we’ve been at any time during that frame, for a variety of reasons.

Religion is part of that, but more than just religion, it’s a broad cultural conflict. All kinds of cultural and identity issues have come to the fore of our politics over the last several decades and I mean issues surrounding race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual identity. Those are things that people feel deeply and passionately about and that are very hard to compromise. If you’re arguing about tax rights, it’s pretty easy to compromise. One person wants the top marginal tax rate to be 40 percent, someone else wants it to be 30 percent. You call it 35 and that’s a day.

But if you’re talking about deep questions of values, like should abortion be legal or should there be right-to-life protections for children in the womb? That’s not a split-the-difference kind of thing. That’s much more absolute. What is the meaning and purpose of the institution of marriage? That’s not something where you can reach a quick compromise that satisfies everybody. What does it mean to be an American? Is there an ideological, an ethnic, a belief component to that?

Our politics have increasingly become about those deep, intensely personal questions. That tends to produce polarization much more so than a politics that’s just about distributing economic resources.

What are you working on now?

A lot of my work right now is focused on political knowledge and how that shapes political behavior. What do people really know about the world around them, and how does that influence how they vote and how they think about politics? One project looks at how much people know about how their representatives are voting in Washington on bills and legislation, and moreover if they don’t know, what shapes their perceptions of how their representatives are voting?

What I find is that people’s levels of knowledge are pretty low. There’s a lot of uncertainty and inaccuracy in people’s thoughts about how their representatives vote—but it’s not random inaccuracy. That is, people tend to artificially exaggerate their level of agreement with a representative who they’re inclined to like, and artificially exaggerate their level of disagreement with a representative who they’re inclined to dislike. There are systematic predictors of inaccuracy in the way we perceive our legislators’ behavior. If you basically kind of like your senator, and you say: “Well, I didn’t like the Iraq war, surely he must have also not liked the Iraq war.” There’s that kind of dynamic at work.

Another project that I’m now finishing up looks at the relationship between political knowledge and who people hold accountable. People with low-levels of political knowledge tend to overwhelmingly give credit or blame to the president. Anything that happens that’s good, it’s because of the president. Bad things that happen—it must be that the president screwed up. That’s because they don’t have a strong political reference. They don’t know how our system works in terms of balance of power, federalism, checks and balances, so the easiest way to think about politics is just it’s all about the president.

People who are more knowledgeable, they divide credit or blame, between Congress, the president, the courts, governors, legislators, private sector. So their assignments of credit or blame are much more varied and sophisticated. That has real consequences for how people assign accountability. Who is actually held accountable for policy outcomes? That’s a project that I’m finishing up right now.

We’ve been focusing so far on domestic politics. Are there any areas of the world you’re interested in following through the lens of religion and politics?

I’m fascinated by American attitudes, but also more generally, toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Particularly because there’s a very strong religious dimension in American politics toward Israel. In many ways the primary force behind pro-Israel advocacy in the United States has shifted. It’s not so much the Jewish community anymore. It’s been taken over by the Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Protestants are very, very strongly pro-Israel. That has a theological dimension to it. And that’s one of the things that motivated the Trump administration to say they’re going to move the embassy to Jerusalem. That resonated very well in Evangelical communities.

There’s a real religion and politics tie to what’s going on in the Middle East. It will be interesting to see whether, finally, the impasse can be broken. Israelis and Palestinians have been in conflict for decades. Nobody has been able to achieve a meaningful break through or solution to that issue. I’m fascinated to see where that goes. So that’s one area of the world that does particularly interest me.

So you think moving the embassy to Jerusalem could be that break through even though the immediate outcome seems to have been to make the region more volatile?

It would certainly be counter-intuitive. The short-term effect was to roil the waters. However, the rationale behind it is to say it acknowledges the reality that Israel is never, ever, under any circumstances, going to give up its claim to Jerusalem. There is no imaginable peace agreement in which Israel gives up its claim to Jerusalem. So the attempt here is to then take that off the table.

Now, it doesn’t stipulate exactly what the boundaries of Jerusalem will be, but moving the embassy to Jerusalem, asserts and acknowledges the reality that at least some portion of the city of Jerusalem is always going to be regarded by the Israelis as their capital. It’s unimaginable otherwise. From both sides, not only the Palestinians but also the Israelis, it seems to me the peace process can only move forward by acknowledging the inconvenient truths on the ground. And from the Palestinian standpoint, acknowledging that Jerusalem is always going to be in the Jewish mind, the capital of Israel, is one of those important inconvenient truths.

Tell us about the SMU’s Center for Faith and Learning.

The Center for Faith and Learning was created last academic year in 2016, so this is its second year of operation. We have a mission to try to bring more integration between intellectual and spiritual life on the SMU campus and to highlight the way perspectives of faith can speak to our most important and interesting social and intellectual puzzles and problems. For example, we’ve sponsored events on faith and race relations, faith and science, faith and immigration. We’ve had speakers across the political and religious spectrum address these issues, and we have a faith and learning scholars program where students interested in exploring the links between their academic and intellectual life with their religious and spiritual life can meet every week under the direction of the chaplain and faculty of faith to really delve into various issues connected with that.