Listen Intentionally, Disagree Compassionately: How Do We Talk About Politics?

Listen Intentionally, Disagree Compassionately: How Do We Talk About Politics?

The American political sphere in recent years feels bleak and disjointed, novel in its disunion. Political debates seem to have deteriorated for the vast majority of Americans, and we can feel the deep permeations of our division far beyond policy preferences and voting decisions. The ideological polarization of the modern American moment feels inescapable and unprecedented, disrupting our ability to engage with each other. 

Indeed, in many regards, there is something unique about the intensity of our divisions. Political polarization is higher now than it’s been in the last 50 years, and an analysis from 2020 found that polarization in the US is increasing faster than it is in comparable nations. The statistics on public perception of polarization reflect a dismally divided nation. Ninety percent of Americans agree that there are conflicts between people who support different political parties, and half find political conversations to be stressful and frustrating. These partisan tensions have created negative feelings about the character of those on opposing sides of the political spectrum. Both Republicans and Democrats increasingly assess people on the other side as dishonest and unintelligent, and the majority of both parties regard each other as immoral. Political polarization is bleeding into broad character judgments which weaken the foundations of our democracy.

People do not feel heard or understood. A publication from the American Psychological Association highlighted that we are inclined to imagine those on the other side as being in accordance with whoever the loudest spokespeople are, but this leaves no room for the vast nuance of an individual’s beliefs. In the 2020 elections, only around two percent of Biden supporters and roughly the same number of Trump supporters felt understood by the other side.

This feeling is not unwarranted. People are in fact disinclined to extend understanding to those they disagree with. When we don’t engage with conflicting beliefs, we tend to extend empathy only to those we already agree with. Despite the readiness to assign immorality to political opponents, partisanship tends to overtake moral consistency. Recent research found that people on both sides of the aisle are more likely to excuse the behavior of their own party and see the same behavior as inexcusable from the other.

A political environment that makes discourse stressful and frustrating is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy democracy. It can only facilitate further polarization. Democracy depends on our ability to engage with each other, evaluate opposing ideas, and come to new conclusions—none of which is possible if we have decided that those we disagree with are inherently immoral before we’ve even spoken. But there is a path forward. The process of healing our political fractures requires us to be willing to engage in civil discourse, to listen intentionally, to disagree compassionately, and to look for common ground. 

Research on reducing polarization tends to agree. While engaging with political opponents online has been linked with increased polarization, sustained, in-person, contact with others that is centered around a genuine exchange of ideas can provide the opportunity to reduce political polarization. The process of taking another’s perspective is linked with enduring changes in how well people understand each other. Creating common ground and focusing on common goals can also provide pathways to reducing polarization. 

Like most Americans, First Amendment Voice shares a common goal: to see our democracy heal and grow. Our aim is to invite people to exercise their First Amendment rights in ways that are conducive to that goal. We hope that our workshops, webinars, and panels provide avenues for structured dialogue from a variety of viewpoints. We want to invite people to have sustained contact with others, with unique opportunities to take their perspectives, in events centered around a genuine exchange of ideas. The division of modern America is not a necessary feature of our society, and FAV believes that with your help we can build a stronger democracy.

Voter Suppression, Voter Fraud: What These Phenomena Mean for Our First Amendment Freedoms

Voter Suppression, Voter Fraud: What These Phenomena Mean for Our First Amendment Freedoms

Much of the hyper-polarized rhetoric in the U.S. in recent years has swirled around the issue of voting, such as the Electoral College’s capacity to override the popular vote in deciding the next president, the potential benefits of rank-choice voting, alarm over voter suppression tactics, claims of voter fraud, foreign interference in U.S. elections, and concerns over potential security risks with mail-in voting.

While there have been some attempts to bolster the security of our electoral system – an issue that both major political parties agree is a problem but disagree about the causes – legislation like the For the People Act (HB 1) have struggled to gain enough traction in Congress to actually pass. 

So, where do we go from here?

Since voting is an expression of free speech – as explained by legal scholars Armand Derfner and J. Gerald Hebert in their Yale Law and Policy Review article published in June 2016 – First Amendment Voice’s blog post today will focus on some recent research about voter suppression and voter fraud to shed some light on their implications for First Amendment rights as they pertain to voting.

Voter Suppression

Britannica defines voter suppression as “any legal or extralegal measure or strategy whose purpose or practical effect is to reduce voting, or registering to vote, by members of a targeted racial group, political party, or religious community.” 

As the Library of Congress points out, Black Americans have been subjected to the most severe and/or far-reaching voter suppression tactics throughout American history, including poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, violence and even the “grandfather clause” that prohibited someone from voting if their grandfather hadn’t voted (which prevented countless descendents of slaves from voting until the Supreme Court struck down the clause in its Guinn v. United States decision in 1915).

Today, voter suppression still exists in various forms, though polarized rhetoric surrounding elections and voting access has led some folks to claim that voter suppression is strictly a thing of the past. On the contrary, as NPR’s Marketplace explored in September 2020, voter suppression persists through stringent voter ID laws, fewer polling places and reduced hours, and greater barriers to vote-by-mail options. 

While there has been some debate over whether voter ID laws actually impact eligible voters’ ability to cast ballots, there is substantial evidence to support the argument that voter ID laws do prevent people from exercising their rights to vote. For instance, in the April 2017 edition of The Journal of Politics, an analysis of 50,000+ survey respondents in the Cooperative Congressional Election Study from 2008-2012 found that the implementation of voter ID laws led to significantly reduced turnout among Black, Latino and multiracial voters. 

Long distances to polling places can also function as a form of voter suppression, as illustrated by this October 2020 Pew Trusts analysis of polling issues in Halifax County, North Carolina. Elderly individuals, people with physical disabilities, and low-income or homeless individuals disproportionately lack the means to access transportation to the polls, especially in rural areas and on Native American reservations. Consider it this way: if you do not own a car, there’s no public transportation in your area or you can’t afford exorbitant gas prices to drive long distances, how can you exercise your right to vote? This is one of the reasons why vote-by-mail has been heralded as a solution to inadequate polling access (and has been widely available for several years prior to 2020 for members of the military serving overseas and in the state of Oregon).

For a more comprehensive overview of types of voter suppression, the Voting Rights Alliance has a list of 61 voter suppression tactics here.

It should also be noted that various forms of voter disenfranchisement still exist today, too. Voter disenfranchisement is typically more overt than voter suppression, as it refers to the removal of the right to vote. As this map shows, convicted felons are one of the biggest groups of disenfranchised voters in the U.S.; most states at least temporarily remove a felon’s right to vote and in some states, a felon permanently loses their right to vote (even after completing their prison sentence and probation). 

People with disabilities also experience disproportionately higher rates of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Research from Pew Charitable Trusts in February 2018 found that nearly two-thirds of polling places inspected on election day in 2016 had at least one impediment for people with disabilities. The challenge of getting to a polling place was alleviated for some voters with physical disabilities in the 2020 election; thanks to the expansion of mail-in voting, 62% of people with disabilities voted in 2020 compared to 56% of the same demographic’s voter turnout in 2016. 

Meanwhile, 39 U.S. states still have “incompetence” laws in effect that prevent people with certain mental conditions like Down’s Syndrome or schizophrenia from voting altogether. This raises the question: if the First Amendment is intended to apply to everyone in the U.S., should there be a mental competency prerequisite for someone to be eligible for freedom of speech (i.e., the right to vote)?

Voter Fraud

We’ve heard a lot of claims about voter fraud in recent years, but how significant is this issue, in reality?

The Heritage Foundation – a conservative think-tank based in Washington D.C. – has compiled an Election Fraud Database with proven instances of voter fraud in the U.S. in elections since 1982. While the database isn’t a comprehensive list of all instances of voter fraud that may have occurred, it cites just over 1,350 proven incidents, 1,165 of which led to criminal convictions. Heritage reports the types of voter fraud may include: altering vote counts, ballot petition fraud, buying votes, duplicate voting, overturning elections, false registrations, fraudulent use of absentee ballots, impersonation at the polls, and ineligible voting.

After the 2020 Presidential election, in which former President Trump and some of his supporters alleged that tremendous voter fraud stole the election from Republicans, there remains a great deal of public debate over whether voter fraud is truly as widespread as it’s claimed to be. While it can certainly be challenging to identify and prosecute instances of voter fraud for myriad reasons, an in-depth analysis from Bloomberg Government in July 2021 suggests that voter fraud is not as prevalent as the rhetoric surrounding electoral integrity makes it seem. 

In some instances, voter “fraud” was either a misunderstanding due to voters’ confusion or even misreported cases of fraud. For example, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and his team of 22 investigators found that approximately 1,000 people voted through absentee ballots and in-person at the polls for the 2020 election. However, most of those cases involved elderly voters who were confused by the vote-by-mail processes. Raffensperger’s team also found the allegations of “66,000 underage voters” to be false; these were simply 17-year-olds who had lawfully pre-registered to vote but did not cast a ballot in the election. Meanwhile, the claim of more than 10,000 deceased voters participating in the election was also proven false; just two ballots from deceased voters were identified after a rigorous investigation.

As Raffensperger summarized in an interview with Bloomberg Government, “People may not like the results. I understand that—I’m a Republican, I was disappointed, too. But at the end of the day those were the results.”

While there remain concerns over the newness and security of mail-in voting, it’s important to note that the practice of mail-in voting dates back to the Civil War (here’s a fascinating resource on the topic from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab). Furthermore, the article, “Does Voting by Mail Increase Fraud? Estimating the Change in Reported Voter Fraud When States Switch to Elections By Mail” published in the May 2021 edition of the journal of Statistics and Public Policy found no evidence of increased voter fraud risk from vote-by-mail processes.

Final Thoughts on Voter Suppression and Fraud

In a country with over 330 million people like the U.S., it’s enormously difficult to determine the true extent to which voter suppression and fraud are causing problems for both our electoral integrity and First Amendment rights as participants in democratic processes. Perhaps something that most people across the political spectrum can agree on is that we must do more to protect our rights to freedom of speech, of which voting is an integral component. 

Some solutions that have been proposed in recent years include:

  • Abolish the Electoral College and let the popular vote decide who will become the next President (fun fact: the Electoral College was almost abolished in 1970…until a filibuster in the Senate prevented it from gaining further traction)
  • Create a national holiday for elections or schedule voting day on Sundays to allow more people to vote without having to miss work (read more about the pros and cons of this proposal) 
  • Establish mail-in voting as a permanent option even after the pandemic to expand access to voting for people with disabilities, elderly individuals, low-income people with limited means of transportation and residents of rural communities (as of 2022, only eight states allow for mail-in voting in all elections)
  • Implement rank-choice voting to expand voters’ options beyond the stringent 2-party-dominated system we currently have (check out Ballotpedia’s guide on rank-choice voting to learn more about how it works)
  • Increase voting access for Native Americans, who experience voter suppression due to long driving distances to polls from their communities and some states rejecting their voter registration applications due to tribal IDs and/or reservation addresses (the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2021 is Congress’ latest attempt to resolve these issues)
  • Lowering the voting age to 16 (FairVote – a nonpartisan nonprofit advocacy organization – has a great resource explaining why this could be a great idea)
  • Restore felons’ voting rights after serving their prison sentences (something Florida added to its Constitution in 2018)

Religious Freedom in a Post-Pandemic World

Religious Freedom in a Post-Pandemic World

As FAV draws closer to the religious freedom panels beginning on Friday, let’s review the evolution of our perspectives on religious freedom over the last two years. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, First Amendment Voice examined how religious institutions adapted to social distancing measures and other coronavirus-related restrictions as lockdowns were implemented in hopes of slowing the spread of the contagious virus.

A couple months later, we considered whether the First Amendment protects in-person religious gatherings. This question made it all the way to the Supreme Court in the case of South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, in which the conservative majority ruled to block the state of California’s ban on in-person religious gatherings but left in-place the ban on singing and chanting during religious services. 

In September 2020 – about six months into what many of us thought would be a short-lived public health crisis – we sought more uplifting news by exploring compassionate expressions of religious freedom during the pandemic.

Now, in 2022, we’re interested in how far we as a nation have come in regards to the role of religion in society and our ongoing commitment to protecting key liberties both within the U.S. and internationally. While there will surely be many articles, books, podcasts and other media produced on the topic of religious freedom during and after Covid-19, today’s blog post will focus primarily on recent studies’ findings about religious liberty and expectations for the future.

Becket’s 2021 Religious Freedom Index

Becket, “a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths,” published its third annual Religious Freedom Index in November 2021. While we always encourage our readers to review primary sources for themselves to gain the most comprehensive perspective possible, some of the most fascinating findings from the Becket report included:

  • The question of whether religious organizations that provide services and resources to their communities ought to be eligible for government funding received the greatest increase in support from the report’s respondents (71% supported the idea, compared to 65% in 2020).
  • The percentage of people who reportedly “appreciate the contributions religion and people of faith make to our country and to society” rose from 47% in 2020 to 54% in 2021.
  • In regards to activities at houses of worship during the pandemic, 62% of respondents classified funerals as “essential,” 52% classified worship as “essential,” and 43% classified weddings as “essential.”

For more information about the latest survey findings, be sure to check out the full Becket report linked above.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 Report

The 100+ page 2021 Annual Report from the USCIRF examined religious freedom violations and improvements on more of a global scale. Some of the most notable findings from the 2021 report included:

  • USCIRF recommended that the U.S. State Department should designate four additional countries as “countries of particular concern” (also referred to as “CPCs,” in which “the government engages in or tolerates ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom”). Ten countries already on the CPC list include: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The four additional countries recommended for CPC designation in 2021 were India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
  • Although religious freedom remains a concern in these countries, the USCIRF did not recommend that Bahrain, the Central African Republic, and Sudan be added to the Special Watch List (SWL) for 2021. 
  • In a June 2021 webinar with the Council on Foreign Relations, USCIRF’s Director of Outreach and Policy Dwight Bashir highlighted ever-growing concerns with China’s potential and actual harmful actions against minority religious groups, particularly the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity perpetuated against Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of China. 

Additional Resources on Religious Freedom in 2022 and Beyond

For more information about the state of religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad, the article, “COVID-19 and Religious Freedom: Some Comparative Perspectives” published in the open-access journal Laws in May 2021 offers in-depth analyses on the complicated relationship between governments and religious institutions during the pandemic. 

Additionally, First Amendment Voice has some programming on religious freedom coming soon.

    • This panel discussion will explore the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the concept of religious freedom as a framework for healing divides. The panel discussion will intentionally feature the voices of young emerging faith leaders at the intersection of racial equity, religious freedom, and public justice. This session will explore how innovative approaches to reframing religious freedom can address the ways in which the legal and cultural narratives in the U.S have largely privileged white Christians over others. The experiences of religious minorities and BIPOC communities have been largely excluded, leading to an incomplete and even harmful understanding of what religious freedom actually is or has the potential to be. This session will probe how to reimagine religious freedom’s interconnectedness with racial equity and its relevance for shared flourishing.
    • Too many people around the world are persecuted for their religion or belief. While statistics, when they are available, document this persecution, people can argue over what they mean and they can numb us into believing that events are beyond our control. In the divisive time in which we now live, advocating in support of religious prisoners of conscience, especially women and girls who suffer the often-devastating consequences of unjust and discriminatory laws and/or practices helps generate action and change, and brings people together as they work for their freedom.

This panel will focus on international religious freedom, the complex persecution women and girls face for their religious beliefs, and efforts that can be taken, individually and in community, to advocate on their behalf.

    • Freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right, established in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This guaranteed and protected right is being challenged and systematically stripped away through litigation at both State and Federal levels. Religious freedom is more than practicing one’s belief in the privacy of their home or house of worship. The duty of practicing one’s faith or no faith at all, is not something granted by the government, and therefore, not something permissibly taken by it, either. Rather, it is a freedom attached to our humanity. It is a right meant not merely to permit religious worship, but for it to be exercised. It is a liberty not only to hold one’s convictions and conscience, but to speak about them publicly and to live them out freely. This panel will discuss the current state of religious liberty across our nation, the challenges, and the opportunities to ensure the constitutional right of every citizen to live their faith in the public square.

ICYMI: “Own Your Liberty” National Symposium

ICYMI: “Own Your Liberty” National Symposium

Dear FAV Family,

For those of us blessed to participate in the 2nd Annual FAV “Own Your Liberty” National Symposium in Philadelphia, we truly experienced a special event. If you attended, thank you for joining us to celebrate an annual benchmark of the movement.

During the weekend, FAV thanked our sponsors from the Global Peace Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, Veterans For American Ideals, the Douglas Leadership Institute, and the Nation’s Mosque. We are also grateful that all national advisory council members attended some portion of the Symposium. FAV began the weekend with a VIP reception and special tour of the National Constitution Center. We then hosted the Symposium the following day with speakers, students, delegates, and attendees from states across our union. Events featured luminaries like Dr. Harold Dean Trulear of Howard University, Dr. Wilson Goode, former Mayor of Philadelphia, Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of Churches in Action of Los Angeles, Senator Stuart Adams of the Utah State Senate, Judge Nelson Diaz, and many others.

The morning plenary session featured Joe Cohn of Philadelphia’s own Foundation on Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Saeed Khan from Wayne State University, and Chelsea Langston-Bombino from the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). Our lunchtime breakout training featured the Alliance for an Indivisible America 2020 and focused grassroots advocacy training on network building and media engagement.

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Our final sessions in the afternoon featured James Flynn, President of Global Peace Foundation, discussing “Balancing Competing Interest in a Polarized Society,” followed by a Town Hall forum moderated by Dr. Paul Murray. Audience interaction distinguished the day with many questions about free speech, religious freedom and other topics. Alan Inman closed the day by thanking attendees and sponsors and inspiring people to get involved at the community level.

FAV also announced a paid membership program. $25 gets members access to exclusive content on the FAV website and invitations to exclusive events like the VIP Reception before the annual symposium and delegate training. We hope you consider joining us to support the cause of reinvigorating civic dialogue and understanding around our first amendment liberty. By doing that you can truly #OwnYourLiberty!


Is civil discourse a thing of the past?

Is civil discourse a thing of the past?

Guest Author : Scott Cooper, Vets for American Ideals

In today’s increasingly polarized society, it often feels that civil discourse is a thing of the past. We don’t talk to each other; we yell at and over one another. It has only served to further divide us, and has helped opened the door to fear of the other, and to disinterest in, or downright hatred of, our fellow human beings.

In one of the more severe manifestations of that, last month white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK members, and segregationists marched with torches, body armor, shields and swastikas in Charlottesville. It made my stomach turn. Those were not patriots. They are repugnant and violate every principle I fought for in the Marine Corps and since I took off the uniform.

It also steeled me. Charlottesville — and the rising hatred and division in our country today — is a clarion call to action to continue the tireless work of citizenship. I searched for words that would comfort and inspire, and I was drawn to the speech Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered at West Point back in May. He addressed the graduates with a simple theme: Hold the Line.

You Hold the Line: true to honor, living by a moral code regardless of who is watching, knowing that honor is what we give ourselves for a life of meaning…

So fight—So fight for our ideals and our sacred things; incite in others respect and love for our country and our fellow Americans; and leave this country greater and more beautiful than you inherited it, for that is the duty of every generation.

We have a responsibility, as citizens, to engage with our fellow Americans and remind them who we are. That we cherish the Constitution of the United States and the rights it guarantees. That we insist that our leaders govern within the limits of the law. That they demonstrate integrity and honor and work for the common good. That we judge women and men by what they do, not who they are, the color of their skin, their faith, the place they were born, or who they love.  

It is with these thoughts in mind that I should note how much I’m looking forward to attending the second annual First Amendment Voice Own Your Liberty National Symposium. They invigorate me – a group of citizens committed to civil engagement and solving problems facing our communities.

This, I believe, is what our founding fathers were searching for when they wrote the first amendment. That within the United States, there is room enough for all peoples. Everyone may express themselves fully, come together, or disagree with each other and their government, and we will still be one nation, brought together by a set of values and ideals, chief among them the freedom to express oneself, to assemble, and to worship.

Those who marched with torches in Charlottesville go against everything that the United States for, and the freedoms and values it represents. We owe them nothing. But, especially as military veterans who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, we do owe it to the rest of our fellow citizens to ensure they can fully exercise their freedoms. To do that, we must have those civil, and sometimes difficult, conversations. We must exercise our own voices and come together. We must reach across the aisle and find ways to work together toward the common good, and toward the more perfect realization of our nation’s most cherished ideals.