The 2022 Frank Church Conference would have made the late Idaho senator proud
With days until what promises to be a high-profile midterm Election Day, the 37th edition of the Frank Church Conferenceat Boise State couldn’t be timelier.
With a theme of “Beyond Left and Right: Democracy in the 21st Century,” organizers have curated what promises to be one of the most diverse collections of participants: from 18-year-old Shiva Rajbhandari, who turned the local political scene on its ear when he was recently elected to the Boise School Board, to former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to Nina Jankowicz, from the Center for Information Resilience – the day-long event hopes to help attendees build a “toolbox for citizenship.”
“What this conference is meant to do, beyond left and right, is give students and the community the tools to work together, to create grassroots movements, to maintain grassroots movements, to find passion in working with the government and in the government, how to get elected, how to stay elected,” said Monica Carol Church, executive director of the Frank Church Institute.
Church and Dr. Sam Martin, Frank and Bethine Church Endowed Char of Public Affairs, joined Morning Edition host George Prentice to preview this year’s event.
“It’s designed to allow young people the opportunity not only to hear from some of these amazing speakers, but also to participate without any conditions.”
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. With another election cycle moving into the fast lane, this year's Frank Church conference could not be more timely. The theme is Beyond Left and Right; Democracy in the 21st century. The late Senator Church knew quite a bit about navigating the political minefields, left and right, so more than a few of us will be thinking of him during this year's conference. Monica Carol Church is here, executive director of the Frank Church Institute. She spent the last decade educating the next generation of leaders, teaching US government at Boise High. Her passion for democracy and Idaho literally runs through her blood as she is the granddaughter of Frank and Bethine Church. And Dr. Sam Martin is here. Dr. Martin is the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State. Good morning to you both and welcome.
MONICA CAROL CHURCH: Thank you so much.
DR. SAM MARTIN: Thank you, George.
PRENTICE: So I will put this to you both. And Monica, I'm going to ask you to weigh in first. Is it possible to get beyond right and left?
CHURCH: Before I answer that question, I would say that is it possible we need to step back and say it must be so. I know that some of my students will probably roll their eyes listening to this right now. And I start with Federalist Paper Number ten or transition to Tocqueville or to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. But civil society or working in groups outside the government to enact and enforce change is essential for our democracy to thrive and survive. And so is it possible? Yes, it's possible. It's possible. If we work together, it's possible if we give each other the tools to navigate through sometimes what seems like an endless cycle of talk and disinformation and work together in establishing our agency. What this conference is meant to do, beyond left and right, is give students and the community the tools to work together, to create grassroots movements, to maintain grassroots movements, to find passionate in working with the government and in the government, how to get elected, how to stay elected.And so I would say, yes, it's possible. And this is just one step that the Frank Church Institute is doing to assure that our young people in our community are ready and able to meet that need.
PRENTICE: And Dr. Sam Martin, there's that word: ”essential.”
MARTIN: Beyond left or right, one of the reasons we came to that conference theme was that we were looking at the public sphere and we were looking at the conversations that were happening. And in my research and in my conversations with people who vote and are interested, one thing that just kept happening was people were saying, actually, I feel like a one issue voter. And that issue is, am I in favor of democracy or not? And so that's how those two things came together, beyond left or right democracy in the 21st century. And we're in a moment when people on both sides of the aisle, especially when you move in from the far left or the far right, they just want to know that their children and their grandchildren are still going to have this nation that people have cherished for so long. And so really what we want to have a conversation about, and we want to bring people together to think about is how can we remember those American values of freedom and equality and being together and being a community that have gotten us through difficult times before? And how can we hear the voices that maybe are not screaming so loud?
PRENTICE: Dr. Martin This is indeed a good part of your scholarship. So, I'm going to ask you, how big a role has conservative evangelicalism played, particularly in the emergence of one Donald Trump and all that he stands for?
MARTIN: Thank you for that question. So really, since the 2008 recession and the emergence of the Tea Party, I as a which reaches back to when I was in graduate school, I have been studying and thinking about conservative evangelical voters, conservative having sort of a dual meaning, conservative meaning those individuals who think of the Bible as a sort of authoritative guide for their life. They read it almost literally or certainly in a way that they think of it as being the way that they should interpret how to live and then conservative also in terms of how they vote. And when members of the public who are not part of that subculture think about it. There's often a stereotype of what that subculture means, and that is that those evangelicals that they see in the media or who I think of as elite evangelicals, people who get a lot of coverage, the Jerry Falwell Jr's, the James Dobson's, the people who are most likely to show up at a political event. And I liken those people to there's a small subset of every public that loves to talk about politics, loves to be involved in politics all the time. That's people like me who go and get a Ph.D. and, you know, political communication, political science. We are people who love to think about politics all the time, but most people prefer to talk about fishing, scrapbooking, Boise State football, anything else. And evangelicals are just the same. And so my research really went inside churches during the Great Recession, during the election, the first election in 2016 of Donald Trump between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What I did with my research is I designed a study where I could go to church online, and I went to church online in 37 states to mega-churches, and I listened to more than 100 sermons over the course of a decade, actually more than 200 sermons over the course of a decade. And I heard a conversation online where evangelicals expressed a deep commitment to voting. They are a very involved constituency. They're very likely to show up at the voting booth. But then they expressed a desire to disengage from the public sphere, what I call they expressed a desire to offload their agency, to offload their responsibility onto a transcendent God who will make things right in the end, sort of that famous expression, it'll be all right in the end. And if it's not all right, it's not the end. And so what that means is that that is the reason I argue that they were able to look at Donald Trump and be okay with the things they liked and not worry about the things they didn't. And so when people say, for example, why don't conservative evangelicals follow the mandates of the Bible to care for the poor? I say, oh, they do care about the poor. They're just able to hierarchically place that below other values that they're worrying about.
PRENTICE: Can I just drill into that just one level more? At the risk of stereotyping evangelicals, how is it possible that someone can support someone… when most of us recognize that the person who's whispering in their ear is not telling them anything that he believes?
MARTIN: So there's a lot of research in political science. This is not actually my research that says that most people believe that they think about their political candidates the way that a banker thinks about investments, that they look at the issues and they think carefully, and they make a selection. But when we really interview and do focus groups and do surveys with voters, the truth is that we think about our candidates the way we think about our football teams. We either root for Boise State or we root for San Diego State. We either root for the Green Bay Packers or we root for the Chicago Bears. And so people are actually more willing to change their mind about a policy issue without realizing it. Then they're willing to change their mind about their party. And so we're often looking for reasons to we'll deal with the cognitive dissonance by slipping in ways that we may not realize. I liken this with my students to, again, to use the football analogy, sometimes we find out that a football quarterback is not a very good person. Right. Right. But we find ways to believe that that person is reformed. Right. We send them for three weeks to some sort of reform center or to therapy. And then we hope that that makes it okay because we don't want to stop rooting for that team. Right. And so it's the same thing with our candidates, unfortunately.
PRENTICE: Blind faith.
MARTIN: We may know in our guts that our quarterback is not a great person, but we don't want to stop rooting for the for the Broncos. We don't want to stop rooting for the Bears. We may know in our guts that our candidate is not good, but we don't want to vote for the other side. And so, we tell ourselves that we are. And it's my least favorite phrase in politics. One of the most denigrating things we've done in the American public sphere is allow ourselves to move into a conversation where we say, I'm going to choose the lesser of two evils, instead of believing that we actually have individuals who mean to serve our nation and do good.
PRENTICE: Monica Church, On any given week. I am curious how many times people might ask you …friends and strangers alike…given the acceleration of some of the often unbelievable things that happen in our nation's capital, “What would the late Senator Frank Church think? What would your grandfather think about all that is happening to democracy?”
CHURCH: I am asked often what would my grandfather, Frank Church or my maternal grandfather, Cecil Andrus, do in these trying times? And I would say that both would be remiss by the media's continued attempt to pit us against each other. I recently spoke at a conference in Stanley where people ask me the same question, and I reminded the people sitting in that audience that while people constantly come up to me and say, Oh, I wish, you know, Cecil was still governor or I wish Senator Church was still a senator, that they in their hearts know what it means to be a good politician. And so, to that point, if you know what it means to be a good politician, then you must follow that follow those values in electing good politicians. Or my call to my students and my call to, you know, people that come to our Frank Church conference, you yourself run for office. If you remember a time in which you believed in politicians, if you know what it means to be a, you know, a good denizen of this democracy, then follow that. Follow it in your voting. Follow it in your research, follow it in your own lives, and either run for office or elect the people that represent the values and the principles that Senator Church did, Governor Andrews did or BethIne Church did.
PRENTICE: We’ll remind our listeners that the conference is coming up on Thursday, October 6th. And Monica Church, when I look at the list of participants, it may be the most impressive list that you have curated to date.
CHURCH: Thank you for that question and thank you for those kind words. Yes, Dr. Martin and I both came into the Frank Church Institute this August, and we worked very hard to create a conference that was not only relevant, but also relevant to the students at Boise State. The students in the K through 12 spectrum and to our community. So, for example, our first panel is about how to actively engage in your community, how to find agency. And so we have people like Representative Chris Mathias, the former secretary of state, Ben Usursa. We have the newly elected Boise School Board trustee, 18 year old Shiva Rajbhandari, and the president of the League of Women Voters, Betsy McBrde, along with Reclaim, Idaho's co founder, Luke Mayville. If those people can't teach us what it means to actively participate in a democracy, I don't know who can. And then our second panel is about looking at democracy from what I call the 30,000 foot vantage point. So we have Idaho State University professor Dr. Zach Hirschberg, who has made a lot of of waves with his new book about democracy and free media. And we have BSU professor Dr. Nisha Bellinger, as well as Luke Wentz from the United States Global Leadership Coalition to talk a little bit about how we can see the world more clearly, even if it appears so obtuse from our media perspective.
PRENTICE: Dr. Martin, well it sounds as if we don't have a call to action through this conference, we certainly will have more than a few takeaways.
MARTIN: Yes, we will have more than a few takeaways. The main takeaway that we hope to have in our keynote speaker will be Nina Jankowicz, who is an internationally known expert in disinformation, who has a message, too. I know she will speak to an extremely elegant ways about how disinformation is so much more complex and yet understandable than we have been led to believe and how it is something that the American people have to come together on before we lose this very precious democracy that we have and the fact that we have Ms..Jankowicz coming. It's an incredible honor for our institute and the fact that we can just spend a couple of days thinking about democracy from a nonpartisan cross partisan vantage point. One of the things that we set out to do when we came into this job was to figure out how we could create a conference that was going to be about the more quiet voices in the room, and that was going to be about what people want to talk about and hear about who don't. By the argument that we as Americans don't like each other. And so every single speaker, every single panel, its main goal is to say, we believe you want to learn and we believe that you believe in other people. And so that is the ultimate goal of the conference. That's why it says beyond left or right. What we mean by that title is not just beyond the idea that you are polarized, but it is beyond the idea that you are a person who lives your life with knee jerk reactions and doesn't have the ability to think and learn and know and believe in other people.
PRENTICE: I only have a couple of seconds left, but Monica Church, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that opportunity is usually in the room. When you look around at one of these conferences and you see so many students from Boise State and from area high schools. I'm guessing this is not by accident, this is by design.
CHURCH: The Frank Church Conference, when Behine originally created the Frank Church Institute, she mandated that our annual conference be free and open to the public. And it still is today, thanks to the generous donations of board members and community members. And that is designed to allow young people the opportunity not only to hear from some of these amazing speakers, but also to participate without any conditions.And so, yes, we will have over 250 high school students from all the area high schools, as well as hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students from Boise State University who will be sitting in and around board members, community members and others in an attempt to, as Dr. Martin mentioned, show everyone the opportunity and the necessity of joining together, coming together and communicating in a way that represents our democracy and is good for our community here in Boise.
PRENTICE: And they are Monica Church and Dr. Sam Martin. Great good luck next Thursday. Thank you so much, October 6th. And thanks for giving us some time this morning.
CHURCH: We appreciate you.
MARTIN: Thanks, George.