Dr. Joy Qualls, an expert in political and religious rhetoric, joins Tim and Rick to discuss how polarized news sources contribute to making us polarized people. They give some tips for processing the continuous news stream in ways that foster a fair and balanced approach to political information, and underscore how the Kingdom of God shapes Christian perspective and engagement on political issues.


Joy Qualls: And so that has to be first. Jesus is Lord, is my political allegiance. And it's a very political statement. Everything else has to be filtered through that. So I don't think we can say, "Should a Christian do this?" I think, "How does a Christian think about this?"

Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University.

Rick Langer: And I'm Rick Langer. I'm also a professor at Biola, in the biblical studies and theology department. And I'm also the director of the office of faith and work.

Tim Muehlhoff: And we are the co-directors of the Winsome Conviction Project, that seeks to reintroduce respect, compassion, civility, back into our public disagreements. Consider this quote from Pew Research, talking about the state of American politics. Quote, "Trust is an essential elixir for public life and neighborly relations. And when Americans think about trust these days, they worry. Two thirds of adults think, other Americans have little or no confidence in the federal government." One quote from that study, "Many people no longer think the federal government can actually be a force for good or change in their lives. This kind of apathy and disengagement will lead to an even worse and less representative government." Peggy Noonan, a political expert, says, "Today our political disagreements have taken on a war to the death quality." So Rick, how did we get here? That's what we want to try to unpack, just a little bit. Well, that is well beyond our pay grade.

Rick Langer: And that is why we brought in Joy Qualls.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right. Dr. Joy Qualls serves as an associate professor of communication studies and an associate Dean at Biola University. Joy's scholarly work includes religious and political rhetoric and their intersections, as well as gender ideology and the church. Joy's the author of, God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition. And is featured in several publications, including Influence Magazine, The Table and Biola Magazine, as well as an author in several edited volumes. Joy's on the pastoral teaching team at Refuge OC, Revere Church and Pasadena City Church. And now has hit the pinnacle of her career, by being on the Winsome Conviction podcast.

Rick Langer: Wow.

Joy Qualls: That is for sure the pinnacle of my career, Tim.

Tim Muehlhoff: You have to rewrite this a bio, right here.

Joy Qualls: I'll add to it as soon as we're done.

Tim Muehlhoff: But Dr. Qualls, we love having you be here. You're a friend of ours. And we love the fact that not only do you bring a scholarly tone to this, but that you've actually done quite a bit of work in the political realm. You worked on two different political campaigns. And from 2001 to 2003, you worked in the Senate, as a Senate staffer.

Joy Qualls: That's correct.

Tim Muehlhoff: So first welcome to our podcast.

Joy Qualls: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Tim Muehlhoff: And in 30 minutes, we want you to fix things.

Joy Qualls: Let's go.

Rick Langer: So Joy, you worked on Capitol Hill, 20 years ago or thereabouts. And I'm curious, just from your own perception, what was the communication climate like then? How has it changed? And perhaps for us, most importantly, what are thoughts you have about why it has changed, in that way?

Joy Qualls: So it was very different, but I could see the winds of change that are reflective of the time that we live in today, happening then. So I was there just shortly after 9/11. So the country was reeling. I interviewed for my job in the basement of the Capitol, in October of 2001. So that gives you an idea of what was happening in the world. So there was a lot of unity surrounding that moment. But in my time there, the Senate would switch hands because members changed parties. I had to go back and look and see who was in charge. But at one point the Republicans were in charge and then all of a sudden the Democrats were in charge because the Republicans switched parties. And so it was back and forth. And you could start to see in that point, where things like legislation was getting held up as punishment, as opposed to working through the legislative process. You could start to see some of the hostility.

Joy Qualls: But I will say, as a staffer, you still sort of had that storied experience of, people would hash it out on the floor of the Senate. People would work hard on policy and committees. And they'd go have drinks and dinner afterwards. That was still very much the case. I attended a staff Bible study regularly. It was a combination of Democrats and Republicans in the Bible study. In fact, the staff Bible study was actually the one place I met Hillary Clinton, who was a Senator at the time. Because she had missed the members Bible study, which apparently she was a regular at. And came to the staff Bible study because she wasn't able to go to the member Bible study. And so that's the only time I've ever met her in person, got to shake her hand and that sort of thing.

Joy Qualls: So those things were happening. I became friends with the Senate chaplains assistant. And so got to get in on some of the religious activity during that time. So I will say, it was very different, than what we perceive it as being today. But certainly as I reflect back, if I'm honest with myself, hindsight is not 2020. And I can sort of start to see the seeds being planted, for where we are today.

Rick Langer: Yeah, that's so interesting just to hear of that kind of a dynamic. I guess it sounds to me, like the way things ought to be, at the very least. Kind of a minimum threshold of, "Hey, look, we're still humans. We're still fellow people. We're all in this together. So we're all Americans. We've just had airplanes fly into our Twin Towers and The White House and the Pentagon, what unites us is more than what divides us."

Joy Qualls: That's right.

Rick Langer: And it has that sick feeling today, that I don't know that you can say that.

Joy Qualls: And yeah, I don't want to get too discouraged. Because if I look back at the presidential campaigns between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in particular, they were pretty hostile. And I think one of the things that we have to take into account today is, just how much of this is happening in real time, in front of us. The internet and our ability to see what's happening in the moment. I just got a news story across my phone right now, that we were talking about before we started, that wasn't happening. So the hostilities were contained, whereas all of this spills out into the open now.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's a great point. I wonder, Joy, how much we are looking at the present and saying, "Oh, it's the worst it's ever been." I read a letter to my students at Biola University, written by Francis Schaeffer. Who it's so sad, people don't remember who Francis Schaeffer is, but he was a great Christian apologist. But in the letter, he's reflecting on America. And he's saying, "The dark clouds have rolled in. I fear for my beloved country, this may be it." And then I said to the students, "Date the letter, date it." And they're all like, God bless them, "2019. 1995." And I say to them, "1950." And many people would say 1950's the golden age, we want to get back to. So Joy, do you think we are kind of overreacting today, saying, "This is the worst it's ever been?"

Joy Qualls: I don't think we're overreacting. I think we're reacting to the real time moments that we're experiencing. So again, in the 50's, probably some people had television, but a lot of people didn't. You got a newspaper, probably once a day at the most. If you grew up in rural America, like I did, you got a newspaper once a week. So, again, I think how we're receiving information, ramps up our emotion to those things. It's different than if I take my time in the morning, read my paper, see what's happening for the day. And then I don't see what's happening again until the six o'clock news comes on. That's not the way it is. It's happening all the time. My phone is lighting up, even as we're talking, with just stuff. And then people interacting about those stories, right? And so that raises our emotional climate.

Rick Langer: So joy, here's the thing I've wondered about. The other thing that happens is that the news cycle is continuous. There is no news cycle, it just is a continuous stream. It's got to compromise the editorial process and the research process as well, because you don't want to give old news. But that means you can't check the news you do have. And we all know that a retraction counts for almost nothing. If you find out that what you said was wrong, you can apologize. And it would be good for you to do that. But everyone will remember the original flash, that seemed so crazy. And not the fact that, oh, that was mistaken. So is that exacerbating our polarization as well?

Joy Qualls: I absolutely think it is. And I think one of the challenges, again, is that we're not going back. We're not going to suddenly decide that the 24 hour news cycle doesn't exist. There's too much money being made. There's too much opportunity for people to become celebrities and influencers, in this particular realm. You hit a certain level of followers on Twitter, and all of a sudden you have an authority space, that doesn't matter what your previous credibility is, people are paying attention to you.

Tim Muehlhoff: Joy, how do we navigate that? How do we keep ourselves from being amped up 24/7 with the news cycle? And then we were talking in this one podcast, we mentioned the algorithms, that now tend to feed us the viewpoint that we want. So what do you do to keep a fair and balanced approach to things or to stay away from the sensationalized stuff?

Joy Qualls: So my unfollow game on Facebook is really strong these days. And I don't mean that from, I only want to hear from people who side with me standpoint. But I mean, I have become very discerning about people who share certain things. And if it's conspiratorial, if it comes from fringy looking websites that perhaps could be virus laden, or other things like that. I don't unfriend anyone, I will accept anybody's friend requests, but I don't follow them because I don't want that stuff in my feed. So it's one of the ways. I try to be intentional about adding people from both sides. In fact, after the 2016 election, I made a concerted promise to myself that I would only read conservative opinion pieces. So I wanted to hear what I believed would be the message of this new administration. So I intentionally ditched everybody that I followed, who would be considered a liberal editorial writer. In the news, I took off people from television, stuff like that.

Joy Qualls: So I read Michael Gerson every week. I read Pete Wehner every week. Well, turns out these guys were never Trumpers. But it has also helped me see, how do people who consider themselves lifelong conservatives, work through the present situation. But I had to do it. If I relied upon just what the algorithm showed me, if I relied upon only what... Because I'm a Twitter user, so you find out that you get what the people you follow on twitter are also sharing. So there's lots of stuff that comes up in my feed that I wouldn't have chosen to follow, but other people share it and things like that. So I've had to be intentional.

Joy Qualls: The other thing is, I place time limits around when I engage. So I have a personal rule. I do not open an app on my phone, that's not the Bible app, until I have opened the Bible app. That's my personal rule. So I get the verse of the day. Then I can open up The New York Times or Facebook or whatever. But I have to read the verse of the day first. And it's not because that makes me spiritual or Holy or any of those things. It just says, "I have to be intentional about what my priorities are."

Joy Qualls: I'm really bad about being on my phone at night, before I go to bed. And so that's one thing that I've come to recognize, is that at the end of a long day, I can disappear into my phone, the way my grandfather disappeared into his newspaper. And when grandpa was reading his newspaper, we didn't bother him because that was his time to disappear into that space. That can be me, only it's my phone. And I've had to be really intentional about that. And I'm not good at that. There's my confession for the day. At night, I'm not good. And I'll follow a rabbit trail into a situation. So I've had to ask my husband and others to hold me accountable for, "Hey, you disappeared into your phone for an hour. It's time to put the phone down and re-engage." And again, it's me.

Rick Langer: Yeah, That is a great observation. One of the things that we want to do is highlight things that are helpful. And so often we feel like things are out of control. And it is interesting, with the problems of the news cycle, we aren't going to change the internet and all these things. But your model of just saying, "Okay, but what can you do? What do you have control over?" And making sure you're doing the most, with what you can control. And that's really good. That resonates in my own life. Because so often my inbox is the first thing I look at. And that gets my whole brain going down a path that may not be the best path for it to go down.

Tim Muehlhoff: And Joy, you'll laugh at this, but you know. We've known each other for a long time. I just got a smartphone. I mean, just, just. Like what, three months ago?

Joy Qualls: I know, because you text with gifs. And you never did that before.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's an Android. I love it. I love Bixby. I love talking to Bixby. It's everything I thought the phone would be. So I need to watch that as well. It is a rabbit hole, a technological rabbit hole. It's crazy. And Rick, one thing you've taught me, that I think fits nicely into this, is the website All Sides.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's really been an interesting place to go to, to get... Why don't you tell our listeners, just a little bit.

Rick Langer: Let me give a little shout out to All Sides. And all it is, it's a news aggregation service, of which there's a multitude of those available on the web. But what All Sides does, is it simply says, "Look, everybody has a bias. So all we're going to do is label articles, according to their general drift. Left, left leaning, center, right-leaning or right." And those are rough and ready categories. They aren't perfect, but they're very transparent about who fits into which of these sites. And then they will aggregate a news story. And you can click there and get four or five different perspectives, right from that one spot. And it's a great way to just help round out your reading. And they're doing some of that work in the background for you. So that's been really helpful.

Rick Langer: Hey, one question that I'm intrigued by, we've talked about our labels and things like that. One of our other labels is Democrat and Republican, Right, Left, Conservative, Liberal. I'm wondering as we think about that, how Christians should line up with the existing American political map. I'm thinking particular of a editorial that Tim Keller wrote in The New York Times a while ago, basically saying, well, I'll quote here, "Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian Church or faith with one political party, as if it was the only Christian one." What are your thoughts about that, and how Christians should align with the territory we actually have? It'd be great to say, "Hey, our party should be different. Our language should be..." Wonderful. But this is what we've got. How should we navigate that?

Joy Qualls: So as Christians, our most political statement that we make is, Jesus is Lord. And even in the day that statement came about, it was a highly political statement. Because Caesar's campaign model was, "There is no God, but Caesar." Right? "There is no King, but Caesar." So to say that Jesus is Lord, is one of the most highly politically charged statements there is out there. For the Christian, that's our political statement, Jesus is Lord. Loyalty to anything else, beyond the kingdom of God, has to be secondary to that. So again, I think you can be a good American. I think you can pledge allegiance to the flag. I know there's some Christians who don't think you should do that. That's fine if you... I think that's the beauty of this country, is you don't have to do that. But you can do that. You can serve in the military. You don't have to serve in the military. There's all of these things for which Christians can find nuance.

Joy Qualls: Are we ever going to fit in a political party, 100%? We better not. Because political parties are not the kingdom of God. Political parties are human made entities that are going to be limited by the human beings who have created them. And I think, again, if you want to be active in a party, if you want to run for office, if you want to do those things, great. But if you think that by doing so, you have now aligned yourself with the kingdom of God, that's where we have to have a deeper theological discussion, because I think we've missed the mark in that place. And so that has to be first. Jesus is Lord, is my political allegiance. And it's a very political statement. Everything else has to be filtered through that. So I don't think we can say, "Should a Christian do this?" I think, how does a Christian think about this? It's not, can a Christian participate. It's how do we think Christianly about these things?

Tim Muehlhoff: You know, Rick, when you read that op-ed piece by Keller, I thought of this really short video, we were all passing around to each other, where Keller was asking the question, "What can we learn from the early Christians?" And he identified five different traits. I thought this was so interesting. Economic justice, racial equality, which he said, "Traditionally, is a Democrat platform." Pro-life, traditional sexuality, which would lean towards the Republican platform. Then humorously, he said, "Civility, which is neither." So going back to the ancient church for the answer is, you're getting a mixed bag. And at times they would look Democratic, in times they would look Republican. But Joy, let me ask this question. We're trying to open conversations, but let me give you a conversation stopper that I have heard so many times. Because I am pro-life, I could never support a Democratic nominee for president. I can't do that, I'm pro-life. But how would you address somebody who would say that?

Joy Qualls: I would ask them, whether or not they're getting the results of being pro-life from that stance? Are you seeing the fruit of that? And I would argue 50 some odd years after the Roe decision, are we seeing the fruit of that? Now the truth of the matter is, that abortion is on the decline and has been for the last 40 years. Perhaps there's some digging we need to do to figure that out. But we've actually seen rates of abortion dip below pre-Roe level. So again, we have to go back and look and say, "How was the data collected? What went into that?" All of those sorts of things. But we've seen a steady decline. And again, nuance. Nuance, nuance, and we don't have time for a lot of that nuance.

Joy Qualls: But I think the question is, if all you're after is this one result, but yet we're getting some of the results without that one policy change. Perhaps again, we could open our eyes to see that putting all of our eggs in one basket may not be the most effective. And again, there's going to be people who disagree with me on this, and that's fine. But what I think is, that even on that most controversial place, there's place for us to converse about this. And if we can't, we're not going to solve the problem.

Rick Langer: And that is an interesting, the practical wisdom side of these questions. Because I think there's social ethical issues, when we say, "Oh, this is a matter of absolute." Okay. So given that absolute, what social policies would best be enacted today, to help move back to what would be better, to help move things in a direction that will be just a little bit better. And it is interesting, sometimes with pro-life issues. I think at this point, and you may be able to correct me if I'm wrong on this, but it seems to me that the president is irrelevant office, relative to that, because they appoint federal judges and Supreme court justices. But there's an awful lot of other offices, particularly at a state and local level. That I'm going actually, that question, they simply won't resolve or have much influence over.

Rick Langer: So do we want to put all of our votes only in one direction? And say, "Boy, we need to figure out where that vote matters most." Make sure we vote accordingly there. But in so many other areas, we're saying, "Look, that just isn't where it will be solved, as a matter of actual practice." We're not doing a referendum on our ethics, we're simply reflecting on the practice that's available to us in a pluralistic democracy in 2020, in America.

Tim Muehlhoff: And I was just on a podcast last week where they took me by surprise with the question, "In politics, where do you see Christians being the most inconsistent?" And here's what I said off the cuff, which is never a good thing on a podcast. I said, "Okay, let me just say this. I have friends who say they could never vote Democrat because they are pro-life. But the only time I hear them talk about pro-life issues, is every four years when the election comes. It is just never a topic until it comes to voting for the president. Then it seems like an easy get out of jail card, is while I'm pro life, thus I have to be Republican. And yet, what have you done in the intervening four years?"

Joy Qualls: Well, if we're waiting on the court or whoever to be our saviors in this, I don't know if your court watchers, but the court has been pretty inconsistent in a lot of things. And again, I think, and what more of a conservative position, I think local control, local discussion, local on the ground. I'd better be volunteering at my crisis pregnancy center. I better be engaged in the adoption discussion. I better be talking about how do we care for children after they're born? I mean, there's just so many ways for me to be involved in this issue, that has nothing to do with the courts and those other things.

Rick Langer: And if I was having one of my days, when I decided, since Tim said it, I better push back. That would be one of the first things I would say about many Christians, relative to the pro-life movement, is they may not talk that much about the political side [inaudible 00:23:15]. But boy, there's a lot of people who've been involved, hands-on in this issue, on a daily basis. And are actually doing exactly what we're talking about. [inaudible 00:23:24], do what you can, where you can do it. And a lot of our bigger rhetoric is being squandered in places where all of that isn't really having an impact. But boy, can you change the life of the kid in your high school class, who's suddenly confronted the decision, or the family next door, or whoever it is. And changing the environment to make it more conducive people, continuing a pregnancy.

Rick Langer: And once they have done that, to be able to raise their child in a way that they could say, "Hey, I'm a single mom and I'm going to be a single mom, probably for the whole run. How am I going to do this?" Well, let's make this a world in which you can imagine a future where that might work. Instead of one where your eyes roll back in your head, and say, "It'll never work, so I'm going to go solve it in a way that I think is tragic." So I think we do do a lot of that stuff, but it just isn't always political. And if our only voice politically strikes that tone, it's a dangerous seeming, really myopic. Even as a matter of our practice, we may not actually be doing so bad in that regard, but our voice politically is not being heard well, I think.

Joy Qualls: And I honestly believe you could pull that issue out, insert the other issues that Keller talks about and you come to the same results. I don't think this is just limited to that. I think there's lots of ways we think legislation will solve, and legislation is one tool to solution, but it's not the ultimate solution.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, well said. Well, we want to ask you a question we ask every guest. And the question is, which of the two books we've written is your favorite? No, just a joke.

Joy Qualls: Well, I haven't gotten to read the second one yet. So you can't ask me that question.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, here's the standard question we love to ask, on the Winsome Conviction podcast. Who is a Christian, who has modeled for you deeply held convictions, communicated in a winsome way?

Joy Qualls: So one of my favorite people in the political world, on the planet, is Michael Ware, who served as the director of faith outreach for the Obama '12 campaign and worked in the national office of faith policy. I'm getting the name of the office wrong, right now. But Michael also works now with the AND Campaign, which if I was to plug a book, their book, Compassion and Conviction, has just come out. It is probably the best book I have read on political engagement, in a really long time. But Michael has really helped me in the last few years because I really felt like I had to distance myself from political parties. And keep saying, "I'm not with a party, in order to be seen as credible." And Michael actually argues the opposite. He actually thinks we should be involved with parties. Party loyalty is not his MO. But he says we should be involved with the parties, because if we're actually going to have influence, we should be involved with them.

Joy Qualls: But he has modeled civil discussion in online spaces. He has modeled cheering on people, who perhaps weren't so kind to his boss, when he was working in some of those spaces. But he has honored them when they've had children. Or he has prayed for them where they have been sick. And he does so in a public way that acknowledges those things. And I've had a chance to have dinner with Michael a couple of times. And he's just a real hero for me, in this space. And he's super young, which just also... He's going to love that. But, I mean, he just is. I feel old when I'm with him. Because he's young and he's figured it out. And I really appreciate Michael a lot.

Tim Muehlhoff: And the name of his book again?

Joy Qualls: Compassion and Conviction.

Tim Muehlhoff: Awesome.

Joy Qualls: So the AND Campaign, Justin Giboney is the president of the AND Campaign. And Michael works with him as chief staff strategist.

Rick Langer: That's great. Wonderful opportunity to shout out to them. And it's a great project that they've been doing down there.

Joy Qualls: It is, it's a wonderful book.

Rick Langer: Based in Atlanta, I think. Is that where-

Joy Qualls: They're in Atlanta. Well, Michael's in DC, Justin's in Atlanta. And they actually host a podcast called The Church Politics podcast. So that's an interesting, where you hear them talk about these issues.

Tim Muehlhoff: We got a chance to speak with Justin at a conference. And he's on our short list to get, people who are doing it well. You would love that.

Joy Qualls: Yeah. I would include Justin in that. I just know Michael better than I know Justin.

Rick Langer: Well, thank you so much Joy, for sharing that. It's wonderful to hear the news, that people are doing it right.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. So Rick, why don't you tell them where they can listen to our podcast?

Rick Langer: So, yeah, we'd love to have you continue to join us, as we go on a journey here. And the place you find us is at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, or you can check us out the winsomeconviction.com website. And we're really, really grateful to have you with us. And we do want to say a special thank you to you, Dr. Joy Qualls.