Frank Newport and Byron Johnson

Season 3 - Episode 338

September 25, 2020

Frank Newport (L) and Byron Johnson (R)
Frank Newport (L) and Byron Johnson (R)

In over three decades at the Gallup organization, Frank Newport has spent his career studying objective data about American attitudes on religion, politics, social issues and more. Newport, a Baylor graduate, is co-host of the podcast Objective Religion, launched earlier this year by Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. In this Baylor Connections, Newport, senior scientist at Gallup after a long tenure as editor-in-chief, and Byron Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and Baylor ISR founding director, discuss religion’s impact on America today and analyze topics at the intersection of faith and data-driven social science.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series, with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guests today are Dr. Frank Newport and Dr. Byron Johnson. Earlier this year, Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion launched Objective Religion, a podcast covering topics at the intersection of religion and data driven social science. Today on Baylor connections our guests are Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of social sciences and founding director of the Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion, and Dr. Frank Newport, senior scientist at the Gallup Organization. Dr. Johnson is one of the country's leading researchers on the role of religion in public life. He founded ISR to initiate support and conduct high level research on religion across a variety of disciplines. Dr. Newport is a Baylor university graduate who served as editor-in-chief of the legendary Gallup Organization for nearly three decades and his work gleans insights to the American public's views of elected officials and attitudes towards religion, the economy, and more. And they are out with us today from both central Texas Waco and Princeton, New Jersey. And we appreciate very much your time today. Byron and Frank, thank you so much for joining us on the program today.

Byron Johnson:

Good to be here.

Frank Newport:

Great to be here with you.

Derek Smith:

Great to have you. You're definitely the first guest that we've had from a New Jersey calling in, which is great and more than that, I'm excited to learn your insights and certainly what you've gleaned from your time at Gallup, and now so much of that being poured into the Objective Religion podcast. Diving right in, a year like this provides no shortage of content material for a social scientist like you, Dr. Newport, what role has this year itself, 2020 played in the creation of content and the reception of this Objective Religion podcast?

Frank Newport:

Well, that's a great question. First of all, it's an election year, every four years, we have an election. So obviously that was the impetus for this podcast, initially is we have an election up and coming and we think religion has a really significant role to play in this religion. And therefore that was probably the number one thing about the year itself. But of course, as we all know, a lot of other things have happened this year, where we have spent quite a bit of time looking at the COVID-19 the pandemic and how that relates to religion and how it relates to the election itself. So given that that's the number one event that I think history will look back on in this year, the pandemic will certainly tried to weave that into our podcast as well when we talk about it. Some of the things that have happened that make this podcast really timely. One is the nomination of Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president. He's a Catholic, a faithful Catholic, and he's made that a significant part of his campaign at least so far. So that raises a lot of interesting issues for us to look at, which is Catholic, which are between 20 and 25% of all Americans and 23% of all votes in 2016 at the presidential level were Catholic. So we have a lot to look at in terms of Biden and that of course relates to other issues like abortion and how all of that's going to play out in this election. And then of course we have the continuing emphasis on, an interest in, and I can't stress this enough, the interest that I hear about Evangelicals and the election, and the connection between white Evangelicals and support for president Trump is the number one question I get when somebody looks to me and says, "You're dealing with religion in the election" and that's the question I get. So an answer to your question Derek, all of those things that made 2020 a very exciting year for this type of podcast.

Derek Smith:

Well, I think you just painted this picture a little bit, but when you're putting together an episode, a 30 minute episode, no shortage of topics, how do you narrow down the topics and approach them? And what are some of the topics listeners might find if they look up Objective Religion on iTunes or other platforms?

Frank Newport:

Well, one thing that we do is we have a feature stealing from a television show back, your older listeners may remember back in the 1960s. That was "the week that was." We review what the news has shown during the week relating to religion and the election. And there's no shortage week by week of new stories and other coverage, other events that relate to religion the election. So when you listen to our podcasts, you'll hear that review. We always had a quiz and we ask listeners some questions relating to the topic. And then we answered near the end of the quiz. We always update the election. What do we know about who's ahead in particularly who we have new data relating to religion and the election. For example, in the podcast that we have just recorded, we referenced a new poll of Jewish Americans looking at their vote for president. "Hi, here's an update there." And then other than that, we take a deep dive on the types of topics that I just mentioned, abortion, evangelicals. We look at Catholics, we're looking at race, Black voters and racism, the key issue in this election, we focused on that. We're going to be focusing on women, religion, and the election in an episode to come. And so all of these topics are the types of things, people will hear us discuss if they tune into our podcast Objective Religion.

Derek Smith:

We're visiting with Frank Newport, senior scientist at the Gallup Organization, Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of social sciences and founding director of the Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion or in shorthand, Dr. Johnson ISR. And, for ISR, how did the idea of this podcast come together? And what role does it play in your greater outreach?

Byron Johnson:

Well, Derek, I have to say that Frank and I have been friends for many years. And even before I arrived at Penn back, I mean at Baylor in 2004, I was at the University of Pennsylvania and which is just down the road from where Princeton is located, where Frank is. And we began to do work with the Gallup Organization back in 2000. And when I was at Penn. So we did a number of projects and got to know George Gallup Jr. Quite well. And so I had the occasion to work with Frank quite a bit during my time at Penn. And then when I came to Baylor, we continued to work together. We've done many national surveys with Gallup here at Baylor, the Baylor Religion survey, which a lot of people are familiar with. Of course, we did with Gallup, and many other projects that we've done over the years.And so, it's just been a great friendship between our team and the Gallup Organization. They're the best in the business. And they're known around the world, and so Frank has just been a friend and a colleague for a long time, and we've had him affiliated with ISR for so many different reasons because of his expertise. And also because of his fondness and affinity for Baylor having been here. His dad also has roots here as a professor. And so it was just a natural and then, one day Frank actually reached out to me and said "Byron, I've been given some thought to a podcast and, I'd like it to be data-driven, scientific". And I thought, "Oh boy, this would be fantastic, and maybe we should do this together at Baylor." And I thought, are you kidding? When can we start? So it's just a perfect fit. And, for us at ISR where we do research, we have a bunch of faculty here that do research. We have postdocs and grad students, but a lot of our research is published in academic journals, which is a good thing, but it doesn't necessarily reach the people that we would like our research to reach. And so, that was the real idea of what Frank was thinking about, how can you take academic research that really is rigorous, and make it accessible to people. They aren't going to be reading, academic journals. And so, that's the idea behind it. It's a natural for us, and it really extends what we do here at ISR. It's a perfect compliment, and allows us to get the research out there to a much wider audience. And so in that way, it's just a dream come true really.

Derek Smith:

Well, obviously as you describe what made Frank such a great fit for this podcast, I don't want to overlook co-host Nate Brantingham as well. What makes him a great fit for this podcast in working with you?

Frank Newport:

That's a great question. As I was developing the thoughts as Byron just talking about for this podcast, as it occurred to me, that it would be great to have a partner, a co-host somebody else working on the podcast rather than just me. I'm out there by myself. And so in discussions with people, including some friends I have at Princeton Theological Seminary here in Princeton, I was pointed in the direction of Nate Brantingham in part, because he has a unique combination of the young man. He actually is an entrepreneur and has a Masters in Business and Entrepreneurial Science, which is great. And that gives him the background and interest in trying to do innovative things, which I thought was great. But at the same time, he was called to religion and he went to Princeton Theological Seminary. He's now ordained. He's a minister, and he's actually taken his first job now as a one director of collegiate studies, collegiate religion, student ministries at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in Illinois. So I said, "Here's a great combination. I have the background in social science and Nate has the background in religion and theology. And also he's a young millennial who has interests that perhaps I wouldn't have, and he could share some of those as we talk about these things. So putting all that together, I said, this would be a great marriage, so to speak for a podcast. And that's what we've done.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. This is Baylor connections. We are visiting with Dr. Frank Newport, senior scientist at the Gallup Organization, and co-host of Objective Religion. Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of social sciences and founding director of the Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion. And Frank, Byron referenced this earlier, but you attended Baylor. You have that radio voice. I know that your background is a communications background, but when you were at Baylor, did you ever envision doing something like you've done for the last three plus decades working for the Gallup Organization and in the social sciences?

Frank Newport:

I really didn't, interesting background. My major when I arrived in Waco was, as they called it back then Derek, oral communications:radio and television. I think back then, you could have also majored in oral communications: theater, oral communications: speech. That's how they did it back then. I know a lot's changed since then, right?

Derek Smith:

Yeah. Communication studies, film and digital media different types break downs.

Frank Newport:

Probably looking at the same type thing, but a lot of things. Anyway that was my great interest. That was my major. I arrived on campus and within a couple of weeks was working at KWBU the FM station there at Baylor up in Old Main as I remember it. And after a year or two, I switched over and went out into the community and worked at KWTX radio and KWTX television there in Waco. So that was my consuming interest in the media, but I began to look for something more substantive, more scholarly, more intellectual, so to speak. And that's when I drifted over into the social sciences and sociology. So I began to do a co-major in sociology, along with radio and television. Well, we fast forward, I went off to graduate school in sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, got a masters, got my PhD.I took my first academic job as a sociologist at the University of Missouri St. Louis. So, I was following that academic path. As Byron mentioned, that was my father's path. He had been a professor at Baylor and when I was growing up until he retired, he was professor at Southwestern Baptist, Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. So, I had that academic background and pedigree in my history. So I was pursuing that, but that didn't look like it was a great fit for me after a while University of Missouri. So, I shifted over and moved to Houston and became a talk show host at KTRH radio down in Houston. Interesting career switch there, right. Dr. Franc on the radio. And from that point I moved over and actually started working at a public opinion marketing and political research firm there in Houston. And then I was able to combine these two interests. Because I did a lot of research for radio and television marketing research for radio and television and newspaper stations. And while at that firm, that firm through one way or the other became connected with Gallup and through all of that. I was asked to move here to Princeton, to be the editor in chief of the Gallup poll, which I've done as you've talked about for a number of years. So back at Baylor in those hallow days back there in Waco, I didn't have any conception. I don't think that fast forwarding later in my adult life, I would somehow be a pollster, but that's what I've ended up doing. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

Derek Smith:

That's great. And in this role, you are combining those two things again on the podcast as opposed to live radio, but obviously very similar. And, how does that come together? You talk about the podcast being at the intersection of religion and data-driven social science. So, how does data impact our understanding of religious attitudes and how do those two things interplay on the podcast?

Frank Newport:

Yeah, that's a fascinating question. And sometimes controversial. Some people argue about the role that empirical data should play survey data in particular, studying religion. Some people think that the two are oxymoronic, they don't fit together, but I believe that data looking at what people tell us, particularly through surveys can aluminate all areas of our life, in particular religion. So it's not everything as your theological listeners will argue. Obviously you can't imperial size, so to speak everything, having to do with theology and religion and belief in God and those types of things. But there's a lot of anecdotal evidence about religion in this society. A lot of offhand casual assumptions that aren't true. So I think to the degree that we have data, to the degree that we can have empirical looks at what people tell us about their religious identity, about their religiosity, about the role that religion plays in their life, all of that's great. And then in this podcast in particular, we can bring that together and say, there are plenty of podcasts out there that are just talking from a religious perspective. What they think about religion, and there plenty of podcasts talking about politics. Our intersection, our goal here is to combine the two and say. And when we're talking about religion and the election in particular, let's look first at what we know from the data. And then we can take it from there. For example, somebody might say, well, Trump is losing the Jewish vote. I referenced those data a few minutes ago, are Trump is gaining the Jewish vote or Biden's losing the Catholic vote in this election, or Biden's going to do better with the Catholic vote. Well, we have data. We can look at it and say, well, here's what the data are showing at this point in time. Somebody could say, well, candidate Biden has real trouble with Catholic voters because of his position on abortion. Well, we can look at the data and say, when we interview Catholics, here's what they tell us. So I think there's a great place in our understanding of society, of the election, of our culture and of the election and religions. There's a great place for empirical data, objective data. And that's what we try to bring into this podcast.

Byron Johnson:

And Derek, let me just add to that too. In addition to all those great questions that Frank was just discussing. One of the other reasons why we wanted to work together is that here at ISR, we have scholars that are interested in so many different aspects of religion. So for example, we have an epidemiologist on our team who studies religion and physical and mental health. And some people may be surprised to know that there are literally thousands of publications dealing with the role that religion, faith, spirituality play in physical and mental health and the statistics are quite impressive. And then human flourishing, which is one of the pillars of aluminate here at Baylor. That too has become a very interesting area. How does religion affect human flourishing and wellbeing? And I do a lot of studies in the area of crime and delinquency. Is religion something that protects people from crime and deviant behavior. And if people do wind up in crime and deviant behavior, can religion help bring people out of that track? So the list goes on and on, we've done studies on homelessness, the role of the faith-based response to homelessness. Just this last, I guess yesterday, I talked to someone from Congress who's interested in the question-can religion help veterans returning after having been overseas in the military? So many of them are struggling with post-traumatic stress and suicide has become a huge problem for our veterans. So the question that they were asking me is would ISR be willing to undertake research that shows if religion might be something that prevents suicide for veterans that are happening at such unfortunate level right now? So these are just some of the many areas where religion is relevant, and sometimes overlooked that we try to capture and research and obviously Frank, we'll be looking to capture with the podcast.

Frank Newport:

And also Byron, just to throw in as another example, we've really enjoyed talking to professor Thomas Kidd. There at Baylor and ISR, because as I mentioned earlier in this podcast, one of the huge questions that we get from individuals out there who listened to the podcast has to do with Evangelicals and politics, that connection. Well, we don't want to operate in a vacuum. So it so happens that Dr. Kidd, that's his tremendous area of expertise. Historically he's written books on the whole history of the Evangelicals in this country, and he knows more about it than anybody. I know. So when we talk about where Evangelical stand now on the political spectrum, we can talk to Dr. Kidd, which we had done, in previous podcast and he can give us the history. He can say, well, here's how the Evangelical movement is connected to politics, historically, particularly since Eisenhower and the Ronald Reagan era. So that's another example of how we try to bring some objective context to our understanding of what's happening right now in politics relating to religion.

Derek Smith:

Talking with Frank Newport and Byron Johnson here on Baylor connections. And as we head into the final few minutes of the show, we've talked about some specific things as it relates politics and the landscape in 2020, whether some of those specific issues that you mentioned Dr. Johnson in studying religions impact on various aspects of life, or whether it's for veterans or people with delinquency or a number of those topics. Looking forward a little more broadly, a lot of people have a lot to say about the future of religion or trends in religion or the role of religion in American life going forward. And this is a really broad question, but are there specific trends and areas that give you insight into what religions influence looks like in 2020, and maybe how you see that going forward, or what factors might be most influential about going forward?

Byron Johnson:

Sure. Well, I'll take an initial stab at that and Frank will want to chime in I'm sure, but one of our students who did a PhD and graduated from Baylor two years ago is now working at Facebook. And I met with this student over the weekend, this former student. And the reason why she reached out is that Facebook is very interested in religion. And they have seen an unbelievable spike in activity on the internet since the pandemic. And they're interested in what is community? How do we define community? What makes up communities? And they're also interested in topics like flourishing, and they want to know how religion impacts those things. And so if you listened to a lot of the headlines, one of the headlines that you see consistently is that religion is in decline. And that maybe religion is going away. And then you see a research that indicates maybe that's not so true after all. And that's why Frank was so wise when he said, let's do a podcast and call it Objective Religion, because we may think we know what's going on, but until you take a look at the data, sometimes you're quite shocked. And so that's why scholars like Rodney stark, who has looked at the Gallup world poll says that the world is more religious today than it has ever been. So that's, a counter narrative to the one that you hear. Maybe people don't attend as frequently as they used to, but I know that my in-laws right now are participating in about five different churches. So all of their children, they participate online in each of their congregations. So it could be that people are being exposed more than they ever have been in some ways, because of the pandemic. So these are the trends that we need to understand. One of the new projects that we're hoping we can do is to track cell phones, to see how people, where they go on the weekends in terms of religious services, so that we would have a more of an objective measure of attendance than just asking people, do you, or do you not attempt, but what if we could track their actual movements to see where they are. And that might be another way in which we could look at new trends on religious behavior.

Frank Newport:

Yeah, those are very important points you've made there by. And a couple of things I would point out along those lines is one of the things we hear a lot about is the rise of the nones and people say, what do you mean Catholic nun? Excuse me, no, we mean N-O-N-E-S. Nones are individuals when a survey researcher calls them up say, "We're not Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or some other place. We are nones, we don't have a religious affiliation." And that number has gone up significantly. However, when we look behind those numbers, what we really see is that we're really just seeing an increase in people who don't want to identify or don't feel compelled to publicly say I'm Catholic or Baptist, but underneath it all, they may well still be religious. So that's a place where we add insight into what people pass highly report is that, Oh, Americans are becoming less religious because fewer people have the formal religious identity. And the other big thing is that I think is so important is what Byron mentioned earlier. And that is the extraordinary amount of data we have on the connection between wellbeing and religiosity. I just got a new journal article yesterday actually on the journal from the scientific study of religion, talking about the positive impact of personal religiosity and depression and so forth. And I think this is something that is not well known, but it's so well documented that it has to be true. So to think, unless other day to come along, to throw it out. But at this point, the data are pretty confirming of this fact that the religiosity can be very positive for individuals. And I think there's a broader scope. We can look at two, this says, what's the sociological impact of religion in society in general. And is it positive in all cultures need to add religion to that history? So these are some of the things that excite me is I look at this connection between objective data and religion.

Derek Smith:

Well, so many different topics to explore, certainly not reliant on an election year for fascinating content. And as we've run out of time here now, I want to say thanks to both of you for sharing this a lot of fascinating topics. I wish we could explore even more, but I'll point people in the direction of the Objective Religion podcast, You can find it on Apple podcasts, it looks like you can just Google Objective Religion apple podcast is one an easy way, and it pops right up there on Google. And we look forward to hearing more of what you have to share in this podcast and this great partnership that you have with Baylor ISR. So I want to thank you very much for joining us and I hope people give you all. Listen, thank you.

Byron Johnson:

Thank you. Appreciate it, Derek.

Frank Newport:

My pleasure to be with you Derek.

Derek Smith:

Great to have you both today, Dr. Frank Newport, senior scientist at the Gallup Organization and Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of social sciences and founding director of the Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion, our guests today here on Baylor connections. I'm Derek Smith reminder. You can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor connections.