John Green was working at Furman University in South Carolina — "one of the buckles on the Bible Belt" — when the Moral Majority was getting started. Despite being advised the group's political influence was just a fad, Green began studying its impact on elections in the 1980s.
Thirty years later, Green is a national expert on the relationship between religion and politics in America. In 2010, the current director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a senior research adviser for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life started working on The Ohio Civility Project, exploring the increasingly nasty tone surrounding faith, politics and public discourse.
Q. Haven't political conversations always been uncivil? What's so different about today's incivility?
A. The high degree of polarization, combined with technology, gives us the ability to damage the dialogue much more quickly. One uncivil comment often evokes another and the debate degenerates rapidly. And ironically, tools like the Internet that give us an expanded ability to communicate are increasingly focused on reaching a very narrow audience. Even on campus, there are the students who watch
MSNBC and the students who watch Fox News, and never the twain shall meet.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with your civility initiative?
A. Civility doesn't mean you can't express your passions. But we need to define the floor below which people don't go. We need to encourage debate that educates rather than demeans people.
Q. How do you expect the presidential race to play itself out this year?
A. 2012 is different from 2008. In fact, it reminds me a lot of 2004. Relatively few people are undecided, but barring any unforeseen events or political gaffes, it's probably gonna be closer than 51-49 percent. This election is about base mobilization. The outcome will depend on who gets out to vote.
Q. What's your personal political affiliation?
A. The last time I voted in a primary, I voted Republican. But I am really more of an Independent.
Q. Any favorite quotes about government and politics?
A. There is one. "It's very hard to make institutions foolproof, because the fools are so ingenious."