Visiting Fellow Amy Erica Smith

“I want to understand how citizens can help to make democracy better,” says Visiting Fellow Amy Erica Smith. A political scientist with expertise in Latin American and Brazilian politics, she focuses her work on mass political behavior.

“Fundamental to my research is how citizens learn about and come to understand politics and hopefully do better jobs of selecting representatives.”

By any measure, Smith is enormously productive; in fact, early in her Kellogg stay, she won an Early Achievement in Research Award from her home institution, Iowa State University. She made impressive use of her Institute fellowship, making many contacts, organizing several events, investigating future projects—and writing an entire book.

Investigating evangelicals, Catholics, and Brazilian democracy

“Some of the best work on religion in politics globally is being done here at Notre Dame so Kellogg was the obvious place to come for my book project,” she says. “I came in with a pretty clear idea of the general topic for my book, lots of data, and a very preliminary prospectus. Over the course of my time here, I wrote ten chapters.”

“Crosses and Culture Wars” explores how and why evangelical and Catholic congregations and religious leaders have mobilized in Brazil, and the implications for democracy of this period of heightened religious and political polarization.

“In Brazil, the culture wars are not being driven by political parties,” Smith says. “Instead, they’re being driven by Catholic and Protestant clergy who are trying to differentiate themselves as they compete for church members.”

But with many evangelical church leaders running their own political operations, she explains, there is little likelihood of coalition building because maintaining separate religious identities helps clergy to bring churchgoers to the pews. The increased partisan fragmentation lessens the polarization of the culture wars, she finds.

In addition, in the context of Brazil’s constitutionally secular democracy, most citizens think politics doesn’t belong inside church walls. Both clergy and congregants still talk about politics in church, but they tend to be circumspect.  

“The democratic consequences are mixed. On the one hand, the great majority of churches deliberately promote non-partisan civic skills. On the other hand, sometimes Brazil’s religious politics can lead to a mismatch between the politicians and the base,” Smith explains.

To hone her book manuscript, Smith presented her introductory chapter at a Kellogg work-in-progress session in October, and in the spring organized a book workshop. It brought together Brazilianists Barry Ames of the University of Pittsburgh and Matthew Layton of Ohio University, Faculty Fellows Guillermo Trejo and Rev. Robert Dowd, CSC, and Doctoral Student Affiliates Emma Rosenberg and Mark Brockway.

“I was really nervous going into it,” Smith says, since the idea was to spend the day having the group tell her how to make the manuscript better. “I was worried about having them tear it apart.”

“In fact, it was extremely helpful,” she says. “In the course of eight hours you learn a lot, in part by what confuses other people. But thinking it through, thinking about theoretical implications, it was just fantastic—just what a book workshop should be.” She is now revising the manuscript to send out to publishers.

Keeping many balls in the air

In spring 2017, Smith and Brazilian Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Democracy and Human Development Henrique Carlos de Oliveira de Castro, back at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) in Brazil after his fall semester at Kellogg, co-organized a joint conference, “Citizens and the State: Public Opinion, Democracy, and Development in Brazil.”

The innovative intercontinental conference, which took place less than a week after the book workshop, was held simultaneously via videoconferencing at the Kellogg Institute and at UFRGS. Participants utilized public opinion research to address the challenges Brazil faces in the provision of effective governance to serves all its citizens.

“The possibility for international collaboration really was fantastic,” Smith says. “The ability to bring together junior and senior level scholars studying Brazil from across the United States, combined with Brazilianists in Brazil was really, really interesting. It’s a kind of crossnational exchange that you don’t get very much.”

To disseminate the work, the organizers plan to submit a dossier of conference papers to the Latin American Research Review.  

“I took the idea about service to Kellogg seriously,” Smith says.

In addition to the spring conference, in the fall she organized "What’s the Matter with Brazil?", a lively current events panel on the political crisis in Brazil.

She also presented work twice at Notre Dame’s Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. One talk focused on how Latin Americans’ personal attitudes toward hierarchy in the family affect votes for authoritarian candidates, while the other presented an ongoing project studying the extent to which US faculty members assign their graduate students reading by male versus female scholars.

Reflecting on life at Kellogg and beyond

“What has been really positive at Kellogg has been meeting people—not only those that I came here intending to meet but others that I didn’t know were here,” she says. “For example, I have really enjoyed getting to know the work of both Bob Dowd and Ann Mische.”

She also enjoys interacting with graduate students and will continue a project with Rosenberg, who sought Smith out because of their common interest in comparative religion and politics.

How does Smith cover so much ground?

“My focus is on citizen-level politics and I am a citizen who’s interested in politics,” she says.  “It’s my civic orientation that drives my academic interests as much as the reverse.”

During her visiting fellowship, she volunteered for La Casa de Amistad’s citizenship education project and continued to blog for outlets like the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage,” something she sees as “part of my job.”

“It’s a way to talk to a different public than normally would read a journal article, with a much faster turnaround,” she says. “It’s also is an interesting way to begin to explore research topics in ways that might lead to articles down the road.”

Indeed, a recent blog post about Christianity and environmentalism may evolve into her next book project.

“I’m interested in how various Christian groups are talking about climate change around the world,” Smith says. “The general wisdom among academics based on the US experience is that Christianity, particularly Protestantism, is anti-environmentalist, but it’s clear the situation is much more complicated than that across the developing world. I’d like to be able to tell that story.”