Shawnee Mission Faces: Leslie Dorrough Smith, published author and professor of religious and gender studies


Messages are important, but delivery, rhetoric and power dynamics are equally important when taking a look at the state of our country’s political and social climate. That’s a big chunk of what drives Leslie Dorrough Smith, a professor at Avila University, who has spent a lifetime in academics — she’s curious about everything that concerns morals, religion, culture and the history of such things. At Avila University, she teaches religious studies and women’s and gender studies. At home, she writes. Dr. Dorrough Smith most recently published her book, “Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics, and American Christianity.” Hear her talk on KCUR’s Up to Date about it. A scholar of evangelicalism, she earned her doctorate in religious studies and feminist studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. She lives in Prairie Village with her family.

As a person who thinks of herself as a student of society, I’m always interested in what we think is solid and stable and how it really isn’t. Because if we say that all of this stuff is solid and stable, that there are clear ethics, we all know how to follow them, then we would never have moments of hypocrisy like we see. But we do. In fact, that’s one of the only consistent things we can say about human morality, is that it is inconsistent.

We want to understand so much about our political life today that doesn’t feel like it makes sense. And we are so polarized today — and most of those conversations are two or more sides sort of shouting what they believe are basic facts at each other. All the while there are some really fundamental social things that are going on that unless you stop and look at them, you won’t notice.

If we start to think about people as rhetorical engines — they churn out all different sorts of ways of seeing the world — and if we understand that the shape of what they turn out is very much shaped by their own interests, then we can understand how two different groups might have wildly different worldviews when they’re looking at what is supposedly the same sort of thing.

I can’t measure the truth or falsehood of many of the claims that get thrown out there in political life, but one of the jobs that I have as a social scholar, is to analyze and study from an aerial view the dynamics that make social life happen.

And most of us, cause we don’t look at society from an aerial view, we look at it very anecdotally, right? We look at it personally or interpersonally. We don’t see these things going on. So I’m interested in the aerial view and what and how individuals come to embody that panoramic scene.

That is different work than an ethicist would do. An ethicist would attempt to use very specific, predetermined standards to judge what is a better or worse outcome. And that’s a very important field of study, it’s just not the one I do. I have people all the time say, well, who was right or who was better? Well, that’s kind of for the ethicist to decide. Sometimes it is beside the point, because people often really want to take sides on this stuff more than they want to understand it.

There is a lot going on that we don’t see. I’m super interested in implicit bias. I’m super interested in the ways that people reinforce their own interests in their morals. I’m super interested in the way that people think that they’re being objective when they cannot possibly be. I don’t mean that as a critique of people. I mean I’m just interested in why they do that.

It is way more convenient for us to demonize another without ever asking about our awareness of how they demonize us. And to think that we’re talking about truth claims when in fact we’re really talking about rhetorical strategies.

Rhetoric matters. It shapes worlds. That sounds so abstract. But what I mean by that is that when you’re the one who gets to shape how the public sees something, when you get to choose the actual words through which another human’s experience will be filtered, that’s a substantial power. And if we want to better understand our society and how it operates, one of the first ways we need to do that is to look fundamentally at the speech that’s being produced.

There are tons of things people say that aren’t true, that are deeply impactful. I’m way more interested in how a piece of rhetoric operates and I’m less interested in whether I can prove it categorically true or false.