SPIA Spotlights - Students, Faculty and Alumni

Undergraduate Students

Mackenzie Collett, Political Science & Legal Studies

Micaiah Miles, International Affairs & Marketing

Reghan Buie, Political Science Major

Reghan is a third-year student graduating from the University of Cincinnati this spring. She is majoring in English (Rhetoric and Professional Writing) and Political Science on a Pre-Law track. As a Resident Advisor and former Desk Assistant for university housing, she is an advocate for student safety and comfort within their home away from home. Reghan has served our Student Government (SG) on the Governmental Relations Committee as the Director of Community Affairs, and on the Executive Staff as the Director of the Student Government Mentorship Program (SGMP) where she recruited, interviewed, mentored, and educated students on the positions and processes of SG. Reghan has interned for two congressional offices and worked at a local law firm, all opportunities she found through the SPIA. She is a member of the Pi Sigma Alpha National Political Science Honor Society and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. She has worked as a Teaching Assistant and conducted research on religious trends within national political party platforms with Dr. Andrew Lewis. In the near future, she intends on becoming an attorney focused on constitutional law and religious freedoms to uphold the pillars of democracy and protect individual rights.

Daira Maldonado, Political Science Major

Inspired by her strong desire to help others, Daira Maldonado logged into Indeed seeking a job in the legal field. Equipped with her impressive resume, which includes her membership in The National Political Science Honor Society Pi Sigma Alpha, Daira applied and was invited to interview at the Law Firm of Anna Korneeva. Anna Korneeva, Esq., a Russian immigrant herself, specializes in criminal defense and immigration law in Cincinnati. After just one meeting, Daira was brought onto the team.

Daira was initially drawn to this firm because their work aligns with her values. “I've always been interested in immigration and international relations. I want to help kids, so with immigration it's allowing people to go to a place where they can feel safer and have access to the resources that they need to have a stable life,” Maldonado said. Prior to the pandemic, Daira volunteered with Cincinnati Narcotics Anonymous where she watched over children while their parents attended NA meetings. Later on, during the entirety of her sophomore year, Daira was a Before and After School teacher in Wyoming, Ohio.

Now, as a legal assistant, Daira works on gathering intake information, drafting legal documents, and interpreting for Korneeva. Fluent in both Spanish and English, Daira plays a critical role in helping clients meet and discuss options with Korneeva. Beyond these responsibilities, Daira also helps clients, primarily Spanish-speakers, apply for asylum, work permits, and status adjustments, among other tasks.

Curious about her advice for other undergraduates seeking similar experiences? “I think just being really passionate about what you’re doing and really showing it, that is the main reason I was hired after one interview. It’s also important to not do something just for money because you’re not going to make money for many years. I would like to emphasize the importance of doing this type of job before going to law school. I think it's not only valuable because you're going to learn how to do a lot of things, but it also helps you appreciate the process that much more. This type of job helps with becoming more comfortable with legal language and interacting with professionals in the field. This is valuable because it could be insightful in knowing whether this is something you could see yourself doing long term or if you would like to go a different direction,” Maldonado shared. 

Looking ahead, Daira plans to continue focusing on helping children and hopes to attend law school to specialize in international or immigration law as well as criminal law.

Tyler Benson, Political Science & Law and Society

Majoring in Political Science has advanced my knowledge of real-world problems and it has allowed me to start thinking about potential solutions. My favorite thing about our courses is the prioritization of class discussion and group collaboration. In addition, the professors always share opportunities on and off campus to help me build up my resume before I enter the workforce.

Leah Leong, Political Science

The School of Public and International Affairs helps me achieve both my academic and professional goals by pushing me not only as a student, but as a person. SPIA teaches me to think critically about the world and the relationships that influence all of us daily. 

Rebekah Littlepage, Political Science & Cybersecurity

As a double-major in Cybersecurity and Political Science, I have been able to fully understand the dynamic of politics and public affairs impacting the modern world. The School of Public and International Affairs has allowed me to study cyberspace issues in a global context through engaging courses. In my Cybersecurity coursework, I have a better understanding of the political and legal implications that occur in cyberspace. UC and SPIA have given me the opportunity to fully study the intersection of two passions of mine, Political Science and Cybersecurity, in a meaningful way. 

Graduate Students

Yash Sharma, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science

During his undergraduate and master’s degree education in India, Yash Sharma began to observe the shifting political climate in India. There was a perceptible rise in anti-minority sentiment, instances of violence amongst student groups became common, and a general clampdown on political dissent and speech. As a result, became interested in understanding the role of ideology, values, and emotions in framing people’s political choices. He was keen to understand how individuals disseminated political beliefs and mobilized others around ideological agendas.  

Yash Sharma came to the School of Public and International Affairs in 2021. His dissertation examines the dynamics of political mobilization in contemporary India. His interest mobilization was piqued by his interaction with actors during his fieldwork who defied conventional understanding of political mobilizers. These individuals were not merely driven by money, fame, or identity, but a deeper ideological commitment and worldview that was unprecedented in Indian politics.

The decision to come to the University of Cincinnati was easy for Yash. He had two principal considerations when selecting an ideal graduate program. Firstly, he wanted to be in a department that encouraged students to pursue a diverse range of research methods and tools. Secondly, he wanted a supportive group of advisors with research expertise and fieldwork experience in India. With Dr. Rina Williams and Dr. Laura Jenkins, Yash says found not one but rather two advisors who have spent decades studying, researching, and writing about Indian politics. “I couldn’t ask for a better fit than Dr. Williams and Dr. Jenkins for my dissertation,” Yash says, “to have two advisors who intimately understand the challenges and nuances of conducting fieldwork in India has immensely benefited my project and understanding of Indian politics.”  

Yash has prioritized making academic scholarship accessible to a broader audience through his work. “I believe as Political Scientists, our research holds critical value for the individuals, communities, and societies we study.” As a result, Yash believes, “it is critical for us to take steps that help bridge the gap that exists between academic scholarship and the general public that such scholarship studies.” For example, Yash has worked as a host with the New Books Network podcast channel, interviewing academics about their recent books. The interviews help spread awareness about emerging scholarship and arguments to a general audience in a format and language that is accessible to most people. In addition, Yash was invited by Studio Atao, a non-profit organization, to author a newsletter on the rise of a cult around tech entrepreneurs. Yash has also made a television appearance for the local Spectrum News channel to discuss India’s emergence as the world’s most populous country in 2023. 

At SPIA, Yash has participated in a recently convened “Year of Elections” panel, where he presented on the state of Indian politics going into the parliamentary elections in 2024. He has also been invited to give a guest lecture for the undergraduate course on Law, Politics, and Society. His lecture looked at the relationship between democratic erosion and the law through the cases of India and Hungary. Yash is also conscious of the sustained support offered by the department in facilitating access to professional development opportunities. “I was thrilled to be nominated by the department to attend the prestigious Institute for Qualitative Methodology and Research summer school at Syracuse University, New York, over the summer of 2023.” Furthermore, Yash was recently awarded a competitive dissertation fellowship by the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center after being nominated by the department. “The year-long fellowship is pivotal in offering me time away from teaching duties and allows for a dedicated period of dissertation writing and review,” Yash adds. “The Taft Center is an invaluable source of support here at UC that I constantly encourage fellow SPIA students to consider.”

As Yash looks forward to the final stage of his graduate degree, he is eternally grateful for the mentorship and support he has received at SPIA. “I found myself to be extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work and collaborate with my mentor, Dr. Jenkins, after my first year. We worked on a paper studying the rise of anti-conversion legislation in India that was presented at conferences in Lisbon and London.” The research was supported through a Faculty-Student Collaboration Award by the University Research Council and resulted in its publication in a recent Law and Society journal issue. Yash has also presented his work at the annual conferences of the American Political Science Association, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the International Studies Association, among others. 

Upon completing his dissertation and a successful defense, Yash is keen to pursue a career within academia. “I firmly believe in the power of education as a great equalizer and am grateful to all the teachers who have mentored and helped me get to where I am. I hope to return the favor someday."

Ania Cosby, Masters of Public Administration

Ania Cosby, recent MPA and former BA graduate, is a Bearcat through and through. Arriving at UC in 2017, Ania had a strong interest in politics and history, electrified more so by the 2016 election. Her decision to study Political Science was solidified by research interests in political ideology and desire to impact others in her community.

Upon completion of her undergraduate degree, Ania found herself at a crossroads: was graduate school the right option for her? How could she apply her knowledge to her ambitions in community-based work? What avenue would be best to help the greatest amount of people? Policy seemed like the answer, thus Ania applied to the Master’s in Public Administration program offered by SPIA.

From the beginning, it was a fit. “Joining was the best decision I made; the MPA program has been really valuable,” Cosby said. With a social justice concentration to boot, Ania can really make impact through policy. When she initially started in the program, she was offered the opportunity to work at the Center for Cyber Security and Policy which opened her mind to all the possibilities that exist within the political world. Her real passion remained with the people, though, and she was grateful to be offered a position with Keep Cincinnati Beautiful in 2022. As the Community Engagement Coordinator and Grants Manager, Ania got to learn more about the administrative side of the MPA degree, a refreshing twist from the politics she’d been so focused on since high school.

Through her role at Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, Ania worked on projects to improve safety and livability in Cincinnati neighborhoods. “I really got to put my degree to use; I worked with council members, neighborhood businesses and community organizations to provide recommendations on improving the Safe & Clean program,” Cosby explained, “…a big part of doing grant management is hearing people’s stories, the issues and problems in their neighborhoods. Getting to hear their stories… my heart goes out to those people, and I want to find ways to help. I really believe that processes should change as communities change. So, I’ve changed the grants program to be more equitable to make sure people have a fair chance.”

On her own accord, Ania began leading grant writing workshops for folks in the community. She acts as their check-in person and an advocate so that even the unexperienced have a fair shot. She exemplifies the “strength in unity” slogan that UC holds so dearly by pulling together folks from all backgrounds for one greater good. “I feel it is my job to act as guide and help share what I know and give everyone a fair chance. All the people whom apply have genuine good intentions to better their communities and organization which I think is commendable. They deserve my respect and effort to assist in any way possible,” Cosby explained.

Beyond the grants program, Ania was also heavily involved with Keep Cincinnati Beautiful’s education department. The department has a focus on connecting with high school and college students, explaining their impact on surrounding communities’ environments.

Being a vehicle of change is important to Ania as demonstrated by both her current work and her goals for the future. By applying her undergraduate research knowledge into her everyday work, she can find solutions to real problems. Looking ahead, Ania wants to apply that knowledge and her work experiences to a career in local government as a public servant.

Before tomorrow becomes today, though, Ania is consciously creating a better future, especially for other people of color in her line of work. As the only Black employee of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, Ania worked hard to advocate for intensified DEI trainings and for herself, so that those who come after her have a solid foundation to work with.

“My biggest ideals are being an advocate, being a system of change, and being someone who has the ambition and drive to cause change. Starting small with my local city and community, and hopefully growing overtime,” Cosby shared, “...being part of the MPA has brought my out of my shell a lot, so, I think the MPA program is really good beyond just public administration, but as a confidence booster.”

Upon her graduation from the MPA program in the spring of 2023, Ania accepted a role with the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio as a Grant Specialist. As a well-rounded professional, it is clear that Ania’s impact will last for years to come.

Jelena Vićić, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science

Growing up in Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia), Jelena Vićić has always been a voracious learner, interested in the nonsensical ways of violence and the precariousness of international relations. Currently, Jelena is a UC doctoral student, studying cybersecurity and serving as the 2018–19 graduate student government (GSGA) president. Before coming to UC, Jelena earned bachelor degrees in both journalism and political science from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) and a master’s in advanced international studies from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

The importance of studying war and international relations became prominent for Jelena. Growing up, she says she was “always intrigued by the absurdity of violence.” The more she studied and traveled, the more she understood the presence of uncertainties and conflict, and the more she was driven towards education and constant learning.

Her master’s thesis was titled “EU Mediation in the Balkans: Normalization of Kosovo-Serbia Relations.” In order to complete her thesis work, she traveled to Kosovo and conducted qualitative interviews for her research. The connections she made there led to post-grad work in the Non-governmental organization sector of Kosovo. This job contributed to her being selected for a traineeship with the European Parliament just two years later—Jelena was one of thirty people chosen out of three thousand applicants. Of her experience working for the European Parliament, she says, “It brought me into the Euro-bubble in Brussels and I was given a chance to learn first-hand about the EU politics… I was driven to learn, and also to network and meet interesting people.”

However, two separate events that happened during her EU stay left a lasting impact on Jelena. She was only 18 days into her job when the Brussels attacks took place—she had been nearby when the bombs detonated. Shortly after, the UK made the decision to formally leave the EU. She describes both events as something that “…signifies the turbulence of the current political moment in Europe, and globally. Both events were heartfelt in the corridors of the European Parliament where I worked as a trainee; there was a sense of silence, sadness, and quiet disbelief after both. Mostly, I remember those feelings, and I remember deep conversations about the future of Europe and the world.”

After the traineeship in Brussels, Jelena became a graduate student at UC. While studying in Vienna she had taken a course called Politics, Security, and Strategy in Cyberspace. The class was taught by Dr. Richard Harknett, a University of Cincinnati professor and Fulbright scholar. A couple years after her first cybersecurity class in Vienna, she found herself working towards a PhD in political science in Cincinnati with Dr. Harknett as her PhD advisor.

Cyberspace is considered to be the new battlefield between disagreeing countries. Whereas war typically presents itself as fighting on physical grounds, international competition is taking new form inside a virtual environment called cyberspace. Jelena is concerned with regulating cyberspace and maintaining a secure and safe cyber environment: thus, cybersecurity.

Turns out, the livelihoods of whole countries are embedded in cybersecurity. National economies, politics, and aggression by countries—all are carried out and live inside cyberspace, and by doing so the possibility of destruction and loss is created, as well as a need for protection.

“Our whole lives are embedded in cyberspace,” says Jelena. “When we look at conflict and war, in the past, war has always carried devastating atrocities in both blood and property. Countries had to invade each other’s territory to be able to influence and to gain power. But now, with cyberspace, we have a completely new environment that is arguably man-made; it is a virtual environment that states can use to compete with each other. That’s what’s so interesting about it—how it changes the nature of war and the nature of power.”

Jelena’s dissertation research looks at the fundamental dynamics as to why cyberspace has become an environment of competition and potential conflict, what that means for international and national policies, and why cybersecurity is so necessary.

Beyond her schooling, Jelena has created further impact during her stay in Cincinnati. “I like it here,” she says. “The feel itself is very new. There are many opportunities for growth and opportunities for research. So that’s exciting. I’m doing a lot things that excite me, not only research-wise, but with the GSGA.”

The GSGA—the Graduate Student Governance Association—is the graduate student government body at UC, and Jelena serves as its president. The GSGA represents the entire UC graduate student community and strives to make the graduate student experience as beneficial as possible to students and the university, through acts of advocacy and inclusion. Jelena was first attracted to the organization because, as one can expect, graduate studies can feel isolating at times.

“I discovered that being a doctoral student could be quite an isolating experience. Naturally so, students tend to focus on their careers and their research and start living in their own academic ivory towers. In my first year, I learned about the GSGA and realized that this organization could serve as a bridge between students from different departments and programs, bring them together and make the UC experience more meaningful. Contributing to community building became my goal, and I wanted to do that as soon as possible.”

Before being elected as president, Jelena served as the GSGA Vice President for the 2017–18 academic year. In that role, Jelena organized the GSGA’s first Spring Ball. Having been inspired by her two years spent living in Vienna, a place where balls are a seasonal part of life, Jelena wanted to create something that celebrated inclusiveness, respect, and diversity in a formal, but fun way. The ball’s theme, “Around the World in One Campus,” did just that. As the official part of the program, Excellence Awards were presented to graduate student winners in recognition of their achievements in certain areas. Over 250 people attended the 2018 GSGA Spring Ball, the first time the organization has hosted any event of that nature, and the ball’s huge success is set to become a yearly occasion.

“The idea,” Jelena explains, “was to contribute to community building at UC, to shine light on successes and achievements of graduate students, and to do all that while giving to charity.”

But that’s not where her dreams for GSGA’s future stop. As the 2018–19 GSGA president, she hopes the organization will only continue growing, becoming bigger and better, all the while promoting the core values of spreading diversity, graduate student friendship, and respect.

“I am hoping that the GSGA will become more visible as an organization on campus. We represent over 11,000 graduate students, which is a large number. All of us on the executive board want to make sure that we serve our students the best we can. We want to create pathways for more graduate students to engage with us, we want to help increase access to UC resources to graduate students, and make the UC experience as enjoyable as possible. I am looking forward to working with students, faculty, and administration towards these ends. I would encourage students to learn about us through our website and through our social media.”

In the meantime, as you’d probably guess, Jelena plans on keeping busy. Her end goals consist of conducting policy-relevant research and utilizing the organizational skills she’s developed working for the GSGA—she says her dream job would be the head of a cyber-research center. But for now? She loves meeting new people, talking to old friends, playing tennis and talking about ideas, art, and architecture. Most of all, she’s dedicated to voracious learning, which goes back to her childhood.

“My mom made a point of taking me and my brother to the library even before we started first grade. One of my favorites is 1984 by George Orwell, because it tells a story of what happens when a state wants to control both how people behave and how they think, and what they say. It talks about a complete loss of freedom and privacy, and how dangerous and devastating that is. It’s a cautionary tale.”

Written by Danniah Daher, graduate assistant to the graduate school office

Faculty Highlights

Lauren Forbes, Assistant Professor and Award-Winning Scholar

For Professor Lauren Forbes and for many communities across the country, urban farming isn’t just a “hobby” or a way to use vacant lots – it’s a means of expanding fresh food access, community organizing, identity reclamation, and economic development.

Dr. Forbes joined SPIA in 2022 after finishing her doctorate at Georgia State University. Her dissertation is titled “Rooted Resistance: The Struggle for Black Liberation through Food Cultivation.” Focusing on Black-led urban farms in Atlanta, Detroit, and Portland, Dr. Forbes used a mix of interviews, surveys, and historical research to understand how city policy history shapes the present context of racial inequities in food access that Black-led urban farms challenge. “I also use mapping,” she says, “as issues of racial and social justice regularly follow distinct geospatial patterns.” In her research, Dr. Forbes found that urban farming can be a vehicle for building healing and resilience in marginalized communities – or it can “pose a major threat to marginalized communities by catalyzing displacement-based gentrification.” depending upon the composition of the farm’s leadership and the orientation of the farm’s central objectives towards racial justice or profitability.

The farms she studies have a rich history. She comments:

"Black urban farming in the U.S dates back at least as far as the Great Migration when Black people began arriving in Northern cities in large numbers to escape the Jim Crow South.  While urban agriculture has ebbed and flowed in mainstream popularity over the decades, Black and immigrant communities have consistently practiced urban farming and gardening as a survival strategy, using it to meet the nutritional needs of their communities and as a means of social connection, community organizing, and cultural preservation.  As was true in the past, many of today’s Black urban farmers are community activists and civic leaders at the forefront of social and racial justice movements."

Dr. Forbes’ research has received national attention. In 2024, the Urban Affairs Association selected her as the winner of its Alma H. Young Emerging Scholar Award. Quoting her nomination letter, the Association commented, “Her research is solution-oriented from the ground up.” Dr. Forbes’ research and interests, moreover, have spanned multiple themes and continents, from her Fulbright Scholarship in Ethiopia to her public health work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

As a core member of SPIA’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, Dr. Forbes sees a close connection between her research and teaching. UC’s MPA program is intentionally centered in social justice, and she and her colleagues train students to be courageous leaders that transform and improve public service.  She says:

"Public service and equity are at the core of both our MPA program and my research agenda. I have been able to create opportunities for many of our MPA students to gain professional experience through real world projects on behalf of community partners. For example, several of our MPA classes have developed policy recommendations for a local trauma-informed policymaking initiative and one of our recent graduates completed her capstone as an equity consultant on a food systems project for a county health department. I am always looking for opportunities like these to connect my research and teaching in ways that enable our students to step outside of their comfort zones and engage directly with community partners. This allows them to ground their training in real world experiences, and it benefits community partners who often lack capacity for research and evaluation."

Looking ahead, Dr. Forbes is tracking crucial developments at many levels, from federal policy (the reauthorization of the Farm Bill and the newly created Office of Urban Agriculture) to the local level (the growing trend of cities appointing urban agriculture directors) to the corporate sector (the pending merger of Kroger and Albertsons). She sees major opportunities for cities through local food systems, but is cautiously optimistic about the future:

"Local food systems—particularly those that are social and racial justice-oriented—  provide a unique opportunity for municipalities to address multiple, complex policy issues simultaneously.  To the extent that the public value they produce can be understood beyond profitability and the shared systemic causes of many public policy issues are understood, I believe that urban farming will play an increasingly important role in local affairs.  However, much depends on the outcome of the 2024 Farm Bill which is currently with the House Agriculture Committee.  Unfortunately, the current version of this bill reflects neither the interests of the communities and local food systems that I study nor the climate and justice concerns of much of the American public." 

Regardless of whether local governments chose to invest instrumentally in the work of Black urban farmers and the local food systems that they are part of, Dr. Forbes believes that cities will continue to be dependent upon their public contribution in more ways than one: “Strong local food systems are vital to the holistic wellbeing of cities and the nation.  The ongoing public challenges of rising food costs, erosion of SNAP benefits, and the climate crisis (driven largely by corporate agriculture practices) all highlight the importance of building and protecting local food systems.  Local governments, particularly cities and counties, can play a key role in this process through equitable resource allocation and urban agriculture zoning ordinances.

Andrew Lewis, Associate Professor of Political Science, Award-winning Author

At a moment when boundaries of religious rights are in conflict and prominent in American conversation, Andrew Lewis looks at perspectives often unconsidered.

Lewis, a University of Cincinnati political scientist and award-winning author, focuses his research on the nexus of American politics and religion and sees a potential shift in Christian conservative political strategies, especially for religious rights advocacy.

To get an accurate picture of hot-button religious freedom issues and their broad cultural implications, Lewis surveyed a random but equal sampling of 1,100 men, women, liberals and conservatives across all demographics and political affiliations in 2018. He presented the results of this research titled, “Reciprocity and the Politics of Religious Liberty in the U.S.” at the American Political Science Association conference in September.

“The primary objective was to understand whether the general public is more receptive to evangelicals’ claim for religious freedom exemptions if they see evangelicals supporting Muslims’ religious freedom exemptions,” says Lewis.

“As part of the survey, we presented the story of two Muslim truck drivers in a discrimination case. At the end of the story we asked participants to state whether they support the right of the truck drivers to refuse to deliver beer based on their religious beliefs or the company’s right to fire them.” 

Overall, Lewis found only 28 percent of participants indicated support for the Muslim men’s religious freedom claim while 48 percent claimed support for the business. The rest were unsure.

The way the results lined up, Lewis says, provide insight for current battles over religious freedom.

Religious liberty for all?

“Among the results there were clear partisan differences,” says Lewis. “While Democrats are still more likely to oppose religious freedom rights in general, they were much more supportive of those rights for the Muslim truck drivers than Republicans were.

“The takeaway here is that most of the movement toward increased tolerance for the Muslims was on the liberal left," adds Lewis.

More than a third of the support for the men’s religious freedom came from Democrats and only a quarter of the support from Republicans. 

Increased tolerance for all religious freedoms may critical for Republicans to consider going forward, Lewis says, if they want support for their own religious freedom rights.

As a result of his research, Lewis is considering a follow-up to his 2017 book “The Rights Turn in Christian Conservative Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars.” 

“As the cultural politics of religious freedom explodes, a portion of Americans, particularly white Christians, view their religious freedoms as threatened,” says Lewis.

“In fact, recent polls find that evangelicals now believe they face higher levels of discrimination than Muslims in the U.S., and Republicans see both whites and Christians facing more discrimination than blacks, immigrants and other minorities.”

Since evangelical Christian conservatives no longer view themselves as the moral majority, Lewis says they have turned to successful political tactics often adopted by the liberal left. Those strategies have worked.

One example involved the legal case of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell for religious exemptions for corporations, and another Supreme Court win required religious freedom claims to be respected when considering whether a Colorado baker had the right to refuse service for a same-sex marriage.

But does this mean religious freedom in this country is just for evangelical Christians who claim it or does the support of religious liberty apply more broadly?

Evolving perspectives

To look at the possible trajectory of religious liberty claims in the U.S., Lewis’ survey presented the case of two Muslim truck drivers in Illinois, who were suddenly required to deliver beer and alcohol on their trucks. The drivers refused based on their religion, which forbids drinking or working with alcohol, and were subsequently fired for not participating.

After claiming they should have been given accommodation for their religious views, the men took their case all the way through the court system. 

In fact, the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission actually supported these truck drivers and said they should have had more protection from being fired.

“What’s fun about this case is that it turns some of the traditional arguments on their head,” says Lewis. “Here you have a liberal who is asking for a religious exemption.”

Survey participants received the story with varying degrees of details. They either got the story by itself or a version with an addendum at the end of the story from either the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal advocacy group –– both wielding support for the men’s religious rights but from their own perspectives. 

Respondents were asked whether they support the truck drivers or the company. They were also asked whether they favor or oppose allowing a small business owner to refuse products or services to gay or lesbian customers if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

“Ultimately, we found it tough for Republicans to support the Muslim truck drivers no matter which story version they read. Even after their ADF allies supported the men, the Republicans weren’t willing to bend,” says Lewis. “Evangelical Christian conservatives, however, can become primed to be more supportive when they see the issue in comparison to the same-sex marriage exemptions.”

As he expected, Lewis found greater support for the truck drivers coming from liberals. What he found more remarkable, however, is how Democrats or liberals are less opposed to the Christian same-sex marriage exemptions once they see the issue through the perspective of the Muslims’ religious freedom case.

“So liberals are essentially saying, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about that in this context. It’s not just about the Christians, now it applies to all groups,’” says Lewis. "The implications of this finding for current politics is apparent."

"If Republicans want to garner support for religious freedom rights from the left and others outside evangelical Christian conservative groups, they may need to increase their tolerance for all religious freedoms.”

Inclusive solutions

When asked how they rank their favorite constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, religious freedom, protections against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom from discrimination and others, Republicans and evangelicals ranked religious freedom lower after reading about the Muslim case. Seeing the issue from the others’ point of view made them less supportive of that right, claims Lewis.

“While most of the increased tolerance was reflected on the left, Republicans and Independents basically stayed the same and were less willing to support the truck drivers’ religious freedoms, even though they were campaigning for the same rights,” says Lewis.

“In fact, when groups like the ACLU supported the Muslim religious freedoms, the right becomes less supportive of religious freedoms in general.”

“Going forward, it would be in the rights’ best interest to tie in the freedoms for all religions to gather more effective support from the left and those outside the evangelical Christian conservative groups,”asserts Lewis.

“While the religious freedom rights issue will get highly publicized and problematic in the upcoming election, a pluralistic solution where we tolerate other groups would be ideal and is possible — but difficult.”

Lewis’ award-winning book, “The Rights Turn in Christian Conservative Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars,” was recently announced as a finalist for the upcoming prestigious Digital Book World 2018 awards — which DBW bills as “the largest publishing awards program in the world.”


Dr. Anwar Mhajne 

Dr. Anwar Mhajne (UC Poli Sci PhD with a concentration in Feminist Comparative and International Politics, June 2019), Assistant Professor, Department Political Science and International Relations, Stonehill College was awarded the 2022 International Studies Association Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section Early Career Engagement Award.

Dr. Jelena Vićić

Directly after graduating from SPIA, Dr. Jelena Vićić (UC Poli Sci PhD, 2021), received a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at San Diego with its Center for Peace and Security Studies, and was a selected participant in the 2022 International Studies Association Committee on the Status of Women Pay It Forward Program.  Dr. Vićić is now an Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University. She is also a research collaborator at the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at UC - San Diego and Center for Cybersecurity Strategy and Policy (CCSP) at the University of Cincinnati. 

Dr. Crystal Whetstone

Dr. Crystal Whetstone (UC Poli Sci PhD with a concentration in Feminist Comparative and International Politics, June 2020), Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Sam Houston State University, has accepted a new position as an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey, starting Fall 2022. Read more about Dr. Whetstone's SPIA experience (formerly the Department of Political Science) .

Dr. Murat Yilmaz

Dr. Murat Yilmaz (UC Poli Sci PhD, June 2021) began as an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Kastamonu University in Turkey in Spring 2022.