Major Insight Episode 15 Using Empathy To Understand Religion and the Law

Reagan Brown

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While following her dream to become a criminal prosecutor, Reagan Brown has learned how to craft eloquent arguments, how to stand up for her beliefs, and how to keep cool in intense situations. As a comparative religion and psychology major, she has studied the controversial views of the Westboro Baptist Church during a faculty-led project designed to understand religious extremism. 

On this episode, Reagan also talks about the value of understanding different viewpoints, the power of empathy to change the world, and more

Featured Majors:

Comparative Religion, Psychology, Pre-Law

Featured Organizations:

Miami University Ohio Innocence Project

Parent Child Interaction Lab

Career Clusters:

Law and Government


Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

James Loy: Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

James Loy: While following her dream of becoming a criminal prosecutor, Reagan Brown has learned how to craft eloquent arguments, how to stand up for what she believes in, and how to keep her cool in intense situations. As a comparative religion and psychology double major, Reagan recently studied the controversial views of the Westboro Baptist Church while visiting their home in Kansas. She was also among the students to turn this ethnographic expedition into an ongoing faculty-led research project designed to better understand religious extremism. But for Reagan, this experience has been just one piece of the puzzle. And on this episode, she also talks with Major Insight host Peter Everett about the importance of understanding different viewpoints, finding her own sense of self, and about using empathy as a way to change the world.

Peter Everett: Hi Reagan. Welcome to the podcast.

Reagan Brown: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Peter Everett: Of course. Why don't you just let our audience know like what your major is, what your interests are. A little bit about you.

Reagan Brown: Sure. So my name's Reagan Brown. I'm a psychology and comparative religion double major. I'm currently in the midst of applying to law school, and I'm an RA on campus. I bartend up town, and I'm the president of the Innocence Project on campus. Oh yes, and I'm in a research lab. Shout out to a Dr. Harris. Also applying to law school this semester has been such a whirlwind, and it's so exciting determining the next three years of your life.

Peter Everett: That process easy? Hard? Applying to law school?

Reagan Brown: Stressful.

Peter Everett: Do you have any advice for incoming students if they're thinking about law school?

Reagan Brown: Thinking about law school?

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Reagan Brown: I guess there's different advice for each year. So freshman year I would say be weary of your freshmen friends and make sure that you don't get into anything crazy freshman year. I mean, keep those same morals, and college is very exciting but don't get wrapped up in the freedom. It's exhilarating, but also just make sure you have a good head on your shoulders because things will follow you. I've just seen that with other people who've gotten into little silly troubles freshman year. Focus on school and keeping that GPA, having a strong GPA to follow you throughout sophomore, junior, senior year, even from freshman year can really help.

Reagan Brown: I would say sophomore year try to dive into your major as much as possible. Sophomore year is a good year to determine the main things you'll be involved in in college and really dive deep into those so that when you are a junior and senior you can be president or you can have a paper that you've been working on now for three years. And it could be work as your honors thesis or something like that.

Reagan Brown: Junior year study for the LSAT, and study for it as hard as you can. Put everything into that. That's so important for admissions and then merit based scholarships. But on that same note, it is a standardized test and there's only so much you can do. So give it a good shot, do your best and then move on from it.

Reagan Brown: Senior year. Just try to keep everything together without falling apart. But I think just ultimately, I think for college, my advice for incoming freshmen is do what you're interested in. There's a way to find it, especially at Miami, to foster and encourage your passions. Miami is so small but so big. There's really a place for everyone and what they're interested in at Miami. And there's teachers who are passionate to help you at Miami, which is really the key.

Reagan Brown: I couldn't have done a lot of the things that I'm interested in without professors helping me on campus. Especially Dr. Hanges in the comparative religion department.

Peter Everett: Love him.

Reagan Brown: Yes. I mean, he's phenomenal. Who doesn't love him? But he really has helped me not only become the person I am today, but coming to him, we'll touch on that later probably, but with the Westboro Baptist project that I went on. He really made that happen, along with Dr. Gray, in the comparative religion department as well.

Peter Everett: So let's talk about a little about your student research now. So I'm just curious, how did you discover your interest in it? And maybe what just inspired you to pursue it?

Reagan Brown: So I originally came into Miami wanting to... My long term goal was to work internationally, maybe with the UN, possibly with the military working in counter terrorism. But then the more that I knew about myself in college and found out about myself, I despise traveling. I hate traveling. Airplanes, car rides, it doesn't do it for me. So working with the UN or something like that abroad really didn't seem something I wanted to do anymore. But that interest led me to taking religion 101 for my humanities credit, and in a religion 101, we studied the Westboro Baptist Church.

Peter Everett: I also took religion 101 with Dr. Gray. Shout out and I also had the same interests. So we ended up on the same research. So I just want everybody to know. And just so our audience can understand, why don't you just explain kind of exactly what Westboro Baptist Church is, if they don't know.

Reagan Brown: Okay, sure. So the Westboro Baptist Church is a very radical form of baptism, but they really are their own thing. Essentially they are really known for their hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, Muslims, soldiers, American soldiers, atheists, Catholics. I mean the list kind of goes on, but pretty much people know them from .... they hold signs with very shocking phrases and words. So that's mostly what I think many people would know them by.

Peter Everett: And you took a trip down to Westboro, correct?

Reagan Brown: Yes, I did.

Peter Everett: So what was that experience like and how did it change your perspective on things?

Reagan Brown: Yeah, so the experience was... It was only four days, but it felt pretty long just because even though we are trying to empathize with them and keep critical distance, an academic critical distance from them, it is hard to be around people who do say such shocking things. And as a friend of the LGBTQ+ community, a daughter of a veteran, friends of other people who are hated by this group, it can be emotionally draining to interview them. But I think being around people who have such a strong negative following and learning from them the reasons and motivations behind why they believe and do what they do, I mean, it really did open my eyes to the importance of motivation, the power behind religion and the power behind essentially group think, in a way.

Peter Everett: Absolutely. And just so everybody knows when we're talking about empathy here, we're not talking about sympathy. Sympathy is actually like emotionally supporting another group or another person, and we're not talking about... We're just trying to talking about trying to understand them as people. And when I think about empathy, I think the value of it being as, "Okay, if I can ..." especially of this particular project where we're studying such an extreme group. When you're able to empathize with someone and maybe just understand kind of where they're coming from, who's that extreme, then we'll be so much better equipped to empathize with, I don't know, your neighbor next door who has different political beliefs than you, or your roommate who has a different faith. I think that's where the value lies and where we can show people that, okay, everyone is a human being. Yes, they can hold extreme views. Yes, they can be hateful or that... But in the end they are humans. And then being able to truly empathize with other people is just such a valuable skill. Has that type of empathy and that ability maybe you developed on that trip, has that like helped you in other areas of your life?

Reagan Brown: I would say it definitely has. Empathy in my mind really helps us look at the world and how all of its individual parts function together and then influence people in their lives. So for example, I want to go into the legal field, I want to go into criminal prosecution. So I would say looking at why people do things, we can potentially change the reasons and help those people. So on a very I guess base simple level...

Reagan Brown: Here's a good example. I'll go way back to, for example, like bullying in elementary. Instead of villainizing this child, let's look ... why ... Why is he bullying or he or she bullying? What's causing... What's happening in their home life? Are they getting enough food? Are the teachers giving them enough attention in school? Do they have any mental illnesses that they're possibly grappling with in elementary? Having this empathetic view of, yeah, this is what's on the surface, but what's below all of that? What's happening? I think that empathy is the key to honestly changing the world. Understanding at the core why things happen can help us change things for the better. Maybe this child is dealing with depression. Let's grapple that, let's handle with that. And then see how his or her interpersonal relationships at school improve.

Peter Everett: So in other words, it's almost like a way to attack the core root of the problem.

Reagan Brown: Exactly. Yes. And I mean that-

Peter Everett: Versus like trying to battle the symptoms.

Reagan Brown: Exactly. Exactly. Perfect.

Peter Everett: So is there anything in particular about the current research that we're doing in class right now together, anything that's really exciting or stands out to you?

Reagan Brown: Honestly, as an outgoing senior, I think the most exciting thing is the legacy that myself and my peers are leaving behind. I mean, I went to my teacher my freshman year of college here at Miami and I was just interested in his research and I pretty much was like, "Hey, take me with you if you can." The next thing I knew I was awarded a grant. Again, shout out to the comparative religion department making dreams come true. And as a freshmen, first generation college student, I was doing my own research, helping a teacher who had never taken students before to the Westboro Baptist Church.

Reagan Brown: I also was able to pull in other students and have them join me on this experience. Then we were able to come back and give a talk to over 100 people on campus that next fall about our research. And this is all because I went to one professor to one department and had this idea of going and talking to these people who hold signs and say really shocking things. And now it's a capstone. It's an entire research workshop, and it's just... The sky's the limit at this point, especially to see a smaller department on campus come up to see the department thriving. It's amazing.

Peter Everett: And you can't argue with that right there. That's one hell of a legacy. I guess now that you're moving on, you've left this legacy, you've had such a successful undergraduate experience. What do you think your future career goals are other than like law school? I mean, more specifically, I guess, what type of law do you want to practice, and then how will your experience here really undergird that?

Reagan Brown: Yeah, so I do want to go into criminal prosecution as of right now. I've worked at the Franklin County prosecutor's office for the past... Ever since the December of my freshman year of college. So I would say possibly, I mean, if we want to go big here and dream large, I would say maybe running for judge one day and maybe running for office later in my life. It sounds almost silly to say out loud.

Peter Everett: No, not at all.

Reagan Brown: It's so ambitious, especially as a first generation college student and just coming up from just a really hardworking blue collar family. It's really incredible to even dream this big. It's scary, but it's exciting. So possibly running for office one day. Who knows where, when, how, what, whatever. But I would say that this research really kickstarted all of that for me and made it real in my mind - that I can come as a first generation to a university in a state that I'm not even from and start this research, have people believe in me, in my ability to act as an academic talking to these people, representing the university, and then gain all of these empathetic skills that really just, I think, solidified and fulfilled... Filled in the cracks of my worldview of dealing with and talking to people who are so different than you.

Reagan Brown: I think that honestly, that's what makes me confident and able to say that, hey, maybe I will run for office one day. I know that I'm a good leader because Miami has made me a good leader. It's brought out all of that in me that honestly I don't know another university could have. So just giving me the confidence, believing in me, helping me believe in myself, and I think making me the person and the leader that I am today. I don't feel as intimidated to dream as big.

Peter Everett: Absolutely incredible, Reagan. That might be one of the greatest success stories we've ever had on the podcast so far.

Reagan Brown: Oh well, thank you.

Peter Everett: That's exciting.

Reagan Brown: Thank you.

Peter Everett: And I don't think we can end on another note than that.

Reagan Brown: Okay. Well, hey Peter, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Peter Everett: Absolutely. Thank you for coming in. It's been awesome. You have a good one.

Reagan Brown: You too.

James Loy: Reagan Brown is a comparative religion and psychology double major at Miami. And after graduating this spring, she plans to follow her dream of becoming a criminal prosecutor.

James Loy: If you like this episode of Major Insight, please share it with a friend, with students, or with anyone who hopes to make an impact on their world. You can find more episodes for free, including episodes of our Reframe Podcast right now on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify or wherever you listen.


Featured Majors: 

Comparative Religion, Psychology, Pre-Law

Featured Organizations:

Miami University Ohio Innocence Project

Parent Child Interaction Lab

Career Clusters:

Law and Government