Are University Professors Prejudiced against Evangelical Christians?

Here are some rather disturbing data from a study university professors in the United States. This study, conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research of 1,269 college faculty members. Faculty were asked: “What are your overall feelings toward the following groups using a scale of 0-100, which goes from 100, very warm or favorable feeling, to 50, neutral, to 0, very cold or unfavorable?” Which religious group do college faculty feel most unfavorable toward? Evangelical Christians… by a lot. Here’s a graph of the results:

What are the implications of this finding?

1) Double-standard. It indicates a double-standard regarding tolerance and diversity and academia. Imagine the outcry if so many professors disfavored other religious groups, such as Jews or Muslims? What if the same was said about other groups: gays, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled. I’m not saying that Evangelicals face more prejudice than these other groups in society in general, but rather prejudice against evangelicals is widely accepted in academia. In fact, when asked about these findings, a union representative defended this unfavorable posture as cultural resistance, not prejudice. (BTW, “cultural resistance” is highly valued in academia, ironic given our central place in the formation of culture). I can’t imagine any professors arguing for “cultural resistance” against any of the other groups listed above.

2) Prejudice vs. discrimination? Does this mean that the unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals gets translated into unfavorable treatment of them in the classroom? Probably. Central to studies of social psychology is the link between attitudes and behavior. It’s not a perfect correlation and its strength varies by personal, situational, and attitudinal factors, but it is usually there. In a sense, though, it doesn’t matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice. These attitudes based on race are called racism, based on ism, against Jews antisemitism… all bad things.

3) Students’ response. There’s an old quip that “it’s not paranoia if people are really out to get you,” and some of that is going on here. I have long noted the discomfort many evangelical students feel in expressing their worldview in the classroom. Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word “Jesus” in any context other than swearing. The unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals held by a majority of professors suggests that this stifling of expression is perhaps understandably given professors’ power in the classroom.

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  • Jay Egenes

    I note that the people within a group didn’t rate themselves. For example, Mormons don’t rate Mormons, atheists don’t atheists. Does the study give a breakdown of how many professors identify with which religious (or non-religious) group?

    • Bradley Wright

      I don’t think so…

  • Jay Egenes

    So I found the answers to my questions in the linked publication. A majority of faculty identify self as Christian, but only about 10% identify as evangelicals. How does this affect the greater point? Does it make it actually more pronounced? Or less, since only 47.7% (.53 x .9) of faculty actually have this negative view?

    How does the skewing of professors across religious groups affect the findings as a whole of the study?

    • Bradley Wright

      What would be most interesting would be to look at the views of the faculty by their own religious affiliation. Makes sense that professors would be more negative towards evangelicals since they are also less likely to be. But also, I would guess that non-Christian professors are more negative than non-Christian non-Professors.

  • ProfYancey

    This confirms my own research on the matter. In my book “Compromising Scholarship” I looked beyond prejudice into what professors “say” they will do. It is not surprising that the groups they say they will be less willing to hire are fundemenatalist and evangelicals. Even more than Republicans, academics do not want conservative Protestants as co-workers. So these findings are not surprising. Finding a way to change academic bias in light of these findings is going to be a tough challenge.

    • Bradley Wright

      Hello George,

      Actually, your work makes a much more definitive statement, and it’s something I would love to see on the blog in the future.


  • Tony Gill

    Well, is it any suprise that we see this result. Wouldn’t you be freaked out if you had a regular colleague with big hair who always wore a polyester leisure suit and was handling snakes during faculty meetings? Plus, all that thumpin’ of the Bible could only annoy your colleagues in the neighboring offices who are trying to get some sleep!

    (Did I cover all the stereotypes?)

  • ProfYancey

    Okay Brad. My next blog in B,W and G will be on that book.

  • Tara

    I was a student and then faculty for a short time at the Education School at Harvard, a bastion of secular, liberal thinking. And my experience was that, while many professors had a negative opinion of orthodox Christianity, they were always very open to critical feedback and often changed their mind – not to belief in Christianity but to a belief that a reasonable person could believe this. On two occasions, I even convinced professors to change the syllabus when activities or articles were not simply promoting another worldview, but doing it in a way that was illogical and bordering on offensive.

    Quite honestly, my biggest problem was with my fellow Evangelicals, both when I was a student and when I was teaching. Their thinking was often shallow, and their understanding of their own faith was weak. When they went to to offer a critique of what was being said in class, it made no sense. Other times, they blindly affirmed what was being said without realizing that it was in direct contrast to what we say we believe.

    I’m far more worried about our own weaknesses in the academy than I am about the weaknesses of our non-believing colleagues.

    • Jprs

      Thanks for this comment. Evangelicals often distance themselves from (the norms and values of) academia in rough proportion to the inverse, in my experience…

  • Dave C.

    This is the time for EVANGELICALS to be the “church!” They can now live the reality of Post-Christendom and have the experience of the early such as the Book of Acts. The parousia may or may not come. I see no problem here for genuine disciples of Christ who are called to carry their crosses.

  • James Kim

    Have I experienced discrimination as a college student for openly espousing my views as a Christian on a liberal campus? Not really. Now that I think of it most of my professors actually enjoyed being able to converse intellectually with someone from a different worldview. Even when we did not agree. If you are able to state your views cogently, there is appreciation in the scholarly world. Because fundamentalism and some forms of evangelicalism began as anti-intellectual movements, it is not surprising to me that outsiders–especially those engaged in the world of scholarship–often view us negatively.

    Just recently, walking into my church with an Oxford Study Bible in hand, one of the elders approached and said that ‘bible’ is going to ruin your faith! I say we ought to have more faith in God!

    Incidentally, the first two sentences on this blog are almost illegible…

  • Clinton E. Cochrane

    Going to a christian university (that turned me athirst) I experienced the same thing. Being a half jew that did not believe in Jesus got me kicked out of school. And it is not like I went in not believing, but around my 1st semester I started questioning, then eventually I publicly proclaimed it and they gave me the boot despite me attempting to get back in touch with god. So Religious institutions are just as closed minded, if not worse.

  • Karl Udy

    I notice that the categories with the highest negative impression are those that are generally more forthright about their beliefs. I have a feeling that the negative impression is probably more a factor of professors (perhaps like all of us) not being comfortable having their views challenged.

  • Christopher Smith

    Professors (like smart people in general) are prejudiced against uncritical thinking. And frankly, college professors in the United States probably hear nonsensical ideas espoused more often and with more fervor by evangelical Christians than any other group. I suspect that if you asked a follow-up question about how frequently they hear students from each group espouse nonsensical ideas, this response would correlate closely with the unfavorability rating.

  • Tim

    It seems to me that the authentic Christian response would be self-examination (i.e. what have we as evangelicals done to cause those outside the faith to view us so negatively) rather than to complain about a “double standard.” (I recall Jesus saying something about planks and specks.)

    Why not consider the possibility that the problem lies with evangelicals? Are those associated with the movement so perfect that this is beyond the realm of possibility?

    The fact that those of the Mormon persuasion are viewed less negatively–by a full twenty points, mind you–suggests that the evangelicals are at least partially to blame. How else do you explain this discrepancy? Bias? Is the LDS any closer to secular academics on issues of abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality, race, the supernatural, or anything else?

    Sorry to be such a negative Nellie, but the defensive response seen here (and elsewhere) demonstrates everything that is wrong with the modern evangelical movement…and, I fear, will spell its extinction if not remedied soon.

    • Bradley Wright

      Tim, I would agree with your second point… that we should worry about our own attitudes toward others. After all, we’re called to love them, and we’re not doing this as long as we dislike others.

      I completely disagree with your first point, however. Stereotypes and prejudice are bad and not easily extinguished with countering data. To illustrate my thinking, let’s take another type of prejudice–racial prejudice. Suppose some racial group is viewed as criminals (or terrorists or pick your negative label). Would you tell them to 1) not complain about the stereotype and 2) stop acting like such criminals? I would hope not, but that’s the very approach Evangelicals take toward themselves.

      • Tim

        Brad: you are correct that I would not tell racial minorities to stop complaining about prejudice or suggest that they stop acting like criminals (or to stop wearing hoodies, while we’re at it). But I am not at all convinced that equating racial prejudice to college faculty’s lack of “warm” feelings to evangelicals is justified. And simply asserting the equivalence does not make it so.

        We have over 200 years of history documenting systematic exclusion of racial minorities in this country (both legal and de facto) from nearly every important institution in America: political, social, economic, and cultural. We have statistically-significant data showing that racial minorities still suffer tangibly from this discrimination.

        In contrast, I have seen no studies that demonstrate evangelicals have have been systematically excluded from participating in mainstream American society. In fact, in some areas (especially politics) it seems that evangelicals hold a disproportionate influence to their numbers. Evangelicals have not suffered adverse consequences as a result of systematic discrimination (economically, in access to education, in political participation, or in the wide distribution of their cultural products). I have not heard of evangelicals having difficulty hailing a cab, being shot because their cell phone was mistaken for a gun, or being targeted for police harassment because of their religious beliefs. Neither are evangelicals paid less for doing equivalent work to non-evangelicals or prevented from being married because of their religious orientation.

        The academic ambivalence to evangelicals seems obvious to me when you consider the rhetoric of the the largest and most prominent representatives of evangelicalism: white conservative Republicans. The same group that wants to be treated as an oppressed minority also loudly proclaims themselves to be part of the “moral majority.” They argue that the US was founded as a “Christian” nation (by which they mean a conservative evangelical nation, since liberals are not “real” Christians). A secular elite is “destroying our country” and “we need to take our country back.” Why would such rhetoric cultivate “warm” feelings? You and I know that evangelicalism is more complicated than the “religious right,” but since no major evangelical group has repudiated this rhetoric (at least to my knowledge), can we blame non-evangelicals for conflating the two? Most faculty are not mocking evangelicals at Manhattan dinner parties, they are living in the South and Midwest, reading their local papers’ “letters to the editor” section and feeling very much alone and embattled.

        Having “cold” feelings toward a group can certainly be the result of prejudice, but it can be caused by other things as well. One would not have warm feelings for a bully, for example. And since I have seen no empirical evidence to suggest tangible effects of “prejudice” against evangelicals, I’m simply asking you-all to *consider* (not accept, or assume) that evangelicals might themselves be *part* of the cause. It is this inability to do this (i.e. your rejection of my “first” part) that impedes any substantial progress in the second, and will in the end, I fear, result in the demise of your movement–and in the process damage the broader Christian community of which I am a part.

        I write this as a (now) non-evangelical Christian who would rate himself as having generally “warm” feelings towards evangelicals, so I’m hoping you will take this in the spirit with which it is written. Exercise empathy; look at your movement as an outsider would. Don’t be so quick to assume the worst of those who might not have “warm” feelings toward evangelicals. Consider the historical record of evangelical privilege in America (David Sehat’s recent book is a good place to start), the evangelical track record on (in)tolerance, and its continuing difficulty in negotiating a multicultural society.

        I’m certainly not trying to pick a fight. I just think that the “evangelical-as-oppressed-minority” meme distorts more than it enlightens.

  • Dan Myers

    Hi Brad,

    This is very interesting, even if not totally unexpected. However, a couple of questions pop to mind. One is whether this is prejudice or mutual enmity. I wonder if evangelicals don’t have a similar distaste for the stereotypical professor (present company excepted, of course!). If that is the case, one wonders about the history of how that mutual ill will developed. As I wonder about that, I also wonder whether the warm/cold scale really reveals what we typically think of as prejudice. After all, some who claim the label evangelical have not be shy about attacking what they see as a liberal/radical/hostile professorate. Jews and Buddhists as groups (the other end of the scale) do not have that history with American professor.

    • Bradley Wright

      Interesting about casting it as group conflict… hadn’t really thought about the mutual aspect of it.