This is the second entry of the blog series about my latest book – So Many Christians, So Few Lions – Christianophobia in the United States. I waited until the book was officially out before posting as I anticipated that it will be a little more controversial than my previous entry. Readers can look to the book for a fuller explanation and for more evidence of the processes I will discuss. Last time I looked at contours of the basic animosity towards conservative Christians in the United States. This time, I qualitatively explore the nature of the worst of such attitudes. For those of you who have not read my first entry, I defined Christianophobia as unreasonable hatred or fear of Christians.
I have established that those with animosity towards conservative Christians tend to have more per-capita social power than those with animosity towards other religiously based groups. They are more likely to be white, educated and wealthy. The education advantage creates a unique dimension in this group as one may contend that highly educated individuals are unlikely to engage in unreasonable level of hatred or anger. The common social image we have of highly educated people is that they are measured and tolerant. This is why merely documenting that animosity towards conservative Christians is fairly common is insufficient for producing evidence that this animosity is unreasonable hatred or fear. To assess whether generalized animosity towards conservative Christians can lead to what I have defined as Christianophobia, we need qualitative data whereby those who have this hostility are allowed to express their potential animosity.
My previous research allows me to possess such data. That research was the examination of cultural progressive activists conducted by David Williamson and myself. I wrote about that study in an earlier blog. In that research, we asked our respondents to fill out an online survey with open-ended questions. The questions dealt with their attitudes towards the Christian right. However, for many of the respondents, it was clear that they were also exhibiting attitudes towards Christians in general. Indeed several respondents commented that there was no difference between Christians and political conservatives. We also replicated our thermometer technique used with the American National Election Studies data so that our final sample only contained individuals who would have been found to have had anti-Christian animosity in our original quantitative sample. We used a series of “liking” thermometers for a variety of religious groups and evaluated if Christian fundamentalists were scored a standard deviation below the average of those thermometers. Those that did were coded as possessing animosity towards conservative Christians. Our original sample contained 2,859 respondents who filled out at least one of the open ended questions, but the final sample included 2,061 respondents, or 72.8 percent, who qualified by indicating anti-fundamentalist animosity with our thermometer measure.
Since this is a qualitative sample, it is fair to ask whether our results can provide generalizable information. But I have already demonstrated with a probability sample that this type of general animosity towards conservative Christians is quite common. I also showed that those with this animosity tend to be white, educated and wealthy. Our sample also was disproportionately white, educated and wealthy. So the sample can be used to do what qualitative work is supposed to do and go more in-depth to understand the nuances and perspectives of those with animosity towards conservative Christians.
Since Christianophobia concerns having unreasonable hatred, fear and/or anger towards conservative Christians, the first order of business is to assess if this can characterize a significant number of comments by the respondents. Perhaps the negative emotions they exhibit are due to a reasonable assessment of the failures of conservative Christians. Many of these respondents did talk about concerns that I and other Christians have enunciated previously about conservative Christians. Thus, it is inaccurate to assert that the comments of the respondents were devoid of any reasonable content.
However, I now must confess about why I named the book So Many Christians, So Few Lions. When I looked over the comments of the respondents, several respondents made comments about lions in some form or fashion that implied the desirability of feeding Christians to lions. Even as a joke, it is indeed a sick joke and the sickness of the joke is illustrated if we consider how Jews would feel about jokes of having them put into ovens. When I went back and counted how many times lion references occurred, I found that it happened seven times. Okay, this is more than once or twice, but it is not an overwhelming amount. Perhaps if those were the only times of an expression of an unreasonable hatred, I could let that go. But alas, this was not the case. Here are three examples of other expressions of such hate:
I want them all to die in a fire. (Male, aged 26-35 with Doctorate)
They should be eradicated without hesitation or remorse. Their only purpose is to damage and inflict their fundamentalist virus onto everyone they come in contact with. (Female, aged 66-75 with Master degree)
They make me a believer in eugenics….They pollute good air…I would be in favor of establishing a state for them… If not, then sterilize them so they can’t breed more. (Male, aged 46-55 with Master degree)
These are only a few of the responses that I found quite distasteful. If they are not enough evidence, then one can read more in the first chapter of my book. If the number of comments in the book does not convince one of unreasonable hatred, the data can be located at the ARDA website. People of good will can disagree with conservative Christians on issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, church/state separation, religious freedom etc. But these comments are indefensible and an excellent illustration of an unreasonable level of animosity. Thus, the term Christianophobia applies to at least some of my respondents.
Some respondents have an unreasonable hatred, fear and/or anger towards Christians. But how do these emotions manifest themselves in my respondents in ways that differ from other populations? Since the population that tends to have Christianophobia have progressive social and political proclivities, it is possible that these qualities negate their ability to develop many of the socio-psychological dysfunctions we see with other types of out-group hatreds. In the book, I discuss elements of dehumanization, prejudice, bigotry and hatred within these comments. Space does not permit me to go into depth on any of these qualities. However, I will partially illustrate one of these qualities – dehumanization – to better show how animosity among those with Christianophobia can manifest itself.
Several researchers and social thinkers have written about dehumanization. But the best conceptualization of dehumanization comes from Nick Haslem. He identified two types of dehumanization: animalistic and mechanical. A cursory reading of the answers from the respondents indicates that animalistic dehumanization fits their responses better than mechanical dehumanization. He identified five qualities of animalistic dehumanization – lack of culture instead of civility, coarseness instead of refinement, amorality instead of moral sensibility, irrationality instead of logic and childlikeness instead of maturity.
I do not have the space to explore all five of these qualities within the answers of my respondents (I did such an exploration in the book). But I will look at the last characteristic which is the notion that Christians are childlike instead of mature. Indeed my respondents tended to paint a picture of Christians being immature individuals led by powerful, manipulative leaders.
The leaders are deceptive and power hungry individuals who invoke “God” in a political sense to rally their supporters…They play to people’s emotions, daily. (Female, aged 26-35 with Bachelor degree)
Their movement’s leaders are the worst type of manipulative authoritarian scum and their millions of followers are sad, weak people who are all too willing to give up their self-respect and liberty for a fantasy. (Male, aged 26-35 with Bachelor degree)
In this way the respondents take away the agency of Christians by suggesting that they are weak individuals unable to resist the desires of evil leaders. Rather the respondents support an image of Christians as being children misled by bad parents.
This type of stereotyping fits quite well with some of the insults that my respondents used in describing Christians. For example, some variation of the term “brainwash” came up 137 times, from 125 respondents. Almost every time the term was used, it was to note the inability of Christians to think for themselves. For example, a female, aged 56-65 with a bachelor degree wrote, “I believe that this group is in general poorly educated and often brainwashed to the point of seeing no perspective but their own. Many allow themselves to become tools of charismatic, self serving leaders because they have been deprived of the education and tools to ever think otherwise.” This respondent, like many other respondents, have a stereotype of Christians reflecting them as unthinking imbeciles. It is a dehumanizing stereotype creating an image of Christians as not having full human capacities.
Beyond the notion of brainwashing, 66 of our respondents use the terms sheep and 5 of our respondents used the term lemmings to describe Christians as well.
…they’re lemmings that despite factual evidence to the contrary, will usually follow the guidance of their pastors and church leaders. (Male, aged 36-45 with Doctorate)
A gullible group of poorly educated dupes, willing to allow themselves to be herded like sheep, to be shorn or slaughtered by unscrupulous con men wearing clerical garb. (Male, aged 56-65 with some graduate school)
These numbers seem low considering that I have a sample of almost three thousand respondents; however, it should be noted that these comments comparing Christians to animals are unprompted. (It is also instructive to consider which terms were not used at all. For example, ape or gorilla was not used by any of the respondents to describe conservative Christians.) Closed ended questions providing respondents with the opportunity to characterize conservative Christians in animalistic terms would likely garner a nontrivial level of support. The comments about Christians as passive animals, combined with the relative willingness of the respondents to use the term brainwashed, occur often enough to provide some confidence that characterizations of Christians as unthinking passive followers are accepted within subcultures with high levels of Christianophobic animosity. If there is any doubt that there is an animalistic element to the type of dehumanizing occurring among my respondents, the use of these animals clearly indicates that Christians are not always seen as human. Obviously what lemmings and sheep have in common is that they are animals that easily follow a leader. This is different from the dehumanization of minority racial groups as vicious animals, and there are distinct aspects of how conservative Christians are dehumanized relative to minority racial groups. Racial minorities are perceived as physically dangerous by those who dehumanize them while conservative Christian are perceived as mindless non-thinkers by those that dehumanize them. However, the use of animals to describe humans is dehumanization nonetheless.
These responses, along with the other qualities of dehumanization found among the respondents, indicate that a significant percentage of them generally perceive conservative Christians as a set of negative characteristics instead of as fully formed humans. Furthermore, the data also indicates powerful patterns of anti-Christian hatred, bigotry and prejudice among my respondents. In my data set, I found that those who are most likely to have strong hostility towards conservative Christians also tend to have relatively few conservative Christians in their social networks. Previous research suggests that intergroup contact tends to encourage humanization of members of social out-groups. My data does not allow me to accurately assess all of the sources of Christianophobia; however, it appears that a lack of contact with conservative Christians is part of the source of this phenomenon. This lack of contact would explain the ease by which many of these respondents were able to develop unflattering caricatures. This is not likely the only explanation and ideally future research will further explore the sources of Christianophobia.
So now what do we know? The information in the first blog informed us that there is a significant minority of relatively powerful individuals who have anti-Christian animosity. In this blog entry we learned that many of them have an unreasonable hostility towards conservative Christians. The joking about putting Christians to death combined with the willingness to dehumanize Christians speaks to a propensity of these individuals to devalue Christians. This sort of devaluation can precede some of the worst treatment of out-group members in human history. But we cannot assume the inevitability of such treatment unless we have more than unpleasant comments. Furthermore, those with these attitudes towards conservative Christians tend to be well-educated, supporting notions of multicultural and tolerance. These qualities may ameliorate their willingness to convert their animosity into public or private actions that disproportionately punish Christians. This research can only document the attitudes of the respondents and not their actions. However, we did ask the respondents about what measures they would like to use to control conservative Christians. That information, combined with the results of other research and informed speculation, leads to my assessment of the possible implications of Christianophobia. That assessment will be the focus of my last entry in this blog series.