Symbolic Hostility as an Explanation of Anti-Christian Expression

I recently came across an article about a lawsuit based on anti-Christian discrimination. I do not know the details of Brandon Jenkins’ case and am willing to wait to see the details of it before passing judgment on the Community College of Baltimore County. I have stated in an earlier blog that those with anti-Christian bias generally do not discriminate against Christians explicitly due to their faith. I stand by that assertion. Yet I am not convinced that the Jenkins lawsuit is a case of “crying wolf.” There are elements in this lawsuit that strike me as a plausible case of anti-religious discrimination. As such, I want to take advantage of this case to further look at how anti-Christian animosity can manifest itself.
According to Mr. Jenkins the only thing he said was that God was the most important thing to him and that statement was in direct response to a question asked to him about what is most important in his life. Additionally, Mr. Jenkins’ letters of reference contain information about his religious faith although the amount of emphasis given to his faith is unknown to those of us who have not seen the letters. In a letter responding to Mr. Jenkins’ inquiry, it was suggested that “this field is not the place for religion.” According to Mr. Jenkins, this was tantamount to religious discrimination as he believes that his Christian faith was part of the reason for his rejection. The administration argues that his religion was not a factor for why he was rejected, but it was the fact that he had an external motivation for pursing this degree. The college prefers that students have an internal motivation driving them to succeed rather than external motivation such as God, one’s family or one’s culture. This type of motivation combined with other possible shortcomings of the student is stated to be the reason for the student’s rejection.
I do not know the details of the case, but it is more believable to me that this may be a case of religious discrimination than the way the atheist professor portrayed religious discrimination in “God’s Not Dead”. It is believable to me that the administrators do not like Christians. My previous work has documented an anti-Christian bias in academia, and mistrust of Christians is likely common among those working in higher education. But those in higher education have a relatively lower willingness to think of themselves as intolerant. Part of their social identity is likely based on the fiction that they are unbiased. So they are inhibited on acting on their religious prejudice unless they can “cover” that prejudice with a nonbigoted reason. An explanation of not desiring students with external motivations can provide such a cover.
In the study of race and ethnicity, there is a theory that helps explain how this happens in a racial context. This theory, known as symbolic racism, is based upon the reality that individuals in contemporary society generally do not want to be seen as racist, but racist feelings and ideas still exist. If a person has racist feelings and ideas, there are sufficient incentives for him/her to hide them. So on issues where there are only racial components, such individuals will exhibit the same attitudes as non-racist individuals. Thus if we ask such individuals whether Hispanic-Americans should be allowed to live wherever they want, then those individuals are likely to reply in the affirmative. To state otherwise is to state an opinion that is clearly racist as this is a question with only racial components. But if such individuals have anti-Hispanic bias then that prejudice can come out in issues with both racial and nonracial components. On immigration issues, that person can argue for tough sanctions since there are non-racist reasons for wanting more control of our borders. The issue of immigration becomes a “symbolic” issue in which those with anti-Hispanic hatred can express that hatred in hidden ways.
Symbolic racism has made it a lot tougher for academics to document the real level of racism in society. Those who use symbolic issues to exhibit their prejudice will not reveal their prejudice except in questions where they can find a non-racial reason for their response. Since we cannot read minds, it becomes impossible for us to determine whether their answers to our questions are driven by animosity or by the non-racist reasoning connected to that answer.
It seems likely that individuals expressing their racism in symbolic ways on political issues would also express that racism in interpersonal relationships or in the course of their daily duties. Thus, I would not be surprised if the same person who uses the issue of immigration to express anti-Hispanic prejudice would also attempt to use his/her institutional power to inhibit the advancement of individual Hispanic-Americans in his/her life if that prejudice can be hidden. For example, if this person is hiring manager of an organization, then he/she may look for reasons not to hire Hispanic-Americans. If a specific Hispanic-American is clearly the best candidate for a position then the hiring manager may have to hire that Hispanic-American or otherwise be exposed as a racist. But in situation where that manager can justify not hiring that Hispanic-American then the manager will use that reason to avoid the hire because of his/her anti-Hispanic bias.
In this light we can see that elements buttressing symbolic racism can apply to expressions of anti-Christian animosity. Those of higher education have more awareness of the social sanctions awaiting those seen as having anti-religious bigotry. Part of their social identity is the belief they are tolerant. Yet anti-Christian animosity among academics is real. One would expect that anti-Christian animosity to most likely be exhibited on issues where that hostility can be hidden by rationales not directly tied to anti-religious prejudice.
One can imagine political and social issues where there are religious and non-religious components. A combination of anti-Christian animosity and the desire to hide that animosity would help us to predict the way individuals who symbolically express that animosity would react to such issues. But consideration of how symbolic hostility may influence issues affecting Christians is a topic for another day. Perhaps in a future blog entry, I will explore one or more of those issues. The Jenkins’ case is more akin to the anti-Hispanic hiring manager who will hire Hispanics if he/she must, but is eager to find “legitimate” reasons to avoid hiring Hispanics. In the Jenkins’ case it is quite possible that some of the administrators have anti-Christian perspectives and see the reason of external justification as a way to symbolically express this animosity.
Of course there is no way to prove that such symbolic hostility is at play. That is the point of expressing animosity on symbolic issues. It allows the perpetrators of hostilities to justify their animosity towards selected out-groups. That is why we cannot prove racism when individuals take political and/or social positions contrary to the interest of people of color, even when we suspect that racism is at play. So if we cannot prove that symbolic hostility then how should we think of the actions of the administrators? I prefer to take people at their word and so when the administrators tell us that they are not motivated by anti-religious prejudice, I want to believe them. However, I also do not want to be naïve. So I ask this simple question: How much has the reason of external versus internal motivation been used in the past to deny students entrance into their program? If there is a clear pattern of rejecting students because they talk about wanting to succeed due to non-religious external motivations such as family, friends etc. then we have more reason to believe the administrators. However, if external motivation is generally only used as it concerns religious motivations then one is well advised to suspect that symbolic hostility is at play. I do not have access to the data that would inform me about the reasoning behind the rejections the college has made in the past, and so I stay agnostic as to whether the Jenkins’ case is the result of anti-Christian bias. However, I cannot dismiss the possible veracity of this situation in the way I did with the movie “God’s Not Dead.”
If the argument of external motivations has only been used to negate the applications of Christian candidates then we can see an important implication of symbolic hostility. Those with anti-Christian hostility have a seemingly non-bigoted reason to discriminate against those with faith. An ideology can be forwarded that external, especially religiously external, motivations are harmful to the potential success of a student. (For the record, I fail to see how external motivations are less valuable than internal motivations but I have not looked into the research on this subject. If internal and external motivations are equally effective in motivating students then there is even more evidence that concern for motivations is not the real reason for rejecting religious candidates.) Of course those who are not religious will not be rejected with such an ideology since they will not utilize religious motivations to justify their application to the program. So even though the rationale of internal motivations seems to be a fair evaluation criterion, the way this rationale is operationalized can have a disproportionate effect on the religious out-groups of the college administrators. This disparate impact is the hallmark of how symbolic hostility operates.
I mentioned in the last blog that it was important for Christians to accurately assess how anti-religious bias may affect them. Too many Christians in the United States are overly eager to make claims of persecution where it does not exist. Movies such as “God’s not Dead” portray an unsophisticated base anti-Christian bias that rarely exists in American society. When Christians create strawmen representations of anti-Christian prejudice, they set up an environment where real Christian prejudice can be masked by the use of measures and rules with a disparate impact on Christians. If we only look for overt expressions of anti-Christian prejudice then more subtle versions of that animosity can easily go unnoticed.
Future details of the Jenkins’ case may tell us if this is a legitimate case of anti-Christian prejudice or if Jenkins is the victim of a rule that may or may not be fair but is not motivated by religious animosity. Nonetheless, it is prudent to keep in mind the symbolic nature of anti-Christian animosity as such cases will continue to come up. Understanding this nature also helps us to see how anti-Christian animosity, and possible bigotry, can play itself out in other situations in our society. Developing a more sophisticated understanding of that animosity is a better way to combat this anti-religion intolerance than overhyping an image of a crude prejudice that rarely exists.

Was Opposition to Interracial Marriage Motivated by Christianity?

A good deal of the controversy over same-sex marriage has been linked to the comparison of it to interracial marriage. Merely perusing the articles, comments and debates reveals that many believe that same-sex marriage today is what interracial marriage was in the past. That may be. But one argument in particular that has caught my attention is that just as Christianity is the major force opposing same-sex marriage today, it was the major force opposing interracial marriage in the past. The implication of this argument is that just as today there are few people, religious or otherwise, who oppose interracial marriage that in the future this will be the same as we realize that the same religious foolishness that opposed interracial marriages will be recognized as foolishness in the same-sex marriage debate. When I used to do research on interracial marriage, I read a good number of academic books on the history of interracial marriage. Somehow I did not remember the historians making this argument. But it had been a while since I had opened those books and so I decided to go back and take a look.

First, is the book Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America by Renee Romano. She mentions that those concerned with racial purity often framed their opposition in terms of Christian beliefs. However, not all whites shared the view that intermarriage violated Christian beliefs. Romano goes on to say that opposition to intermarriage was motivated less by religious beliefs and more by a fear about the consequences of seeing blacks as social equals. In the balance of her book, Christianity is mentioned sporadically and generally as a description of some who supported interracial marriage. Romano does not provide an argument that religion is the main motivator of anti-miscegenation.

The next book I looked at is Tell the Church I Love my Wife: Race, Marriage and Law – An American History by Peter Wallenstein. Christianity and religions come up in several places in the book. Sometimes it refers to ways Christians oppose interracial marriage. For example, President Truman articulated that he believed that interracial marriage was inconsistent with the Bible. However, Wallenstein also pointed out how religion was used to challenge interracial marriage such as in the 1960s when various religious figures enunciated an opposition to bans of interracial marriage. Reading this book does not provide one with the sense that Christianity was an overwhelming factor in opposition to interracial marriage. It is fair to say that Christians historically may have more opposition than support for interracial marriage but at best it was one of many sources of support of anti-miscegenation, and not a core source since some Christians were motivated by their religious beliefs to support interracial marriage.

My examination of Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance by Rachel Moran proved to be quite frustrating. I searched the index in vain for references to religion, Christianity, Catholics etc. As I thumbed through the book, it seemed that there was more of a focus on notions of racial purity but very little, if any, on religious regulation of interracial marriage. It is quite possible that Moran says something about the role of religion that I missed, since I did not review the book word by word, but it is quite clear that Moran is not making an argument that Christianity is the main factor in the resistance to interracial marriage. If she made such an argument, it would have been much easier to find examples of such in her book.

White Woman, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th-Century South by Martha Hodes looked at a phenomenon of white women marrying black men soon after the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction in our country. Perhaps this is not the best book for me to examine since Hodes does not focus as much on discrimination as other historians. She does mention the Catholic community in the wedding of Irish Nell and Negro Charles, but otherwise there is not much on religion in her work. There is not much about Christianity, or even religion in general, in her work.

So far my survey of books that pay significant attention to the history of interracial marriage has not provided much information on the role of Christianity on the attempts to ban interracial marriage. For these books the most that can be said is Christianity is a peripheral element in the resistance to interracial marriage. But now I turned to two books where there is much more attention paid to the religious dynamics in interracial marriage. The first book that does so is Marriage in Black and White by Joseph Washington Jr. He devotes a chapter looking at the influence of religion on the question of anti-miscegenation.

Washington looks at different religious groups as it concerns interracial coupling. He does not merely look at Christians but also looks at the issues of Jews. For Jews this issue is not as much an opposition to interracial marriage as much as it is an opposition to interfaith marriage. As it concerns Christian denominations, Washington first notes the lack of agreement with what Christians say and what they do. He sent inquires about acceptance of interracial marriage to several Christian denominations. By and large these denominations either offered support for such marriages or did not take a stance on interracial marriage. This is in contrast to the actions of many individual Christians who personally and openly opposed interracial marriage. Churches may not provide the sort of supportive atmosphere for interracial marriage suggested by the official support of these marriages by the leaders of their denominations. Washington’s findings offer support for the mixed nature of the role of Christianity on resistance to interracial romantic relationships. Unfortunately, the mixed nature of the findings does not provide us a clear answer as to whether the Christian faith was overall harmful or helpful to the cause of interracial marriage (although my personal argument is that historically it was overall more harmful than helpful). However, his work clearly argues that religion in general, and Christianity in specific, is not a core source of resistance to interracial marriage.

Finally, we get to what I think is one of the best books on the history of interracial marriage – Mixed Blood: Interracial and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America by Paul Spickard. It is an easy read and I assign it in my “Multiracial Families” sociology courses. The book is split up into three possible intergroup marriages – Japanese/White, Jew/Gentile and Black/White. So a third of the book is devoted to a type of interfaith marriage and clearly Christianity play an important role in shaping the prevalence of this type of marriage, although there is as much resistance from Jewish sources as there is from Christian sources to such marriages. I do not even assign this section in my classes since my focus is on interracial marriages in my course.

Another way Spickard brings religion into his work is his discussion of religion in his discussion about how people tend to marry people of the same religion. Most specifically, individuals married within the major religious groupings of Protestants, Catholics and Jews. The mixing of ethnicities may occur within those religious groupings. This type of theory may help to explain how Christianity can provide some barriers to interracial marriages if those of different races are more prone to non-Christian religions, but it is not an argument that religious justification drives animosity towards racial outmarriage.

Finally, Spickard’s treatment of the history of interracial marriage of Japanese and Blacks to Whites offers possible insight. As it concerns whites marrying Japanese he only has a few references, mostly tied to the fact that the Japanese who immigrated to the United States were influenced by Christians in their native country. It is only in the discussion of black/white interracial marriages does he note the hostility of Christians against such unions. He cites a few specific examples of such resistance such as the attitudes of Bob Jones, president of Bob Jones University. However, even here he feels obligated in his footnotes to point out that such attitudes received push back from Christians of all across the theological spectrum. Spickard does not paint a picture of an unrelenting Christian hostility against interracial marriage. Rather, he thinks that there is a hierarchy of acceptable and non-acceptable racial groups for intermixing and while religion plays a role in which groups are acceptable, as clearly the case in Jew/Gentile marriage, it is not the only, or even the most important, factor.

There are a few more minor books, or books that touch a little on the history of interracial romance that were not from established university or academic presses I obtained in this period of my career. They include Interracial Bonds by Rhoda Blumberg and Wendell Roye and A Completely New Look at Interracial Sexuality by Lawrence Tenzer. In none of them did the authors look to Christianity as a major factor explaining hostility towards interracial marriage. I would put less weight on these books than the others as I am not certain that the authors used acceptable historical methodology, but it is worth accounting for them to gain as complete of a picture as possible of what historians have said about this question.

Ultimately, there is very little support from these historians that Christian justification has been the driving force inhibiting interracial marriages. Admittedly, it is quite plausible that I missed important works since I did not do any original historical research myself and thus felt little need to exhaust all possible research on the history of interracial marriage. Furthermore, I have not done any serious research on interracial sexuality for several years, and it is quite possible that new historical research has come out since the literature I cite here. However, unless there is serious research out there that says differently, it is not feasible to argue that resistance to interracial marriages was based mostly in Christian theology. However, now that this social argument has been made, there likely will be a revisionist historian who will pull together the material to make the case that historical opposition to interracial marriage is religiously based. Unfortunately, there have been actions from Christians in the past who will give them some material for that case, but given the current political environment, I will be skeptical of the timing of such a claim.

Let me be clear. I know that Christians historically behaved very badly as it concerns interracial romance. Often Christians opposed interracial marriages for no reason other than racism or feelings of racial superiority. Sometimes they used the Bible to justify their own racial animosity. Even recently I did research showing that Christians are more open to dating someone of a different faith than a different race, and I know firsthand that some Christians have anti-miscegenation tendencies. Of course there are exceptions to these actions, and we should recognize the Christians who had the foresight to support interracial marriages in a racialized society that condemned interracial mixing. Nevertheless, my comments are not an attempt to exonerate Christians from their shortcomings. But my reading of the historical material is that these Christians were guiltier of following the racist norms of the day rather than creating those norms. An honest assessment of their actions was that their sin was more of a failure to live according to the tenets of “Neither Jew nor Gentile” than an active role of creating anti-miscegenation perspectives from the tenets of their faith. Clearly those who disagree with my interpretation of these books are free to read those books and come up with alternative interpretations.

So what are we to make of the argument that same-sex marriage is the same as interracial marriage? I will decline to comment on that argument except in this one narrow comparison on the importance of Christian belief in the resistance to each type of coupling. If Christian resistance is the core element in resisting same-sex marriage, the same cannot be said of interracial marriage opposition. Religious equivalency in the historical rejection of each type of marriage is a myth.

Revisiting “Compromising Scholarship”

Three years ago my book Compromising Scholarship was published. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first systematic documentation of political and religious academic bias. Since then, other information on this topic has come out, and I have had a chance to see responses to the book. Based on both this new information and these responses, I have become even more convinced that this bias, particularly as it concerns conservative Christians, is a real problem. I have also come to the conclusion that this will be a very hard bias to overcome – if we ever are going to be able to overcome it. I take this occasion to revisit that book and look at this issue in light of the new information I have gained in the last few years.

First, let me examine the reaction to the book. A few individuals have pointed out the low response rates of my surveys. That was a problem I dealt with in the book where I showed that the results are not due to the social dynamics of my sample differing from demographic makeup in academia. There are researchers who have debated whether low response is the problem; some say that it is, but the power of my findings strongly suggests that low response rate bias is not a serious problem to the overall results.

Other than a couple of mentions about the response rate, there are two other criticisms of the work. First, some have argued that this one study does not prove that academic bias is a problem. I will go into more depth about this critique later when I discuss other work supporting my argument. Second, some have argued that even if there is a bias that this is not important since Christians, especially conservative Christians, are not suited for academic work. I saw many such claims in comment sections in online articles about the book and in response to a video I made about the book and some of my other work.

The implication of this argument is that religious discrimination is okay. That is quite disturbing. But perhaps it is not a surprise. Whenever a social group mistreats an out-group there is a need to find legitimation for that mistreatment. Is it true that Christians are not suited for academic work? It is possible that anti-intellectual trends in some Christian circles results in some Christians being less open to academic work. However, having a contrasting epistemological framework can also allow Christians to bring ideas into academia that are normally ignored. Having individuals who are nonconformist to the current scholarly paradigms can provide new fruitful academic directions. The argument that Christians are not suited for academic work can be used to suppress voices challenging the academic status quo. Part of my disappointment in my findings is the loss to science when voices that do not comport with the current scholarly fashions are silenced.

But even if those voices do not contribute to science, bias against someone seeking a place in academia due to their religious beliefs is just wrong, even if we believe their religious beliefs to be wacky. I do not expect everyone who works around me to agree with my religious and political viewpoints. Unless I am working in a ministry where promotion of a certain religious perspective is one of the main objectives of the job, then it would be wrong for me to not hire someone who disagrees with my religious perspectives. This moral truth seems so self-evident that I scarcely see a need to defend it.

However, there may be a need to assert that anti-religious discrimination is wrong since there is an assumption by some that Christian scholars bring their faith into their work. The implication is that a Christian professor cannot help but promote his/her faith in scholarship and teaching instead of doing quality work based upon data. My response to that claim is that all scholars bring their beliefs into their work. As I stated in a former blog, objectivity is a myth. What I find curious is that there is a worry about objectivity when a scholar or potential scholar is a Christian but not if that person is a Marxist, homosexual or feminist etc. I would argue that given the atmosphere of skepticism against traditional religion in academia, a Christian scholar is more likely to be challenged on his/her own belief system than those with a more secular and/or humanist perspective and thus more likely to engage in introspection than other scholars. This said Christian has to be willing to challenge his/her belief system since it is clear that other scholars will challenge it when that professor presents research or uses a given pedagogical approach. If I am right then Christian scholars are more likely to work at being unbiased than other scholars.

As stated earlier I have found work supporting my argument about academia bias. Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers also did a survey of 800 social and personality psychologists finding that they are willing to discriminate against political conservatives when it comes to hiring, reviewing papers, reviewing grant proposals and invitations to a symposium. Furthermore, Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter (See their chapter “The Vanishing Conservative” in The Politically Correct Univeristy) found that cultural conservative academics tend to work at jobs that are lower status than would be expected given their achievements and qualifications. Finally, there are case studies such as the trial of Mike S. Adams revealing what happens when this bias flairs up from behind closed doors. Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga sued Peralta Community College when they were punished for praying for an ill professor. Another example can be seen in the case of Jennifer Keeton who faced pressure from professors for her traditional Christian-based views on sexuality.

To be fair, Neil Gross provides some evidence that directors of graduate programs do not discriminate against political conservatives. However, I pointed out some weaknesses of his approach in an earlier blog. Furthermore, he only looked at political bias and in Compromising Scholarship I found bias against religious conservatives to be more powerful than bias against political conservatives.

This leads me back to the question of whether my study proves that academic bias is a problem. I argue that my study in and of itself shows that bias against religious, and to a lesser extent political, conservatives is a problem. I found that slightly less than half of all academics stated that they were less willing to hire a job candidate if they found out that the candidate was a fundamentalist and only a slightly smaller percentage were less willing if they found out the candidate was an evangelical. I only have to point out that if we found such percentages less willing to hire a candidate if that candidate was Jewish, Muslim or atheist that we would rightly look at the problems of religious bias in academia. Should we be less concerned if the candidate is a conservative Protestant?

The additional research lends even more power to that argument. We not only have a survey indicating that academics are less willing to hire from a certain religious group, but we have case studies where it appears that bias is a problem and evidence that cultural conservatives, who are highly likely to be members of this group, may not receive as much of a return on academic achievements as other individuals. Once again if we were talking about, well name your favorite non-Christian religious group, having professors talk about not willing to hire them, cases where it is likely they were discriminated against and evidence that they face systematic, structural disadvantages in their job placement, then it is highly unlikely that individuals would state that there is no evidence of discrimination and prejudice. If there is discrimination against a group by highly educated academics, who are highly motivated to hide overt signs of bias, the evidence noted above is what I would expect to find.

What is of real interest is the double standard that snaps into play when the subject of anti-Christian bias comes up. Some argue that unless we have people overtly stating that they will not hire someone because they are a Christian or that a person cannot get tenure because they are a Christian then we have not PROVED anti-Christian bias. By that standard we have not PROVED contemporary anti-black bias in most institutions as educated individuals know not to be blatant with their biases. In one of my blogs, one person commented that unless there are “Christian need not apply” signs that we have not proven bias. Do we have any modern “Blacks need not apply” signs out there today? How often do we have people who overtly state that they will not hire or promote African-Americans? I, and other race scholars, clearly know that we have problems of racial bias even today and yet we do not have the type of evidence demanded by critics of my work. Critics of the notion of academic bias demand far more evidence for that bias than what is provided to show racism, sexism, homophobia etc. in our social institutions.

So three years after the publication of Compromising Scholarship, I am more confident that religious, and to a lesser extent political, academic bias is a real problem. However, I am less confident that it is a problem that will be solved in the foreseeable future. Previous research has shown that conservative Protestants are quite underrepresented in academia. Given that those with a more secular perspective are overrepresented, those with anger towards and contempt towards Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have more power in academia than those Christians. While Christians have social advantages in other important sectors in society, they have a marginalized position in academia. This reality is a blind spot for many scholars. When I did the research and wrote that book, I hoped that pointing out such blind spots would raise enough concern that there would be those who would work towards creating a more equitable environment. I did not expect overnight results, but I thought that there would be recognition of the problem which would be the first step towards finding lasting solutions. I realize now that I was naïve. Academics, even those who study issues of power and its abuses, are just as willing to legitimate the use of power over marginalized groups when it concerns groups they do not particularly like. A willingness to punish out-groups one does not like may be a universal quality that does not know political and social boundaries.

Perhaps I should not be surprised. History has shown us that when groups have power over others that it is difficult for the members of the powerful group to perceive this power as a problem. Social scientists should be able to recognize good evidence of bias. But the evidence of double standards indicates that when it comes to looking at those that scholars likely perceive as out-groups, they seem as vulnerable to social and cognitive biases as others in our society. One may hope that academics would be more knowledgeable about dynamics of social power and more sensitive about using that power over out-group members who are in subordinate positions in the institutions they control. But everything I have seen indicates that academics are not immune to using social power in unfair ways against groups they do not like. My hope now is that in time academics will engage in the self-introspection necessary to fully address some of the issues that Compromising Scholarship has brought out. But that hope has waned over the last three years.

God is Not Dead and This is Not What Anti-Christian Animosity Looks Like

It is quite dangerous to talk about a movie one has not yet seen. Indeed I want to make very clear that this is not a movie review. I have not seen God is not Dead and I cannot comment on the acting, directing, camera work etc. If anyone wants to say Kevin Sorbo deserves an Oscar for his performance, I have no basis to argue with him/her. The only thing I want to evaluate is the main premise of the movie which has been widely discussed in Christian circles. That premise is in an area of my expertise; thus, I feel comfortable commenting on it.

As you may have heard, the main premise of the movie is that a student is asked by his philosophy professor to write “God is Dead” on a sheet of paper. He refuses. This angers the professor who tells him that if he cannot convince his classmates that God exists then he will fail the course. In the fashion of Hollywood the student triumphs in the end. I am not going to deal with the ending, which is a problem in itself since professors have so much control in their classrooms that a student will not triumph if the professor does not want him to, but I will merely deal with the premise that this Christian kid would put his grade at risk by refusing to deny the existence of God.

The problem with that premise is that it is unrealistic. I am not opposed to suspending reality when watching movies. I saw a couple of days ago the trailer to the upcoming X-Men movie Days of Future Past. I am salivating like Pavlov’s dog waiting for that movie to come out. Yet I know that mutations cannot give us such tremendous superhuman abilities. It is fairly clear to most of us that what happens in X-Men, or just about any other superhero, movie is not possible. I highly doubt anyone leaves the theater of the X-Men movie worrying about Magneto taking over the world. Suspending reality is part of what allows us to be entertained. The problem develops when the movie intends to tell us a story portrayed as realistic when in fact it is not realistic. The way some talk about God is Not Dead is problematic because they talk about it as if the premise really can occur in our contemporary society when I know this is not the case.

Why am I so sure that a professor would not threaten to fail a student who did not affirm atheism? Well, the first reason I am confident this would not happen is because the student would sue the teacher and university. Furthermore, I am pretty certain the student would, and should, win. Cultural progressives have been criticized about caring about freedom of worship and not truly caring about freedom of religion. But even if this criticism is accurate such progressives would defend the right of a student to believe any religion he or she chooses. What good is freedom of worship if a person is not even allowed to accept whatever religious belief he or she wants? So even if a professor wanted to force atheism on students, the legal system would not allow that professor to get away with it.

But there is even a more basic reason why the premise in the movie is not realistic. This premise misunderstands how individuals with anti-Christian hatred tend to think. Such individuals do not engage in overt expressions of religious bigotry. Such expressions would violate their stated values of religious neutrality. Part of their argument against Christians is that Christians are attempting to force others to adopt their religion. An overt attempt to punish those who do not accept atheism would be such a clear case of hypocrisy that they would not be able to maintain claims of religious neutrality. So even if the professor did not fear a legal lawsuit, it would be highly unlikely that the professor would directly tie a student’s grade to religious beliefs. This would rob the professor of a great deal of legitimacy he has for hating Christians and Christianity.

This is not to say that people who dislike Christians are unable to punish Christians. I do not argue that anti-Christian hatred or bigotry is merely the imagination of Christians. I have done the research documenting the reality and nature of this type of religious intolerance (some of which will come out in a book I currently have under contract). The way those with anti-Christian hatred attempt to punish Christians is more indirect than failing those who do not give up their faith. I liken it to a concept in race/ethnic literature known as symbolic racism. This occurs when whites who do not like people of color use an issue with symbolic meaning to punish those people of color as long as the issue contains non-racial justifications. For example, there are non-racial reasons for wanting tough immigration laws. However, those who do not like Hispanics can also desire tough immigration laws simply because of an antipathy towards Hispanics. The nonracial justifications tied to tough immigration laws allow them to support those laws without fears of being labeled a racist. Likewise, antipathy towards Christians can lead to support of legal and public policies with a disparate impact on Christians as long as a non-bigoted reason can be tied to those policies. Support of such policies and engaging in indirect religious discrimination is much more likely from those with anti-Christian disaffection than overt religious discrimination.

I point this out because it is important for Christians to recognize how those who hate them think. I fear that movies like God is Not Dead paint a picture of secular humanists willing to engage in activities such as putting people in jail for their beliefs or closing down churches. That may have happened in certain totalitarian societies but it is not happening here, nor do I see it happening for at least the foreseeable future. Constructing unrealistic boogey men about those with anti-Christian animosity inhibits the ability of Christians to have productive conversations with such individuals and work out solutions that respect the rights of both Christians and non-Christians. These stereotypes also create unnecessary fears about actions unlikely to occur, leading to unfounded claims of persecution, when instead conservative Christians would be better off dealing with realistic problems that anti-Christian antipathy does create.

I suspect that some Christians are pushing this movie because they are tired of being portrayed badly in Hollywood movies. I sympathize with such individuals as I do think there is a fair argument to be made about anti-Christian stereotyping in the media. Having a movie where the Christian is the hero with positive personal characteristics is likely a sight for sore eyes to such Christians. As long as they suspend reality as they watch the film there is nothing any more wrong with Christians cheering on a Christian character in a movie than a black cheering on a black character or a Jew cheering on a Jewish character. Others may argue that Christians should attend this movie because there are so few movies out there that buttress the values of Christians. If Christians do not support movies with a positive Christian theme then we can expect even fewer of these movies in the future. That is a fair enough argument and I would not mind seeing more positive Christian movies. But I fear that such Christians will not see this movie in the way I will watch that X-men movie and will be duped into believing that Christians face as much persecution in society today as they did in biblical times. Atheist professors are not going around intentionally flunking Christian students for their beliefs. I have previously written on the misuse of the concept of persecution by Christians and will not rehash those arguments here. However, it is clear that we do not need more efforts to misled Christians into accepting a persecution belief.

Some Christians have argued that this is a great movie since it will help other Christians to become more involved in apologetics. Seeing a student argue with a professor, and win that argument, may help Christians to more seriously consider the sources of their faith. I would welcome such changes as I believe that Christians, and other individuals, should engage in the cognitive activities necessary to investigate the underpinnings of their epistemological beliefs. Although I have chosen to not engage in theological and apologetic arguments with my blog writings, I am quite intellectually comfortable with my Christian faith and do not fear an honest interrogation of it. That lack of fear comes from truthfully engaging in the presuppositions buttressing that faith. I welcome the message that Christians should engage in a serious, open-minded investigation of their beliefs and if this movie happens to encourage that investigation then it is a message I heartily support.

Right now I am not planning on actually watching this movie in the near future. There are too many other movies (i.e. Days of Future Past) out there or coming out there I want to see. I will probably wait to see the movie when it comes on television or at best when it is at the dollar theater. So there are no plans for me to do a longer movie review that not only looks at the theme discussed in this blog but also evaluates the quality of the movie. There will be plenty of other individuals eager to provide that review. I want my Christian brothers and sisters to enjoy the movie if they so desire. All I ask is that we leave the characterizations of the professor’s actions in the theater and not believe that these actions are likely to happen in real life. Maintaining such a healthy attitude will help them to be prepared to deal with anti-Christian animosity in the real ways it manifests itself in our society.


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