Does President Obama Hate Conservative Christians?

I tend to take people at their word. I also make what I see as logical connections from what they say to how they feel about others. Thus, given what we know about favoring in-groups, when someone says he is a Christian then I assume that he likes Christians. Yet President Obama, who proclaims himself to be a Christian, has sometimes been accused of not liking Christians. This makes me wonder if progressive, or liberal, Christians do have some degree of animosity towards other Christians.

To do this examination, I have to recap some of my methodology in So Many Christians, So Few Lions. In that book we qualitatively documented some of the hateful, bigoted rhetoric some individuals had for conservative Christians. But our quantitative work was based on a measure of whether the affinity towards Christian fundamentalists was assessed a standard deviation below the measures of affinity towards other religious and some racial groups. While we could not argue that such disaffinity was automatically linked to the angry comments in our qualitative research, this measure was useful in determining the characteristics of those most likely to have hatred towards conservative Christians. If you do not want to read the full findings in that book, then you can see the start of my blog series of the book here.

I decided to go back to the data source of our quantitative work – American National Election Studies – to ask questions about whether progressive Christians can have the sort of animosity I cited in the book. Because I do not have access to the type of qualitative data I collected for the text, I am not in a position to see if progressive Christians have the same type of hate and vitriol associated with Christianophobia. But I can explore whether they have the type of disaffinity that is likely linked to those with Christianophobia. So for the balance of this blog, I am not going to talk about Christianophobia but disaffinity, or animosity, with the understanding that these results may tell us something about the potential of progressive Christians to have unreasonable fear and hatred towards conservative Christians.

Let me put this into context. When my book came out, some pointed out that I was not talking about hatred of all Christians but of those who are conservative in their theology and politics. I countered that such images are generally how those with Christianophobia see Christians and indeed for many of them this is true. However, I did not appreciate at the time that Christians who were not politically or theologically conservative also may have animosity towards conservative Christians. My focus is more on the theological differences as I found in my assessment of academics that religious conservatism attracts more discrimination than political conservatism. So I begin to ask the question of whether Christians with a more progressive theological outlook would have a level of animosity that rivals that of others or whether, as I hypothesized, their Christian identity provides more sympathy for those in their faith.

I now apologize for those who do not have statistical training. I have to be a little technical in the next paragraph or two for those who would question my assertions on the basis of methodology. If you prefer to skip that section then just go down to the paragraph below that starts with “Okay, that is enough of the statistics.” I promise that I will summarize in laymen terms what I have found and discuss some very interesting implications.

I defined progressive Christians with a question on whether the Bible should be taken literally. If the Christian indicated that it should not be taken literally, then I recoded that person as a liberal Christian. Among liberal Christians, 36.1 percentage ranked Christian fundamentalists a standard deviation below other groups. A t-test indicates that liberal Christians are more likely to have disaffinity towards Christian fundamentalists than the rest of the sample (36.1 v. 20.2: p < .001). It may be the case that the inclusion of conservative Christians in the control group artificially lowers the percentage of people who rank conservative Christians in such a low position. In a sample where I eliminate all non-Catholic Christians who assert that the Bible should be taken literally, liberal Christians were still more likely to have animosity towards conservative Christians but the difference is not significant (36.1 v. 33.0: ns). However, when I compared the percentage of liberal Christians who rank Muslims a standard deviation below the other groups to those who rank fundamentalist Christians in such a manner, I found that liberal Christians have more disaffinity towards their fellow Christians than to Muslims (36.1 v. 32.7: p < .05). Clearly, liberal Christians are at least as willing to have animosity towards the fellow Christian brothers and sisters and may even have less disaffinity towards those of other religious faiths.The results get really interesting when I use the Bible question to look at only Christians who not only think that we should not take the Bible literally but also that the Bible was written by humans instead of God. Almost three out of four of them (59.4%) rank fundamentalist Christians a standard deviation lower. They are more likely to have disaffinity towards conservative Christians when looking at the entire sample (59.4 v. 26.0: p < .001) and when I remove the conservative Protestants from the sample (59.4 v. 32.6: p < .001). Furthermore, they not only are more likely to rank conservative Christians lower than Muslims (59.4 v. 29.1: p < .001) but also than atheists (59.4 v. 21.8: p < .001). If you are a conservative Christian and you run into a Christian who believes that the Bible was written by humans, then chances are good that he or she does not think much of you.I was curious about whether these differences were due to demographic and social differences between liberal Christians and others in society. So I ran a logistic regression model that included independent variables that measured sex, race, age, education, income, religious preference and region as well as a dummy variable for liberal Christians. Even after controlling for all those factors, liberal Christians were significantly likely to rank fundamentalist Christians a standard deviation lower than other groups. In fact, the liberal Christian dummy variable had an odds ratio measure of 3.901, indicating that liberal Christians are almost four times more likely to have disaffinity towards conservative Christians than other individuals after these social controls. Liberal Christians do not rank conservative Christians lower simply because they are more politically progressive, better educated or some other basic social or demographic factor. It is more reasonable to argue that being a liberal Christian itself produces such animosity regardless of these factors.Okay, that is enough of the statistics. Basically, liberal Christians are just as willing, and maybe even more willing, to have animosity towards conservative Christians than others in society. Being a Christian does not generally lead them to have sympathy for those they disagree with theologically. Instead, these theological disagreements harden into disaffinity towards those Christians. This was not what I expected when I first looked at the data, and it has important ramifications for how I understand social conflict between Christians. I used to assume that Christians have a natural sympathy for each other even if they have theological disagreements. I am now cured of that naïve belief, and it shapes how I understand certain social events.This allows me to address the provocative title of this blog. When President Obama first started running for president; there was nonsense about him being a Muslim. There is no evidence for such a claim. From what I can gather from my observations, he seems to be a Christian with fairly universalist perspectives. I believe that he sees many ways to spiritual truth, and he happens to be on the Christian path towards that truth. I may be incorrect in assessment of his spiritual beliefs, but I am confident that I am closer to the truth than those who see President Obama as a Muslim.Along with the claims that he was a Muslim there was what I thought to be a similarly silly claim that President Obama did not like Christians. My comeback was that this made no sense given that he was a Christian. In the light of these findings, I have to reconsider that comeback. If our president does not believe that the Bible should be taken literally, and I tend to think that this is his belief, then according to my data, there is a basic 36.1 percent chance that he sees conservative Christians with a significant degree of disaffinity. If he believes that the Bible is written by humans, something I am less confident about but is possible, then the chances of this disaffinity goes up to almost three of five. Of course there are other factors besides his liberal Christianity that may predict this potential animosity but even controlling for such factors, liberal Christianity still leads to animosity towards conservative Christians.So does President Obama hate conservative Christians, despite his identity as a Christian? I do not claim that President Obama does not like conservative Christians. I do argue that making this assertion is not unreasonable and the fact that he is a Christian is not an adequate defense of such an assertion. I am certain that some would be glad if the president has animosity towards conservative Christians. But even if they justify such animosity, it is still the case that conservative Christians who claim that progressive Christians are hostile towards them cannot be dismissed as merely being paranoid. Conservative Christians still have the burden of showing evidence of President Obama’s animosity as some have argued through his recent Prayer Day speech, but arguing that he does not like conservative Christians is no longer an unreasonable thesis. In my mind from this day forward I no longer see the fact that he/she is a Christian as a reasonable defense against the charges that one person does not like other Christians. (The phrase “I am a Christian too but…” comes to mind as one that has lost all of its rhetorical weight in my opinion.) In fact, if they are liberal Christians then, all things being equal, I will be more likely to suspect that they have animosity towards conservative Christians.

I believe that part of this animosity is due to the allegiance liberal Christians have towards certain political and social issues. The areas where they do agree with Christian conservatives (i.e. basic beliefs about the existence of God) are not as important to them as their different approaches to society (i.e. social gospel v. personal evangelism). They may be embarrassed at the political actions of conservative Christians, and that embarrassment can be a vital source of their animosity. Nonetheless, there are powerful barriers that will work against potential alliances between conservative and liberal Christians. In fact, it is reasonable for members of each group to see the other as their political and cultural enemy.

It is quite possible that the type of animosity that liberal Christians have is not the same type of Christianophobia where participants joked about feeding Christians to lions or bombing churches. In fact, the few respondents in my cultural progressive activist sample who identified as Christians did not tend to make such wild statements and seemed less likely to accept the most dehumanizing stereotypes about conservative Christians. I suspect that anti-Christian animosity may manifest itself in different ways from how non-Christians may resent conservative Christians. In time I hope to do some work, or find an enterprising graduate student who will do that work, that may disentangle the different ways animosity towards conservative Christians is reflected in progressive Christians and non-Christians. I have an open-mind about whether the animosity of progressive Christians may develop into a Christianophobic level of unreasonable hatred and fear. However, I will not again assume that such bigotry is not possible simply because an individual identifies with the Christian faith.

Critically Healthy

Over the past few years I have realized an unspoken challenge to being an academic and social critic. Perhaps it is unspoken because many have not engaged in the introspection to see this dilemma, or perhaps academics do not like to talk about it because there are no easy solutions. I have personally found a way to deal with this challenge but my solution will not be easily adopted by many other academics. Indeed what works for me may well not work for many other scholars. The challenge I am talking about is being a social critic and yet maintaining a healthy mental outlook.

The issue develops because of the nature of being a social critic. Academics who criticize society play an important role. They point out issues that can help us to improve our culture. When that social criticism is combined with social scientific methodology, then we have the advantage of systematically understanding some of the societal shortcomings that need to be addressed. Of course, there is no guarantee that the criticisms will be accurate. There are those academics who are so wedded to an ideology or have an irrational, emotional ax to grind and doggedly stay with a complaint long after it has been answered. But I believe that most academic critics engage in their craft because they want to see social improvement.

Yet the same tools that are so useful in analyzing and criticizing society are not necessarily useful when it comes to having good mental health. My training has taught me to look for the weakness of an academic argument. I have been socialized to question every aspect of scholarly work and ask tough questions. Likewise, it is my job to scrutinize elements in our society to point out weaknesses and ask tough questions about the problems we face. To do the job correctly, one must be ruthless in his/her assessment and willing to honestly point out flaws. But that is not a good recipe for developing relationships or understanding one’s own shortcomings. It is not a healthy way to go through life. That attitude would make one overly critical of his/her friends and pessimistic about the events in his/her life. Few people want to develop relationships with such a critical individual. Furthermore, such pessimism can lead to a distortion of events so that an individual has a problem accurately appreciating his/her life. Thus we practice a perspective that services us well as it concerns social analysis but not as it concerns our interpersonal relationships and our mental health.

For example, consider the issue of gratitude. Mentally healthy people are grateful for what they have. All of us have some aspects in our lives that are good and some that are awful. Focusing on that which is awful is a good way to work yourself into a depression since often depression is anger turned inward. Yet a social critic has to focus on what is wrong to make useful suggestions on how to correct it. Very few social critics talk about what they are grateful for in our society. When is the last time you heard a race scholar focus on the progress we have made. If he or she mentions that progress, it is only a footnote before launching into a diatribe about the continuing racial problems we have in the United States. That is the job of the critic. We need people who constantly hold our feet to the fire and will not let us settle with our current level of success. Those people can push us to a more fair and just society.

But an inability to be grateful would serve that critic ill in his/her personal life. I would not want to hang out with someone who shows little gratitude and I suspect that many people would feel the same way. Such a person would likely be in a constant state of anger which would make him or her unbalanced in perception about life. This person would tend to exaggerate the slights he or she suffers in life precisely because this person does not take the time needed to appreciate the good elements in his/her life. In short, a failure to be grateful can be a ticket to an unhealthy mental life and terrible interpersonal relationships. One can think of other such qualities that are useful for a social critic but if taken into his/her personal life would be devastating for his/her health.

So this is the dilemma. How do we keep the characteristics that are valuable as a social critic from plaguing our own mental health? If we do not maintain those tools as a social critic, then what good are we in that role? But if we became critical and grumpy in our personal lives, then what good are we to ourselves? I suspect that there are many big-time popular social critics out there who are loved by their followers but hated or disdained by the people close to them in their lives. How do we keep ourselves from such a fate?

What works for me will not work for everyone, but I do assert that anyone who is a social critic needs to take seriously the challenges that being such a critic can have on their personal lives. They need to consider for themselves how to maintain their skills of societal critique in a way that allows for them to create mental health and beneficial interpersonal relationships. For myself there are two important factors that help me to maintain relative balance in these issues – my faith and my family.

My faith is the cornerstone of both my ability to be a social critic and to not take those critical attitudes into my personal life. Because of my religious beliefs, I understand the world, and society, as a fallen place. My faith provides a vision of a place of perfect love, perfect morality, and perfect justice. I do not believe we will solve all social problems this side of heaven, but I do believe that we should strive to get as close as possible. So I have a role as a critic to see what I can do to locate the factors inhibiting societal improvement.

The same faith impulse that directs me to seek perfection in our society also reminds me of how imperfect I am. I have messed up in the past and will do so in the future. My faith provides for a grace despite my mistakes and outright intentionally wrong actions. When I recognize that grace, then I have the power to be grateful for what I have in life. I also find myself wanting to extend grace to others in my life because I can relate to the fact that we all fall short of what we should do. They, like I, are fallen creatures in need of grace. Thus I am motivated to turn off the critical eye that I cast towards society when I deal with the individuals in my life. That keeps me sane and bearable to be around.

Over the course of the past few years I have engaged in verbal battle with some of those who commented on my blogs. I will do so in the future. I confess to an impatience for comments that do not deal with the issues at hand, are non-critically reflective or are ad hominem/strawman attacks. The social critic in me provides motivation to challenge such assertions. But in my personal life, I rarely challenge what people do or say unless it is clearly illegal, dangerous to themselves or others, or grossly immoral. If someone personally ask for my advice I strive to be honest, even if it is brutally so, but otherwise I am usually silent no matter how much I may disagree with how someone lives his or her life. That is the personal realm where I want to operate out of grace and not critique. It builds the relationships and social support I need to sustain mental balance and health.

This leads to the second element that helps me to maintain my balance which is my family. I am blessed to be married to a wonderful woman who reminds me of my own shortcomings with her kindness and love. Being in this type of relationship helps me to take my head out of the ivory tower clouds and remind me that someone needs me to stay well connected. She is a constant reminder that I do not have the luxury to live in anger as doing so would hurt her deeply. When you truly love someone, you will not engage in such actions that will bring that person pain. She is also a trusted confidant that I can share with my thoughts and feelings to help me to sort them through.

I am also blessed to be a father. There is nothing like having someone else relying upon you to remind you that you need to work to make the world better. You have your offspring(s) in mind as you consider what is wrong in society and how we address the issues we face. Being a father makes me impatient with solutions that are only focused on furthering some political and social agenda instead of really fixing the problem. I want real solutions for the next generation of my family. But there is also the personal dynamic of being a father. Once again, I do not have the right to allow myself to be in mental disrepair. I need a healthy mental attitude so that I can be a positive influence. Who wants to be raised by an angry man who will turn you into a perpetually angry person? Trust me that issues like this cross my mind if I consider taking a critical attitude into my household.

So for me, it comes back to the basic values I have in my life surrounding faith and family. Both provide motivation to make the world a better place without making myself a worse person. I realize that this is not the formula for everyone. Some people do not have traditional religious faith and/or have not been blessed with a family that keeps them grounded. I do not share what grounds me to instruct others that this is the path they must take. But what all who want to engage in social criticism should do is engage in the self-introspection needed to realize that if one’s personal life is not attended to, then there are dire consequences to our health. Thus those who cannot or will not go the route of faith and family do have a responsibility to locate other ways to maintain their social criticism and yet still strive for a healthy mental outlook. Finding ways to stay grounded will not happen by accident. They will only occur with an intentional effort to section off critical attitudes from one’s personal interactions and mental well-being.

Education Dogma

Dogma is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.” Interestingly, the second definition provided by Merriam-Webster as “a belief or set of beliefs that is taught by a religious organization.” Of course these two different definitions are not meant to be read together but it as does seem that Merriam-Webster assumes that religious beliefs, and only religious beliefs, are accepted without question or doubt. It would not surprise me if the individuals constructing these definitions did accept the myth that dogma only occurs in a religious context. There is plenty of evidence on college campuses that show the incorrectness of that myth.

Here is a great example of what I term education dogma. Note that the students are chanting about not being silenced while they are obviously silencing the speaker. My understanding of this situation is that the speaker published something that challenges some of the assertions about a campus rape culture. Such a challenge is an affront to the dogma of the students. Therefore, these students do not feel that the speaker has a right to speak on a different topic. The violation of beliefs they accept without question or doubt creates their incentive to shut down the proceedings.

I do not know how common such “silencing” of unpopular speakers are but the very fact that they occur on college campuses is an insult to the notion that colleges are places where individuals are free to engage in a variety of ideas. For the dogmatic, ideas that violate the notions defended by education dogma are deemed “dangerous” and too much for the tender ears of our students. So in additional to shouting down speakers there have been calls for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” so that individuals do not have to listen to dangerous ideas. The true danger of these ideas is their threat to certain dogmatic beliefs of our students. These students are unwilling to consider the possibly that they are wrong, or perhaps not as right as they might believe. Education dogma motivates students who do not want to challenge themselves with innovative ideas but desire to shout down speakers of those ideas so that other students cannot hear them either. This is worse than the Jehovah’s Witness who come to your door to pitch his religion since at least he is not stopping you from listening to other truth claims. The need to proselytize is not limited to religious institutions.

When I observe scenes played out in the video perhaps the saddest element is that these students have probably deceived themselves into thinking that they are strong. The reality is that they are acting in weakness and insecurity. Only the weak and insecure seek to shut down the rights of others to present their own ideas. Only the weak and insecure cannot tolerate alternate perspectives. I fear that these students have been taught that it is strength to stare down their dehumanized opponents and silence them. As I watch that video I did not see intellectual powerhouses but I symbolically saw individuals who were yelling nonsense with their hands over their ears so that they would not hear an idea that may confront their presuppositions about reality. It is the same feeling I sometimes get when I see Christians in intolerant sects refusing to even consider alternate ideas to their unique theological perspectives.

For all practical purposes the students saw the speaker as a heretic. The use of the term heretic can bring up images of torturing, imprisoning and killing of those who disagree. This is not occurring. However, it is reasonable to ask whether the seemingly restraint of the students from such drastic actions is due to their moral compass or to the fact that they do not have the social power to engage in such actions. Education dogma has led to attempting to kick offending businesses off campus, attempts to fire professors, and the official shunning of students who hold the “wrong ideas.” Those with education dogma do punish those who violate their beliefs to the highest extent possible given their current level of institutional powers.

I defined this as education dogma and not educational dogma. The later term implies that the beliefs are natural consequences of obtaining more educational information. The conclusions drawn from those with education dogma are not necessarily the natural conclusions one must draw with more knowledge gained from academic study. Instead higher education occurs in a specific social institution that promotes certain subcultural values and beliefs. Participants in these institutions are expected to accept these values and beliefs without question. These beliefs are not the result of gaining more facts but instead are the dogmatic adaptation of certain social values provided to them by this subculture. We see evidence of this in that it is clear that students like the ones in the video are not looking for more information to make accurate assessments, but simply look to affirm previously accepted beliefs.

There are certain assertions we all take without question. The reality of gravity is supported with so much evidence that it is unreasonable to deny that it exists. Dogma becomes relevant with beliefs that have reasonable alternatives. The refusal to question such beliefs encourages those with dogma to dismiss dissenters as not only wrong but also as evil. The notion that they are evil heretics provides legitimation to punish or silence ideological out-group members. The dissenters are seen as having nothing of value to say and it becomes permissible to dehumanize them.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of beliefs accepted as dogma in higher education. It is not my intention to capture all possible education dogmatic beliefs but to provide a sampling of these beliefs. While people may quibble with a few of them, overall it is pretty clear to those of us on college campuses, and who do not accept this dogma, that these beliefs are accepted without question among many college students and professors.

1. There is a campus rape culture that encourages the sexual assault of women.
2. A woman accusing a man of rape has vastly more credibility than a man who claims his innocence.
3. The earth is getting dramatically warmer due to human activity and altering that activity can stop or slow this trend.
4. Israelites settlers and the Israel government are as bad as or worse than Palestinian terrorists.
5. Fundamentalist Christians are morally the same as Muslim terrorists.
6. Military action in the Middle East creates more problems than it solves.
7. Criticism of Islam as a religion of terrorism is an example of Islamophobia.
8. Religious freedom is not as important as acceptance of sexual minorities.
9. Society would generally be better if traditional religion disappeared.
10. Marriage between those of the same sex should be seen as the same as marriage between those of different sexes.
11. Trans women should be allowed to use the same facilities as biological women.
12. The physical differences between men and women play no role in economic disparities between the sexes.
13. A woman has a right to an abortion for whatever reason she chooses.
14. Black men are targeted by the police.
15. Anti-Hispanic racism is an important part of what motivates those who oppose immigration reform.
16. President Obama is criticized more than previous presidents because of his race.
17. Raising taxes on the wealthy will improve our economy.
18. Political conservatives are either greedy manipulators exploiting the marginalized or sincere dupes voting against their own economic interests.
19. There is little, if any, correlation between hard work and economic success.
20. The United States is more damaging to the world than other western industrialized nations.

Let me be clear that I am not arguing that these statements are either right or wrong. For the record I agree with some statements and disagree with others. I am not arguing it is problematic that students on college campuses have these beliefs. I argue that it is problematic that they hold onto these positions with a dogmatic attitude where they are unable to entertain alternative perspectives. There are arguments opposing these statements that are not tied to evil motivations but consist of perspectives that differ from the tenets of education dogma. Yet those who hold alternative perspectives are not just wrong but they are– put in the proper term – racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, denier, sexist, cisgenderist, pro-rape, etc. They are heretics in a binary worldview where creative compromises and third ways, which require the critical thinking skills which we should be teaching our students, are ignored and only stigmatizing and silencing the heretic is allowed.

When I look at the beliefs connected to education dogma it is clear that, similar to other political/social ideologies, they are socially constructed. There is not a logical connection between these beliefs. What logical connection is connects support of Palestine, abortion, tax increases on the wealthy, and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants? The social construction nature of these beliefs indicates that there is not a coherent source of truth within them, but those beliefs are human attempts to sustain an arbitrary ideology. These beliefs may be right most of the time or they may be wrong most of the time. But it is naïve to think that the tenets of this dogmatic ideological system are always correct as they are not connected to an accurate central principle. This creates an opportunity for tremendous damage since there are times where education dogmatic beliefs lead to punishment for the unimaginable sin of being correct.

For example, if I constructed this list a couple of months earlier I probably could have added some variation of “Hands up, Don’t Shoot.” With Holder’s Justice Department report it is now clear that Michael Brown was not shot in the back nor was his hands signaling surrender. I thought as much when the first autopsy report came out, but I only told a few friends of my suspicions. Others, who publically stated that the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” narrative was inaccurate, were accused of supporting racism. Even after the Holder report and a relatively progressive journalist such as Jonathan Caphart admitted that the narrative was incorrect, activists continued to push back against the evidence. Those with dogma cannot be bothered with evidence that goes against their own convictions since in their minds contradictory views must be punished. Stigmatizing those with opposing opinions teaches others that if they articulate the wrong political position then they will be demonized and bullied. Dogma does not support rational discourse whereby we can get closer to the truth, be it was Michael Brown unjustifiably killed or whether religion is beneficial to our society, but it stifles such conversations with perverse incentives to hold onto disproven ideas to avoid being dehumanized by the adherents of this dogma.

Once again I have no problem with students who conclude that the ideas in the list are correct. I have a big problem when those students seek to silence and stigmatize who disagree with them due to the dogma by which they hold onto those beliefs. But it is unfair to only blame these students. They are at colleges and universities that should teach them the failure of this narrow-minded epistemological approach. Students are responsible for seeking out alternative perspectives and developing an attitude of inquiry allowing them to interrogate their own presuppositions. But their college and university teachers should be held to account since more than a few college professors have done a horrible job introducing critical thinking skills. These teachers come in with a certain set of assumptions and if students agree with those assumptions then they can leave college without any disturbance to their pre-college ideology. Then we have the gall to call that critical thinking. It is anything but critical thinking. It is confirmation thinking and we do our students a disservice with such an approach.

It is not just the professors who perpetuate this fraud in our educational system. I mentioned the recent talk of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as ways to project our students from unpleasant ideas. But college is exactly where individuals should wrestle with uncomfortable ideas. This is the time to explore new perspectives and measure them against old personal ideologies. How can a person know whether he or she has good ideas unless they are tested against competing ideas? One of the best things for my faith and intellectual thinking was to go to graduate school and have some of my previous faith-based perspectives challenged. At times I changed how I thought due to the challenges and at other times I become more convinced that I was correct because the challenges were inadequate. Ironically a conservative Christian Republican has a better opportunity to learn critical thinking in college than a progressive humanist Democrat because of the opportunity he/she gains to consider new ideas. When we allow students with certain perspectives to go through college without challenging them we not only promote dogma, we also do those students the disservice of never helping them to engage in the critical thinking necessary to intellectually grow. They are reduced to being a sounding board that regurgitated the latest expression of political correctness.

In my race and ethnicity courses I go out of my way to make sure that students, all students, have their presuppositions challenged. This includes the white conservative and the black radical. In my sociology of religion course I make sure that students, all students, have their presuppositions challenged. This includes the atheist and the highly religious Christian. I do this because reality, and well done comprehensive research agendas, almost never conforms to our presuppositions. So if we do our best to follow the evidence we eventually have our presuppositions confronted. I also do this because critically thinking requires us to struggle with new ideas and find ways to incorporate them into our current epistemological framework, or possibly jettison that framework for a more accurate one. Students should not be free to have their ideas go unchallenged in a college setting but rather they should learn how to defend those ideas in a robust manner.

We have seen similar images in a religious context. We have seen religious individuals burn books with unpopular ideas and religious groups unwilling to incorporate new theological insights that test the core of their current theology. These excesses are generally pointed out and rightly criticized. However, there is more than adequate evidence that dogma is not limited to the religious sphere. Our educational institutions often perpetuate and sustain dogmatic thinking with a ruthless determination to root out all heretics. Perhaps it is because both religion and education are the institutions used to construct the moral underpinnings of our society that we are most likely to be used them to legitimate dogmatic thinking. This can make them the key source of dogma in our culture. For whatever the reason why both religion and education have a tendency to promote dogmatic thinking, identifying this illogical epistemological approach wherever we find it is important if we are going to be able to engage in honest introspection of our ideas.

It is time to Retire the Term “Bible-Thumper”

I am still deciding what to think about the Indiana RFRA law. But one of the opponents of the law recently made a disturbing comment. He chose to use the comment “Bible-Thumpers” and talked about “thumping the Bible-Thumpers.” Regardless of the arguments the speaker was making, he lost me once he said “Bible-Thumper.” Bible-Thumper is a religious epithet on par with the term “raghead” for Muslims. It is a term that should be retired in polite company and should not be used in televised public discussions.

Some may consider my opposition to this term as whining. I wonder if those same individuals are all right with the term “raghead.” Both Bible-Thumper and raghead denote a negative image of a particular religious group. Both terms are used in derogatory manner and indeed it is hard to think of a way to use those terms that is not derogatory. Neither term is outlawed, and I would fight any effort to outlaw either term. Free speech can be dehumanizing speech, but it is still free. But one term can be used on the air with little or no consequence while the other is taboo. It is time for both terms to be taboo.

I have tried to think of a time when I have used the term raghead. I am pleased to say that I cannot think of a single time in which I have done so. I have unfortunately heard the term used and have recoiled at its use. I probably have been guilty of not confronting the user of the term. But I know today that I would not tolerate its use in my personal presence even though I am not a Muslim. Likewise, I would hope that those who are not Christians will challenge those using the term Bible-Thumper so that we can take this epithet out of our discussions.

I guess it is fair to ask how I see the term Bible-Thumper in comparison to the n-word (To respect my African-American ancestors I refuse to write this word out completely). In my opinion, the n-word has its own special awful place in our history. No other insult has been connected to as much oppression and pain in U.S. history as this word. So it is a word that should be treated qualitatively from all other insults. But I do place Bible-Thumper with other insults we have developed in our society to dehumanize others. It is no better or worse than derogatory terms other than the n-word.

One of the main problems with such derogatory terms is that they prevent us from having a productive conversation with each other. I remember sitting in a graduate school class when the instructor causally called a group of conservative Christians “Bible-Thumpers.” As a Christian, I looked around the class to see if anyone would challenge her. It was not just that no one spoke up against the insult. As I looked at the faces of my peers, it was clear that this was just a term to use with no repercussions or stigma. As a Christian it was reinforced to me that I did not have a place in that conversation, and as a student I had no institutional power to confront that reality. Insulting others does not aid our conversations, it shuts conversations down.

So beyond the fact that it is wrong to use dehumanizing terms for those who differ from us, it is simply not an acceptable way for us to communicate with each other in our multicultural society. If we want real solutions to the issues brought up by Indiana’s RFRA law (By the way if you want to use my comment section to argue about the RFRA law then have at it. I will not be participating since I am still figuring out what my stance on it should be) then we should strive for solutions that include as many groups as possible. Having spent many years dealing with issues of racial reconciliation, I know that such solutions do not come unless we treat all parties with a seriousness that does not come from the use of insults. As such, it should not be controversial to call for a stigmatization of the use of the term “Bible-Thumper” and put that term in the garbage bin of terms no longer used on air or among people who want to be seen as having some degree of class. That is one tiny step we can take to produce the useful conversations we need to resolve our differences.