Jonathan Gruber knows what is best for us.

Usually people do not pay attention when academics talk. Well, students in our classes may pay attention, but I wonder if even that is true. We go to conferences to discuss the latest theories, innovative methodologies and/or new data sources. I enjoy that interaction and the new information but know that most working in the social sciences do not care. I cannot blame them. I once went to a dissertation recital for a graduate music student. When she talked about the social history of the composer, I found it interesting. After all, I am a sociologist. But then she talked technically about the measures used in his approach. I am not an academic in a music field. At that point, I wanted to fall asleep. Academic jargon is usually only useful for other academics in that particular field. That is a major reason why the general public usually ignores our discussions with each other.

But then comes Jonathan Gruber who reminds us that perhaps at times it is good for us that the general public usually ignores scholarly talks. The first comment I heard was at a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania when he talked about how the stupidity of the American voter helped ensure passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He went on to say that while it was regrettable that the law was written in a “tortured” way that he preferred a confused type of writing versus not having the law. Of course such statements have fed into a nationwide criticism of Gruber. Some of his other statements have come out to feed into this criticism, but these few statements are enough to allow me to speculate about the dynamics behind Gruber’s attitude.

I am not interested in arguing about the ACA. Like most educated individuals, I have an opinion about it but do not think that my research provides me with any special insight into that particular political issue. But my research does provide insight into the type of perspective exhibited by Gruber. It is similar to some of the attitudes I found in my research of cultural progressive activists. I do not know if Gruber is a cultural progressive, although there is at least some writings of his that seem supportive of abortion. But his support of ACA definitely puts him on the side of progressives on certain political issues.

His statement about the stupidity of voters and affirmation that he wanted the ACA even if he had to fool those voters reminded me of a certain set of comments I read from my cultural progressive respondents as they described individuals in the Christian right. Here are a few of those comments.

Bafflement that they can mobilize millions of adults to vote against their economic interests.

The most negative thing, out of many negative things I could say is that they get people to vote against their own self-interests. An example of this is getting poor evangelicals to vote republican when the party does nothing to help the poor. Or opposing universal health care which would be in their interest.

… the Republican Party uses religion (esp. Christianity) to control people and fool them into voting against their best interests.

As can be seen in the comments, my respondents do not believe that conservative Christians, or perhaps conservatives in general, know what is best for them. This was not a rare sentiment among the respondents. It is a sentiment that comports with their belief that conservative Christians are irrational and ignorant. Such stereotypes help explain to my respondents why people would vote for policies they see as unacceptable.

This indicates an attitude among cultural progressive activists that they know better what is good for others than those people know themselves. I am not sure if this sentiment is relatively unique to progressives or if it is an attitude that activists in general tend to have. I tend to believe the latter as such attitudes can be quite useful in justifying activism. One can legitimate activism as not only good for oneself but as beneficial for others. But since I only studied cultural progressive activists, I cannot rule out the possibility that conservative activists somehow escape having this type of paternalistic attitude.

The similarities of my respondents’ comments to Gruber’s comments caught my attention. Like my respondents, Gruber assumes that he knows what is best for others and is so convinced that he is right that writing the ACA in a misleading, or tortured, way is acceptable. The comment about the stupidity of the American voter supports the notion that he is willing to fool voters because he does not think that they know what is best for them. He does not trust the voters to make the right policy decisions for themselves. He would rather not deceive voters but to him having the policy is so important that he does not have to respect their opinions. This is very similar to the attitude of my respondents who believe that Christians vote against their own personal interest. Some of them argued that the reasons why such individuals vote against their own political interest is their ignorance and stupidity. These are some of the same reasons given by my respondents for why such individuals should not have a voice in the public square. It remains to be seen if they are as willing to act upon their beliefs as Gruber.

It strikes me as wrong, and fairly arrogant, to assume that we know more about what is best for other people than they do themselves. Christians have been accused, sometimes fairly, for presuming that they know what is best for others. To be clear, it is perfectly fair to make a case for one’s social, political and/or religious philosophy. I know that I do. Trying to convince others of the rightness of our position is part of what rational discourse is supposed to be about. Of course we believe we are right when we make assertions because if we do not believe that we are right then we would not argue about our social, political and/or religious beliefs. I am not arguing that others are wrong for aggressively arguing for what they believe. But to assume that we should speak for others because they simply do not know what is best for them disrespects their right to agency. It is fine for me to believe that others are wrong. It is fine for me to attempt to convince them that they are wrong. But it is incorrect for me to assert that I know what they need more than they do. I do not live their lives; they do.

Let me use an illustration to denote the difference between asserting that others are wrong and asserting that they are not mature enough to make their own decisions. Several years ago I knew of a lady who was struggling to hold down a job. Her desire was to find a husband and to be a good wife to him. Knowing her, I came to believe that she would be happier if she could find a guy to marry and to work at being a wife rather than at a job. But, at the time I was making this observation, I was also in graduate school and learning more about feminist theory. While I am critical of some of the excesses of feminism, it has much to offer to our society. This lady was not a feminist. She probably would not agree with me in my support of some of the reforms in this ideology. We probably would have different voting behaviors on those issues. But feminism was not useful for the struggles she faced. The feminist fight for women in the marketplace was not something that helped her. She would be better off not focusing on a career, but building a traditional marriage. If she acted in ways that discouraged feminism she would be acting in her own personal interest. Some individuals would argue such actions would be to the disadvantage of all women and thus to her disadvantage. But I reluctantly disagree. A feminism that encourages, although not requires, women to enter the workplace creates an atmosphere that makes the type of traditional lifestyle she wants more difficult to sustain. To respect her agency, I came to accept that I think some of her ideas about public policies are wrong, but that she is making the best political decisions for herself. It would be fair for me to try to convince her to support certain policies but it is arrogant for me to presume that she does not know which policies are best for her but that I do.

Are there times where people vote against their own self-interest? Of course that occurs. But I suspect that it happens a lot less than Gruber and the social progressive activists think. Their attitudes are similar to a Marxian perspective of class consciousness with the focus on how the lower classes (proletariat) are misled by the upper classes (bourgeois). But often when we try to interpret the self-interest of others, we use our values and our priorities instead of theirs. The Marxian perspective focuses on the economic interest of different groups in our society. But not everybody prioritizes economic aspects above others. I respect the right of someone to vote according to their own priorities. Demanding that others vote according to our own priorities strikes me as ideological imperialism.

Many of my respondents talked about lower class and/or religious voters voting against their own economic interests. For the sake of argument let us say they are correct and the progressive economic polices they endorse are indeed better for lower class religious voters. Are those religious and/or lower class voters wrong in their nonsupport of progressive politicians? They are only wrong if their highest voting priorities are based on economic priorities. But perhaps they prioritize being able to express their religious beliefs in the public square and have concluded that progressive politicians are less likely to support their right to do so. Their lack of support of progressive politicians would fit solidly in how they have prioritized their own group interest. People are free to complain as much as they want that these individuals are voting against their own group interests, but in doing so they are requiring that individuals adopt their own priorities. I trust those lower class and religious individuals to make their own decisions about what their priorities should be.

As I stated above, Christians have been criticized for attempting to impose their own values upon other individuals. But Gruber’s actions and the comments of my respondents suggest that such tendencies are not limited to Christians. Wanting to impose one’s values on others seems to be a general tendency with whom occurs in other social groups as well. Recognizing this tendency within ourselves and/or within others that we agree can help us to be more forgiving when others engage in such tactics. However accomplishing such recognition is extremely difficult in a culture that does not encourage self-introspection.

Disrespect, Intimidation and Prejudice at the University of Colorado

Sometimes social scientists unexpectedly find out about data that was collected for reasons other than peer-review social research. That was the case when I found out about the 2014 Social Climate Survey conducted at the University of Colorado. The survey was commissioned by the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents. It was conducted on all four of the campuses in the University of Colorado system. Several questions assessed whether students felt welcomed, respected, discriminated against and/or intimidated due to their race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, political affiliation, and/or religious affiliation. The religious and political affiliation questions caught my attention as usually diversity surveys do not include such factors. An email or two with some of the individuals connected to the survey and I had crosstabulations of the data to assess and consider (Ideally I would have used the actual data to more fully test my ideas, but they seemed unwilling to release it.)

I have written before about my previous research on academic bias. My research was based on national data. The Colorado data is limited to a single college, but that data goes more in depth than my original data. There has been significant concern about the social atmosphere that people of color, women, and sexual minorities have to deal with on college campuses. However, given my previous work on academic bias, I wonder if those groups are the only groups experiencing hostile atmosphere on college campuses. How would the perceptions of hostility felt by people of color, women and sexual minorities compare to the perceptions of religious and political conservatives?

The first question of interest I found on the survey was “In your opinion, do you agree or disagree that students on your campus are respected regardless of their…?”. The students were asked about several different social categories (i.e. race, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, physical impairment, mental impairment, veteran/military status, political philosophy, political affiliation and religion/spiritual beliefs). When students were asked about race/ethnicity (84.1%), gender (87.7%) and sexual orientation (84.4%), there was overwhelming agreement that students are respected. A majority of the students also believed that respect is accorded to students due to their religion/spiritual beliefs (76.6%) and political affiliation (72.2%), but support for such respect is distinctly lower.

A second question dealing with prejudice or discrimination indicated results supporting the findings in the preceding paragraph. The respondents were asked whether they experienced prejudice or discrimination on campus due to any of their social identities. If they stated that they did experience such prejudice or discrimination, then they were asked, “Was the prejudice or discrimination you experienced in a University of Colorado educational experience relate to…?”. This allowed the survey to assess which social identity was linked to prejudicial or discriminatory behavior. Generally, theories of discrimination are linked to issues of gender, race sexual orientation or gender identity. While gender (33.5%) was the social identity where students were most likely to indicate discrimination or prejudice, religion/spiritual beliefs was a close second (31.7%). Race/ethnicity (28.2%) was third. Political affiliation (24.8%) was a source of discrimination more than sexual orientation (10.2%) and gender identity (6.4%).

Finally, there was a question that asked “Specifically, have you felt intimidated to share your ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because of your…?”. Of the different social identities, it was political philosophy (23.0%) that was most linked to feelings of intimidation, followed by religion or spiritual beliefs (22.1%). In contrast, race/ethnicity (10.9%), gender (12.5%), sexual orientation (5.5%) and gender identity (3.3%) scored appreciably lower.

Up to this point, we know religion and political identity seem at least as important to the social atmosphere of students as gender, race and sexual orientation. This is regardless of the degree of attention given to social identities of race, gender and sexual orientation by academics and activists concerned about cultural acceptance and tolerance relative to concerns of political and religious social identities. This leads to the question of whether individuals in certain religions or with certain political identities are more likely to feel disrespected at the University of Colorado. When asked about religion, Mormon (29.6%), Muslim (24.3%) and Protestant (23.9%) had the highest percentage of those who felt disrespected due to religion. This is in contrast to Hindu (12.9%), Buddhist (15.2%) and atheist (15.8%) who were least likely to perceive disrespect due to their religious beliefs. On issues of religious prejudice and discrimination, it was also clear that higher percentages of Mormons (62.1%), Jews (53.9%) and Protestants (53.9%) perceived episodes of prejudice and/or discrimination. On the low end, agnostics (13.6%), Buddhists (15.5%) and atheists (25.8%) were least likely to perceive episodes of prejudice and discrimination. When it comes to those of different religious feeling intimidated to share their ideas, higher percentages of Mormons (40.7%), Muslims (37.4%), and Protestants (35.4%) experienced this intimidation. At the low end, it was agnostics (10.6%), Buddhists (16.0%) and Hindus (16.1%) least likely to feel intimidated. When I blogged about the inadequacy of the concept of Christian Privilege to adequately explain all areas of our society, I got some pushback. This data illustrates my point as Protestants are disrespected more on college campuses than those from eastern religions and the irreligious. I acknowledge that Christians, at least Protestants, have advantages in some areas of society; however, clearly the college campus is not one of those areas.

There were differences in campus atmosphere depending on the political ideology a student adopted. When asked if they were respected regardless of their political affiliation, Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to feel disrespected (31.7% versus 17.0%). As it concerns political ideology, very conservative students were more than twice as likely as very liberal students to experience that disrespect (37.3% versus 16.4%). Republicans were more than three times more likely to feel prejudice or discrimination than Democrats (51.7% versus 14.3%) and very conservative students were more than four times more likely than very liberal students to feel prejudice or discrimination (61.8% versus 13.7%). Republicans were three times more likely to feel intimidated to share their ideas in class due to political affiliation relative to Democrats (36.9% versus 11.3%). Very conservative students were almost four times more likely to feel such intimidation relative to very liberal students (47.7% versus 12.3%).

A couple of points need to be recognized before discussing the implications of this study. First, due to my lack of access to the actual data, there are some tests I would like to run to gain a more nuanced understanding. For example, it is quite possible that the lower numbers of certain groups distort some of the earlier findings. Remember that students are more likely to feel discrimination or prejudice due to religious/spiritual beliefs and political affiliation than sexual orientation? It may be that these results are due to the larger numbers of Protestants and/or very conservative students relative to homosexual and bisexual students. For example, the percentage of homosexuals (70.9%) who experience discrimination or prejudice due to sexual orientation is appreciably higher than any of the religious or political groups in discrimination due to their respective social categories. However, bisexuals (32.8%) did not have as high of a percentage as the conservative religious or political groups. This propensity may also apply to other small minority groups such as the transgendered (64.7%) who scored fairly high when asked about prejudice or discrimination due to gender identity. (On a related subject, females at 44.8% have a slightly higher score than bisexuals when asked about prejudice or discrimination as it concerns gender. I did not have any data concerning race.). With a full data set, I could look at the categories of respect and intimidation to see the degree to which effects are due to differential size of social groups.

The other methodological point of concern is the way religion was measured. Categories of Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic and other are inadequate for assessing the religious atmosphere of the campuses. In my research on academic bias, I found that evangelicals and fundamentalists are rejected more than any other social group. Yet students from these groups would theoretically be lumped together with mainline Protestants, who faced relatively little bias, in the Protestant category. I have little doubt that the findings concerning Protestants’ experience of disrespect, intimidation and prejudice/discrimination would be much stronger if the religious identity question was careful to separate the mainline Protestants from conservative Protestants. Given my previous findings that conservative Protestants is the group most rejected by academics, more than Mormons or Muslims in my sample, it would not be surprising that conservative Protestants experience a more negative social atmosphere than Mormons or Muslims despite the relative scores of Protestants in the University of Colorado survey. However, due to the way the religion question was constructed, I can only speculate about the experiences of conservative Protestants.

The quantitative nature of this survey likely obscures some of the reality of culture at the University of Colorado. We can compare the percentages of those with different social identities in how they perceive acceptance at the University of Colorado. But I doubt that the experiences of each group are similar in kind and only differ in quantity of nonacceptance. The type of prejudice faced by women or homosexuals on college campuses is not likely to be the type of prejudice faced by religious and political conservatives. My guess is that the prejudice or discrimination faced by those former groups is more likely to come from students or staff, while the prejudice or discrimination faced by the latter groups is more likely to come from faculty. Of course, I may be wrong and it would be great to have qualitative interviews or open-ended questions to capture some of the different experiences between members of differing social identities. If the researchers at the University of Colorado redo this study, I hope they add a qualitative component.

So what are the implications of the University of Colorado survey? To my conservative friends, I warn them to not break out alarms and cries of persecution. Yes, there is information that they face a hostile social climate; however, for methodological reasons stated above, we cannot be completely confident that they face more hostility than other social groups. However, clearly the degree of hostility experienced by religious and political conservatives is not inconsequential. While I hesitate to argue that religious and political conservative students face more hostility at the University of Colorado than students of color, female students and sexual minority students, neither can we have confidence that those latter groups of students experience the highest level of hostility. It is not intellectually feasible to pretend that conservatives are merely “crying wolf” when they complain about the social atmosphere on campus unless we also dismiss the complaints of other students.

There has been much talk about creating an atmosphere on our college campuses whereby students are not inhibited by their social identity and cultural background. I applaud such efforts as making those from different social and cultural groups comfortable can produce more ideological diversity and help educate individuals from a variety of different groups. Given the results of this survey and other research conducted by myself and others, it is clear that our efforts to create an accepting social environment are incomplete unless they take into consideration political and religious conservative students. It is important to devise a holistic approach towards creating a tolerant, supporting educational atmosphere that takes into account the concerns of religious and political conservatives as well as students of color, women and sexual minorities. Those attempting to create a more welcoming educational atmosphere but are not concerned with the disrespect, intimidation or prejudice/discrimination felt by conservative students ultimately do not have the intention of creating a tolerant atmosphere. Rather they are only concerned with creating a tolerant atmosphere for certain social groups.

Ferguson, Staten Island, What’s Next?

So when will we have our next racial controversy? We know that there will be more after Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We will see another issue of racial conflict, confusion and miscommunication again. It may not involve the police but it will happen. Activists of color will flock to the area where it occurred. Conservatives will minimize the racialized component of it. We will argue. Fox News will take the side of white conservatives and moderates while MSNBC takes the side of activists of color. The event will be interpreted by the particular racial perspective one has and indeed all of the racial animosity we see today we will see all over again. Treyvon Martin, Sean Bell, and Ramarley Graham all suggest that future racial controversy is inevitable.

The sad part is that even though our progress towards racial understanding has stalled, the way we are handling our past racial controversies has not really changed,. So when we have the next racial incident where individuals at the extremes of the racial argument will reinforce previous biases and speak mostly to only those who already agree with them. They will demonize and blame those who disagree with them. Calls for a national conversation on race will be met by conservatives with derision. Calls for minority personal responsibility will be met by activists of color with anger. This pattern is all too familiar because this is how we have dealt with our past racial conflict, and this is how we are dealing with these current racial disputes. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and yet expecting a different result. On racial issues we are an insane nation.

We have an opportunity to deal with the simmering racial wounds that have damaged our society. But then again this was the case with any of the dozens of other racialized controversies that have taken place over the past decade or so in the United States. We did not use those controversies to have the dialog we need, so why would any reasonable person expect us to have that dialog today? Are we willing to take the hard steps necessary to make Ferguson and Staten Island more than just the latest racial incidents but rather to make this time the opportunity to change our sick race relations? Our history indicates that we are not.

No matter what we do, at some point people of different races will have conflict in a given situation. Whether that conflict morphs into a racial controversy depends on our ability to work through our current racial arguments. If we can use Ferguson and Staten Island to create an atmosphere whereby future incidents are evaluated with limited racial baggage then we have a chance to stave off a future racial explosion. But as it is clear by my initial comments, I highly doubt that we will use them in that manner.

Michael Emerson and I wrote Transcending Racial Barriers – a book where we argued for a healthier approach towards fostering interracial dialog. We contend that people of different races have to learn about the concerns of those with whom they disagree. We have to consider what we have in common as well as where our opinions differ. We argued that people of good will should work towards devising solutions that address the worries brought up by those of different races and not just their own complaints. In doing so, we believe that real solutions can be devised that have legitimacy from a broad range of individuals. Attempts to force solutions that do not address the concerns of those of other races upon the large society will only be met with resistance and ultimately are unsustainable.

So what does this mean for situations such as Ferguson and Staten Island? Conservative and moderate whites need to realize that these racial deaths are not about the character of the particular victims. It is about the larger context in which racial violence takes place. In the Ferguson case, questions are asked about why the police force is so overwhelmingly white in a town with such racial diversity and why the body was left in the street for so long? In the Staten Island case, questions are asked about the need for such force in such a minor crime and why an alleged chokehold was used? People of color are not just concerned about the possible misuse of police force in these particular incidents, but also for how the systematic propensities in the criminal justice system work against them. Many people of color have life experiences that confirm some of their fears that they will be mistreated by law enforcement agents. Of course there is also quantitative data collaborating their worries.

White conservatives and moderates generally cling to a colorblind perspective that is usually confirmed by their life experiences. It is understandable that they would use this perspective to try to understand contemporary racial issues. But they often halt communication by clinging to colorblind narratives that dismiss the lived realities of people of color. Many believe that we live in a race neutral society. But people of color know that their racial identity has a negative impact on their lives. To be told that our concerns are insignificant so often feels like we are being lied to by those with societal power. Any healthy conversation will require whites to suspend their racial assumption of colorblindness so that they can honestly hear about the struggles that still exist for people of color. If they fail to respect the perspectives coming from people of color, then they foster a conversation whereby they are attempting to force people of color to accept the perspectives of the majority group before the discussion even begins.

Whites willing to engage in an honest conversation will encounter painful racialized social facts. Naturally at times they will feel attacked when confronting those facts. When that happens, there is often a defensiveness among whites which makes conversation difficult. I want to challenge whites to work through that defensiveness. Chances are the person of color is not accusing you personally of racism. That feeling of accusation originates from the individualism European-Americans tend to possess. Many times people of color are expressing concern about larger social structures, which do not require individual racism to disadvantage people of color, creating frustration for them. If majority group members can remember this and take the concerns of people of color seriously, then we can gain from a beneficial conversation. But if whites insist that people of color adopt the same type of colorblind, individualistic mindset they possess, then productive conversation becomes impossible.

But it is not merely whites who are hindering productive communication. I looked at the titles of some online articles written by racial progressive activists.

Listening Well as a Person of Privilege
What White People Need to Know and Do, After Ferguson
12 Things White People can do now Because Ferguson
8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race

Do you notice anything missing here? The progressive activists are paying attention to what whites need to learn and doing so with the assumption that there is nothing for people of color to learn. I know where this mindset comes from. This is a mindset based on the notion that people of color understand the problems of racism in our society since they have to live through them. Thus their only responsibility is to teach whites about the horrors of racism. It is a perspective that totally discounts the perspectives of majority group members. Those who express this perspective, whether intentionally or not, are advocating for a conversation where whites are expected to merely listen and agree with people of color.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone only trying to get you to agree with them and who puts forth no effort to listen to you? Did you ultimately agree with them? Yeah me neither. It is understandable that many people of color will not agree with the perspectives of majority group members. However, if they want an honest dialog with such individuals then they will have to respect the point of view of those majority group members. They will have to invest some of their energy to listening for understanding, and not merely for counterargument. Otherwise, it is unlikely that such activists of color will pick up support from whites who do not already share their racially progressive ideology.

One of the consequences of such a one-sided approach is that some activists of color really do not understand whites, even though they may think that they do. Whenever I hear an activist of color talk about white supremacy as the motivation of large groups of whites in our society, then I know I am listening to someone who has failed to listen to whites for a long time– if ever. White supremacy was a real problem in our society and is still a problem among a small group of whites today. But a simplistic attribution to white racism is not an adequate description of the sources of contemporary majority group members’ attitudes. If activists of color have such a low opinion of whites, then it is easy to understand why whites are unwilling to dialog with them. Would you want to dialog with someone who thinks the worst of you and does not want to listen to you?

Emerson and I pioneered in our book what we called a mutual accountability approach towards racial issues. We contend that both whites and non-whites have responsibilities towards communicating in ways where we can find solutions acceptable across different racial groups in our society. What passes for interracial conversation today is quite laughable and sad. White conservatives/moderates and activists of color spend more time demonizing each other than trying to find solutions everyone can accept. Whites tend to do it by attempting to force people of color to accept their own colorblind reality while people of color tend to do it by refusing to consider the perspectives of whites. In both cases we have groups talking passed, and not to, each other. They certainly are not listening to each other. Instead they seem to be focusing on ways to put their group on top no matter what the consequences are to the larger society. This is an all or nothing strategy whereby each side is attempting to force its will on the rest of society. It is a strategy that will ensure that our racial fighting will continue. We can change our current racial climate. However, having the conversation we need is painful and there is plenty of tribal incentive to avoid it.

Our racial dialog cannot start with either side predetermining the outcome. Rather, individuals will have to both talk and listen so that compromises can be made that lead to the alterations in our racial relations which can prevent the next racial controversy. The conversation will be messy. There is no way that a conversation this sensitive in nature and has been postponed for so long will be anything but messy. The participants will have to exhibit a high degree of patience and persistence to make progress with such conversations. It will not be easy but such conversations can break the cycle of one racial controversy after another that has plagued us. Yet, I do not see such conversations occurring in the near future. That is a shame. Short-term strategies that provide temporary power to one’s own in-group will prevail over longer term changes that might actually make a difference.

When I was younger, I was fairly optimistic that at some point we would overcome our awful racial history and develop a society that matched the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. But as I have watched the pattern of racial controversies followed by recriminations and demonization of the racial/political other, I have become more pessimistic. I want that optimism of my younger years, but my observations of a human nature that hinders our ability to see perspectives other than our own makes it harder for me to recapture that optimism. I hope that events in the coming days will prove my pessimism to be wrong and help me to regain that optimism. But so far I have not seen anything to warrant such hope. I expect that once everything calms down that we will merely wait for the next racial confrontation continuing our cycle of racial hostility because we will talk, but we will not listen.

Christianophobia in the United States – Part 3

This is the third and final entry of the blog series about my latest book – So Many Christians, So Few Lions – Christianophobia in the United States. In the first two entries I went over the data used to document Christianophobia. I refer any new readers back to the first and second entries if they want to see the basis of my assertion that Christianophobia is a real factor in our society. I will not take the time here to reargue my evidence for Christianophobia, but for the purpose of this blog entry will assume that it is a real phenomenon in this entry. So now I consider the implications of this social phenomenon. In my book I did engage in some speculation, but since I sent in the final draft I have had an opportunity to think further about the ramifications of Christianophobia. I hope to spark further conversation about such implications.

Obviously prejudice, bigotry and hatred are not new. Scholars have done an excellent job documenting these qualities in past research. Generally such work has focused on groups (i.e. atheists, racial minorities, sexual minorities) rejected by those who are less educated and/or politically conservative. However, those who tend to have bigotry and hatred towards conservative Christians tend to be highly educated and politically progressive. Such individuals likely have a value of tolerance that may protect conservative Christians from the practical effects of such hostile attitudes.

To assess if this is a possibility, we asked our respondents about what changes they would like to make in society to deal with the Christian right. Most were reluctant to endorse explicit restrictions aimed at Christians. However, some exhibited a willingness to have rules that have a disparate negative impact on Christians. The concept of disparate impact has been used by legal scholars to illustrate how racial disparities can be perpetuated by policies, such as voter ID laws, that on the surface are race neutral. I found it to be a useful concept for explaining some of the responses. Indeed several respondents indicated a desire for laws that they knew would have a negative impact on Christians.

I don’t think we should pass laws that are directed towards any particular group of people. However, if a particular *good* law happens to negatively affect practices or beliefs of the Christian Right, but protects the freedom of most Americans, then I would be in favor. (Female, aged 46-55 with Bachelor degree)

I do not believe laws should be passed that affect any one religion over another. I do believe that existing laws should be enforced that could have a negative impact. (Male, aged 26-35 with some graduate school)

Our respondents have values inhibiting them from expressing direct religious discrimination, in much the same way most white Americans today have values inhibiting them from expressing direct racial discrimination (If you doubt this comment then please find a survey where a majority of European-Americans advocate a policy that is overtly racist). However, in both cases there is a willingness to support rules that have the effect of putting racial minorities or conservative Christians at a disadvantage if those rules can be justified in non-bigoted ways.

It is in this context that we can analyze certain social events occurring in the United States. There are current controversies concerning the limits of religious freedom on issues of homosexuality and abortifacients. I do not have the evidence to argue that Christianophobia is a major reason why there has been so much energy invested in forcing conservative Christians to act against their own stated values. However, it is naïve to believe that such hostility and the willingness of my respondents to express that hostility through measures that disproportionately impact conservative Christians plays no role in this debate. Now that anti-fundamentalist hostility have been identified among educated progressives (In the 2012 American National Election Studies nearly three fourths of political progressives with at least a bachelor degree has anti-fundamentalist animosity), it is reasonable to factor in the possible effects of this hostility in particular social and political issues.

Yet, I already hear my critics complaining that this assertion proves nothing. I do not have proof that anti-Christian hostility plays a factor in how Christians are treated. Perhaps educated progressives are able to overcome their own bias and to accurately assess political and social issues apart from their bigotry. But if they are able to do so, then they would be the first social group that is able to act without emotional bias. I find myself skeptical that they have been able to achieve that feat given all of the previous research on the effects of social bias and prejudice on our decision making.

Research into the possible bias against conservative Christians in academia seems to confirm my skepticism. It is well established that academics tend to be more politically progressive and secular than the general population. It is obvious that they are highly educated. So academia theoretically should be a place where we would find a higher than normal level of Christianophobia. This Christianophobia may manifest in discrimination against conservative Christians. A few years ago I conducted research suggesting that this is the case. I found that academics were willing to discriminate against a prospective candidate for an academic position if they found out that the candidate is a conservative Protestant. In fact, they were more willing to discriminate against conservative Protestants than against any other social group included in my survey. Their willingness to discriminate against those Protestants was even more powerful than their willingness to discriminate against political conservatives. Religious intolerance trumps potential political intolerance among academics.

Of course simply because academics state that they are open to discriminating against conservative Protestants does not mean that they actually engage in such discrimination. A survey is not sufficient evidence. However, Rothman and Lichter conducted research documenting that academics with socially conservative beliefs tend to be located in lower status occupational positions even after controlling for demographic variables and their level of productivity. If conservative Protestants are more likely to have socially conservative beliefs than other academics, a reasonable belief, then this research suggests systematic evidence that there are occupational disadvantages in academia to having conservative Christian beliefs. Since academics have a willingness to discriminate against those Christians, this disadvantage cannot merely be due to their inability to do science, as the common stereotype of Christians seems to imply, but discrimination from academics who may be motivated by Christianophobia is likely an important factor.

But even this systematic data, in combination with my previous research, may not be enough evidence to convince some individuals that anti-Christian discrimination is a problem in academia. Unless we have possible examples of such discrimination, then there may be confounding variables not captured by the Rothman and Lichter analysis. I have heard of several examples where there was very powerful evidence of religious discrimination, but most of those I have learned in confidence and cannot discuss in a public forum. However, the Mike Adams story is a public court case that I can freely discuss. Adams is a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. He was denied promotion to full professor. He found out that part of the reason for this denial is his non-academic writing based on his Christian faith. He sued and won his lawsuit indicating that religious discrimination was a factor in his denial of promotion. This case is at least one example of our judicial system documenting anti-Christian bigotry connected to attempted discrimination.

I know that there are still individuals who refuse to believe that religious discrimination can be found within academia. They require absolute proof before accepting the reality of religious bias in academia. Of course there is little, if anything, in society that can be “proven.” Social scientists cannot demand proof before making assertions. Can we prove that racism plays a role in our current culture? No. There is a lot of evidence that racism still matters, but there is not absolute proof. The same type of evidence used to assess the possibility of discrimination based on race, sexuality or non-Christian religious status should also be viable in our assessment of the possibility of religious discrimination.

So let us pretend that a large number of engineers state that they are less willing to hire somebody if they are Jewish. Furthermore, we have data indicating that Jews are more likely to find themselves in lower status engineering positions even when we control for demographic factors and for the achievements of the engineers. Finally, assume that we have anecdotal court cases where engineering firms have been caught denying promotion to Jewish engineers because of their religious beliefs. If academics had this level of evidence of anti-Semitism within the engineering occupation, there is little doubt that social scientists would be convinced by this evidence. If that would be the case with anti-Semitism, then it is fair to say that a similar conclusion should be drawn given the evidence I have highlighted about academia bias and conservative Protestants.

Conservative Christians pay a price for their faith in academia. The Christianophobia documented in my research offers a plausible explanation why they may pay such a price. To the best of my knowledge, there is not any similar evidence for other occupations or fields of endeavor whereby we would expect to find the progressive, highly educated individuals who tend to have Christianophobia. However, academia is one of the institutions we use to document incidents of prejudice and bias. If academics have a propensity to accept Christianophobic prejudices and stereotypes then it is not surprising that we do not have very much previous research documenting that social dysfunction in academia or other institutions where it may play a significant role.

My current research can only document the presence and nature of Christianophobia. At this time, we do not have sufficient research on how this type of anti-religious animosity impacts our larger society. I refer back to my earlier comments about the recent controversies pitting conservative Christians against the highly educated progressives with a relatively higher propensity to have Christianophobia. These controversies have been influenced by religious bias on both sides of those issues. Generally, there is sufficient attention paid to the religious bias of political and religious conservatives. This is related to an often unspoken assumption that only conservatives are motivated by religious prejudice. It is unrealistic to assert that political and religious progressives have been able to avoid the same propensities to engage in hatred and prejudice against out-group members documented in political and religious conservatives. My research strongly indicates a need for more attention to religious bias of progressives and how that bias impacts our society.

Beyond social conflicts, there may be other ways in which Christianophobia has a yet unknown effect in our society. It is possible that some certain social institutions and movements are also partially shaped by Christianophobia. Ideally future research will investigate these possibilities. But, I want to be very clear that I am not arguing that Christianophobia is rampant in all areas of our society. The characteristics of those who tend to have anti-Christian animosity do not describe all individuals, and it is a mistake to associate Christianophobia with the type of overarching racial prejudice that used to be endemic in our society. I suspect that certain powerful businesses and political institutions are relatively unlikely to be affected by Christianophobia. However, institutions important in shaping our culture (i.e. media, art and academia) tend to consist of the highly educated progressives most likely to have Christianophobia. Those with Christianophobia have a greater ability to shape our larger culture than those with other types of social intolerances. In some ways Christianophobia is less troublesome than other types of bigotry in that it may not be as widespread as those other bigotries, but in other ways, since it is most likely to be found among culturally and socially powerful individuals, it may be more troublesome.

Christianophobia offers us an opportunity to rethink our current approach towards dealing with intolerance. In the past, we have concentrated on intolerant attitudes that political and religious conservatives are most likely to possess. Christianophobia is an intolerance most likely to be possessed by progressives and the well-educated. I do not suggest the need for specific programs of “diversity training” to aid individuals in dealing with this Christianophobic bigotry. Instead, I wonder if now is not the time to consider developing diversity programs that aid individuals with confronting their illiberal feelings towards all types of out-groups.

Such a program would build on my presupposition that people from all subcultures have out-group members they tend to exhibit hatred and animosity towards, but identity of the out-group members changes between different subcultures. The idea of a totally tolerant subculture is a myth. It is the sort of myth that allows certain individuals to dismiss the possibility that they have to engage in the introspection necessary to confront their own bigotries and biases. That sort of myth allows the irrational hatred and anger that is part of Christianophobia to go unchallenged, and that sort of myth should be confronted by those who want to lessen the level of cultural conflict and bigotry too often a part of our society.

Of course there is more work to do. I do not wish to leave the impression that the research discussed in this blog series is the last word on anti-Christian animosity in the United States. But hopefully this work will give future scholars potential research questions they can explore. As funding permits, I would love to be one of those researchers.

Finally, I want to state the obvious which is that I am a Christian documenting Christianophobia and thus some individuals may discount my observations due to the bias I bring to the topic. I would wonder if such individuals would discount my previous work in the field of race and ethnicity due to my African-American identity. Nevertheless I acknowledge that part of my reason for embarking on this particular research project is due to my position as a Christian in academia and thus my ability to observe Christianophobia in several of my encounters. But that is not my only motivation. It is my belief that part of human flourishing is the ability to engage in introspection to a sufficient degree where we can understand some of the hidden biases that shape our thinking. We may not always be able to overcome those biases but recognizing them allows us to have a more balanced understanding of our own personal nature. If this research aids those with Christianophobia to undertake such steps of introspection then I will have accomplished another important part of my personal goals for this research.


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