Crunchy Christians

I am a fortunate man to be married to a woman with whom I am highly compatible. We share the same Christian values, and by that I do not merely mean that we are both Christians but also the way we interpret our faith on a variety of issues is very similar. Our child rearing philosophies nearly match. We have a great deal of agreement on our financial goals. I do not agree with her on every political issue, but there is probably nobody that I politically agree with all the time (That is what it means to be a political independent). I wish every couple can be as well-matched as we are.

However, there is one area where we do have disagreement. It is not a major area, but when we have disagreements it is usually connected to this issue. That issue concerns, for lack of a better term, how granola we are going to live. You see my wife believes in organic products. She does not like products with GMOs. I, on the other hand, do not want to spend money on those sorts of things. I believe that it is a waste of time to locate these products, and I do not want to spend the extra money on them. She is not anti-vaccination, which would be a line I would draw. Overall we have learned to compromise on what sort of items we will purchase.

Needless to say, these tendencies developed before we married. She had concerns about organics and GMOs before we married while I generally purchased what I thought was the best deal. Consequently, I have learned more about people who have much more of a granola mindset than I. I have shopped more at the natural store and read a few articles about GMOs and organics to learn how people rationalize spending their money on this stuff. It is not surprising that a lot of businesses make a generous amount of money catering to people with a granola lifestyle. But because of her faith, I have discovered a subset of those businesses that I did not know existed before marrying. Those are businesses that cater to Christians living a granola lifestyle. I simply did not consider that many Christians would have the same granola values as my wife.

For example, when my wife became pregnant, she sought out a doula. But in keeping with her values, she wanted a Christian doula. To my surprise, there are quite a few of them out there. Those doulas also know other Christian professionals such as children’s dentist and chiropractor that she could direct us to that had a granola approach to their practice. So they had a definite granola perspective but with a distinctively Christian touch. Christian music and posters in their office set an unmistakable religious tone. As I sat in those offices I just wondered about how strong the niche market that be for these professionals to sustain themselves. It meant that my wife was not an anomaly but there were plenty of Christians who wanted the sort of services she sought. In the spirit of Dreher’s book “Crunchy Cons,” I will name these individuals Crunchy Christians.

As I became curious about this phenomenon, I decided to see if anyone else had thought about crunchy Christians. I found a couple of websites that used the term. One was a blog that went by the name of Crunchy Christian Mama and another website featured a discussion about Christians living out this naturalist lifestyle. Yep. I was right. My wife is not alone in this. The number of crunchy Christians is not overwhelming, but there is a presence of them in our society.

Let me be clear that from what I have gathered about them so far, this is not a very active political movement. Crunchy Christians seem distinctive from Christians working for environmental concerns (although of course I suspect that some of them do work for such causes). My very limited exploration of this phenomenon suggests that these individuals are more concerned about living out a healthy lifestyle. I suspect that most of them vote Republican and have traditional conservative moral values. So I would not mistake them for progressive Christians. My best guess is that they are conservative Christians who choose to live a granola lifestyle. Unlike the progressive Christians I discussed a couple of posts ago, these individuals are more likely to see conservative Christians as their ingroup rather than an outgroup.

One aspect I like about Crunchy Christians is that they challenge some of our religious assumptions. Some of those assumptions concern the hyper traditional lifestyle of Christians. Crunchy Christians show that one does not have to be an adherent of a naturalist religion or progressive subculture to be concerned about GMOs or to seek out essential oils. There are a variety of ways in which Christians live out their faith. We should not make assumptions about individuals due to either their lifestyle or religious affiliation.

What I would find interesting is how Crunchy Christians interpret scripture differently from other conservative Christians on issues that pertain to their lifestyle. I would like to know if they saw these lifestyle changes as sacred or mere personal choices. How do they prioritize their lifestyle choices in light of other aspects of their faith? Do they feel like outsiders among other Christians? How much does their social network include people with their own particular faith and lifestyle choices? I do not think that there are fantastic world changing implications to the answers of such questions. I just find them kind of fascinating to think about.

As a Christian I do not believe in reincarnation. But if I did, I could see myself conducting in-depth studies of a variety of different groups in my next life. I find it fascinating to see how people interpret their beliefs about reality and how they live those beliefs out. Among the groups I would study in that reincarnated life are crunchy Christians. As a group at the intersections of conservative Christianity and a naturalistic lifestyle, it would be interesting to see how they construct their social reality. Of course I already have insight into this intersection with my wife. All it will cost me is more expensive organic non-GMO food.

Racism, Not Christianophobia

This morning I woke up to the news of the horrible shooting in South Carolina. Given my recent research I pondered for a second if we had another Floyd Corkin situation. But once I found out it was an historical black church, I was 90 percent sure it was racial. Once they caught him and reported on his facebook page, that went up to 100 percent.

Given that reality, it was dismaying to hear a few Christians suggest that this was religiously motivated. So to my fellow Christian brothers and sisters, I have one thing to say about making such an argument. DON’T DO IT. This was racism straight up and there is no two ways about it.

I do not think I have to show my “street cred” to make this assertion. A quick look at my recent publications and this blog will show that I do not shy from pointing out anti-Christian bias and bigotry. Christianophobia is real, and some of my future blogs will continue to talk about it. This is not it. The shooter does not fit the profile for having this ailment but shows all the hallmarks of a racist. All of the other evidence points to racial but not religious animosity. Treat this for what it is – the ugly sin of racism.

Some white Christians will say that we do not know everything and perhaps we still will see anti-Christian bigotry. In the spirit that there are few things that can ever be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, I will agree that it is possible anti-Christian treatise might be discovered as a motivation of this shooting. However, the chances of that are so slim that until I see that evidence, and given all the other evidence we have, it is reasonable to ignore any potential religious motivations until that evidence is produced.

Some Christians are hanging on to the fact that this shooting took place in a church for evidence of its anti-Christian bias. The black church has a special place in the African-American community. It was the location where resistance to first, slavery and then other types of oppression could be organized. It has historically been the place where the leaders from our communities came from. And it is the place where racists and white supremacists have attacked in times past. Given this history of pain, someone with anti-Christian bigotry would not select an historically significant black church to launch a violent attack. If such a person is given to violence, it would be more like a Wedgewood shooting situation than today’s insanity.

In my former academic career, I dealt a great deal with racial issues and worked hard at reconciliation by trying to understand the perspectives of white Christians. I understand that some of them are frustrated because Christianophobia does tend to be ignored by the larger society in ways that it would not be ignored if it was some other type of intolerance. I feel you there. But nothing is gained by attempting to appropriate the pain of the black community today. I do not ask you to accept every solution blacks offer for racism, but I do ask that you understand why it is inappropriate to attempt to paint yourself as a victim today. Doing this not only alienates you from African-Americans, but it reinforces some of the stereotypes that Christianophobes have of Christians being whiners.

So I ask my Christian brothers and sisters to do what they can to be there for those who have been victimized. But do not make this about anti-religion or anti-Christian. My wish is that we get through this together and respecting the legitimate pain out there.

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.