Advice for Young Christian Academics

One of my young academic Christian facebook friends recently announced that he was going start a blog, even though he had been warned not to do so. I made a few comments on his page offering him some advice about being a Christian scholar with a blog. Indeed, I got the feeling that he was going to blog on conservative subjects and being a Christian who sometimes writes about subjects not popular with other academics, I hope my advice to him was relevant. The stakes are higher for him than for me given that he is young and unestablished. But of course on facebook, my advice is limited by the amount of space I can reasonably use. Since we are in a news cycle devoid of stories I want to comment on (Am I the only one tired of the Bergdahl story?), and I do not have research coming out that I have not already talked about, I decided to write this entry on the advice I would give young Christian academics about taking their research and/or ideas public – especially when those ideas are controversial.

In my early years, I wrote about racial issues such as interracial dating, racial issues in Christianity and racial identity. I, along with several other Christian scholars and activists, was critical of how Christians handled racial issues. I like to think that we played in important role in helping the Church become more aware of its need to deal with racism. Much of that work was seen favorably by other academics. In fact, most of my work dealing with our racialized society was well-received. Perhaps the only exception to this was my work on the assimilation of non-black racial minorities which naturally attracted some critique from some arguing that a different racial formation was emerging in our society. But even here the critiques were based on academic arguments and not personal accusations.

Over the last several years, my research focus has changed. I looked at anti-Christian bias in academia and then branched out to examining this bias in general society. I have also studied groups that opposed the political and social aims of conservative Christians. This new emphasis did not generate the same level of academic support as my work on race and racism. Indeed, even though I believe myself to be a better researcher and writer today than when I first started, it is harder to get my material published on these new subjects. Furthermore, my critics do not always rely merely on academic assessments of my work, but snide comments about my character are more commonplace. Therefore, I can tell young Christian scholars that I have been on both sides of the coin. I have conducted research that reinforced the epistemological presuppositions of most academics and work that challenged those presuppositions. I hope this provides me with a wide range of experiences from which I can offer this advice.

So the first piece of advice I would want to offer is for such scholars to seriously consider the consequences of doing research or discussing ideas that conflict with secular, humanist values in general academic culture. I appreciate the way my career developed. By focusing on work that was relatively non-controversial, I was able to learn how to do research without the extra burden of overcoming the philosophical assumptions within the discipline. This helped me understand what good research looked like and allowed me to later on be aware of when criticisms were illegitimate. I needed that experience to help me push forward on my work looking at anti-Christian perspectives in society. However, I cannot state that this is the only, or perhaps even the best, way a Christian should approach controversial topics. Perhaps a Christian feels called to jump right into those topics right from the very beginning. Or perhaps avoid those topics altogether. But it is important for the young Christian scholar to deliberately count the costs of tackling those topics and if choosing to proceed then deciding how to do so.

When considering whether to deal with a controversial topic, I recommend that the young Christian scholar does not fall for the hype of academics being open searchers for the truth. The scholar may believe that if he or she is correct and the evidence is sound, then other academics will listen. That is a myth and particularly relevant as it concerns Christians. My research has indicated that academics are more willing to discriminate against conservative Christians than against just about any other social group. If academics are willing to discriminate against conservative Christians then they are likely willing to ignore ideas, no matter how much evidence there is to support that idea, if it can be connected to conservative Christianity. Acknowledging this reality should be factored in since if a Christian is public with his or her faith it will be seen as that faith helping to shape his or her work and that can put job prospects of the young Christian scholar in jeopardy. (Yes, I know that homosexual academics are free to allow their sexuality to shape their work, female academics are free to allow their gender to shape their work and racial minorities are free to allow their racial identity shape their work but that is the way it is. It is not fair but we have to accept the reality of this) So as a Christian scholar considers at an early stage in his or her career whether to tackle controversial subjects, he or she must consider whether it is worth compromising occupational opportunities.

There is another factor to be pondered when tackling controversial topics. Academia in general is an institution that values excellence. I remember my first few submissions to peer review journals and the panning they received. It taught me that I had to be very detailed and critical of my own work. This is the case no matter the subject I choose to write about. However, on controversial subjects, the ability to do excellent work becomes even more important. There will be scholars not open to giving controversial work a fair hearing and will go out of their way to pick such work apart. As such, if a young Christian scholar wants to write about controversial subjects, particularly if his or her position can be attributed to Christian faith, then that scholar has to be even more rigorous than other academics.

This striving for excellence is relevant even when not writing in formal academic journals. Blog writing cannot be a venue where the Christian scholar can vent frustrations and loosely throw around wild comments. The internet will ensure that any such comments will last for the lifetime of the author. Those comments can be used, fairly or unfairly, to paint character. So I tell my young Christian scholar to weigh all of your words carefully, even if they are just in a blog or a comment section where your identity can be recognized. When you write, assume that those who vehemently disagree will read those comments and look for any way to use those comments against you. Those comments may come back to haunt the Christian scholar five, ten, or even twenty years from now. Even today, as a full professor, I am careful with what I write in public venues like this one, as I have seen how individuals have been burned by a loose statement that was twisted to make them look arrogant, stupid, bigoted etc.

Another piece of advice I would offer concerns finding social support. When I first entered academia as a Christian, I did not know a lot of other Christian academics. As a result I often felt alone. This was before the internet and other resources today that allow us to locate like-minded individuals. Fortunately, I did locate a group called ACTS (Association of Christians Teaching Sociology) that consisted of other Christian sociologists. Generally, these individuals taught on Christian college campuses and so they did not have the exact same challenges that I had, but we had enough in common that I could receive important social support. Today there are other opportunities for social networks that can be investigated. On many campuses there are interdisciplinary groups of Christian academics who meet and support each other. There are facebook groups where liked minded Christian academics can support each other. I am certain an enterprising young Christian scholar can find other opportunities to meet Christians in academia. There are some issues that neither your non-academic Christian friends nor your non-Christian academic friends will completely understand. So my advice is to prioritize finding like-minded colleagues who can offer the sort of social and intellectual support that a young Christian needs. That support is important for gaining a sounding board for whether to tackle important controversial issues or for needed encouragement if the scholar decides to take on those issues.

I would also ask young Christian academics to honestly consider the anti-intellectualism within our faith. That anti-intellectualism produces a suspicion about what occurs on college campuses. When we think about controversial topics we also have a dual responsibility with our fellow Christians. First, we must reassure them that we are not their enemies. Some Christians have had run-ins with academics who looked down upon and ridiculed them. We have to make sure they know that is not our intention. When I used to talk about racism at conferences, I made sure that the Christians I interacted with knew that my intentions were to help the Church, and not tear it down. Second, we have to challenge our Christian brothers and sisters to embrace intellectualism instead of rejecting it. I am a huge believer in Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria idea that religion and science do not conflict with each other. We can encourage our fellow Christians to wholeheartedly use their faith to answer the questions relevant to our faith but to look towards science for the questions that can be answered by scientific inquiry. We do not merely tackle topics that are controversial to academics but also to Christians if we are going to be the prophets to the Church as well as to the society.

Finally, it is always important to make sure young Christian scholars take care of themselves spiritually as well as academically. I was fortunate in that I learned early in my life the value of a holistic approach to life. Thus, I strived to keep growing not only intellectually, but also physically and spiritually. This allowed me to become a multidimensional person. It is vital to do the hard intellectual work necessary to be a sound scholar. But it is also important to keep connected to our churches and tend to our own devotional lives if we want to nourish our Christian faith. Interacting with non-academic Christians helps keep me grounded in the struggles of others and not to think too highly of myself. It reminds me of the basic disciplines that give my faith its depth and meaning. I remember that I am a Christian first, and an academic second, which keeps me rooted in who I am.

Well this is some of my advice for the young Christian scholar. I hope that any who reads this blog entry will find this advice to be useful. I have loved this life of the spirit and of the mind. It is a challenge, but this life also comes with great personal and intellectual rewards. If you feel called to enter into that life as well, I welcome you with open arms.

Are Christians Stupid?

Stereotypes. We all use them even though we are told not to do so. In some ways our use of stereotypes is understandable. If I have limited knowledge about a person, I may use stereotypes to make guesses about him or her. If the stereotypes are based in reality, then this helps me make a reasonable guess about what that person is like. We stereotype from time to time as a shortcut to make a guess about what someone is like when we have not had the chance to learn about them. For example, if I have a Monster Truck Rally ticket to give away and it is down to one of two people, a male and a female, and I do not know either of them very well, then it is reasonable for me to give the tickets to the male. Given my very limited knowledge about Monster Truck Rallies, I venture to say that such events appeal more to men than they do to women. If I later learn that the man has no interest in such contests while the woman actually owns a Monster truck, then to insist that I stick with my stereotype of men and women would be incredibly unfair. I really do not blame people for stereotyping when there is a basis of reality for the stereotyping and when they are dealing with someone they have not had a chance to get to know. What I have a problem with is when individuals insist on maintaining the stereotype of a given individual when presented with evidence that the stereotype is not accurate. That evidence may be that the person does not fit the stereotype or it may be that the stereotype itself is false.

If we are going to use stereotypes as shortcuts, then we should make sure that our stereotypes have a basis in reality. I do not feel too bad about my Monster Truck stereotype since there is a reality that men are more into such “sports” than women. I do have the problem with the stereotype that blacks are less intelligent than whites since it is a stereotype without a solid basis in reality. There have been comparisons of IQ and cognitive ability exams suggesting an intellectual deficiency of African-Americans, but many researchers have rightly pointed out the weaknesses of such comparisons. Often these tests have been devised by individuals steeped in Eurocentric culture and values, which can make the tests more of a measure of European-American cultural competency than of innate intellectual ability. Therefore, efforts to suggest racial differences lead to intellectual differences have been met with a high degree of scorn and skepticism. Stereotypes based on those efforts are highly suspect and it is troublesome when individuals use such stereotypes to prejudge people of color.

There is a generous amount of research out there looking at the sort of stereotypes that exist in our society. Most of the research looks at the sort of stereotypes religious and political conservatives have. This is not surprising given that we know that religious and political conservatives are underrepresented in academia. But there are also stereotypes prevalent among religious and political progressives. It is valuable to assess if those stereotypes are based in reality or if they should be challenged.

One of the most common stereotypes is that Christians, and sometimes Republicans, are intellectually inferior. I saw this stereotype in the comments of many cultural progressive activist respondents who responded to my open ended internet questions (The data was used in my co-authored books What Motivates Cultural Progressives and There is No God). Here are a few of many examples of my respondents talking about lack of Christians’ cognitive capacity.
I find myself biased against Christians. I think they are dumb, and I find it very difficult to listen politely to Christian chatter. It annoys me. (Female, aged 36-45 with Master degree)

I tend to view them as uneducated people, or those who don’t have the capacity for critical thinking. Perhaps driven by fear. They also feel the need for some sort of birthright, something they feel they have inherited. (Female, aged 46-55 with Master degree)

Evidence is never an issue with them. They are very dumb and only require their own faith, not reason or evidence. (Female, aged 26-35 with some college)

At this point it is worth considering if such perspectives are based upon reality or if they are the results of prejudice and even possible bigotry. It is well documented that there is an anti-intellectual element within many Christian subcultures. Some Christians perceive scholarly work as a threat to their beliefs and thus have a philosophy that is overly skeptical of academic institutions. But this, in and of itself, is not evidence of innate intellectual inferiority or that “Christians are dumb.” However, there is research that has compared the scores of Christians to others on tests of cognitive ability. Some of this research has shown that Christians score lower than those with little or no traditional religious belief. This would suggest that stereotypes about Christian intellectual inferiority are based in empirical reality.

But remember that such cognitive tests have also indicated that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to European-Americans. Social scientists have rejected the results of such tests, at least in part, because we question cultural assumptions embedded in the construction of those tests. Complaints that these tests are created by whites and reflective of Eurocentric values and culture lead us to challenge the results emerging from these cross-racial comparisons. Is it possible that when we make comparisons of Christians to the irreligious, as has been done in certain research, that there is also a cultural component as well? Given the relative irreligious makeup of academics, it is reasonable to contend that tests of cognitive ability have been constructed in a cultural context not merely based on European-American culture but also in a subculture with secularized values. If this is true, then measures testing the cognitive abilities of Christians may be as accurate as measures testing the cognitive abilities of African-Americans.

But making this assertion is worthless unless there is evidence to back it up. I will soon have a research article (Coming out this year in the Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion) that provides some evidence about the unreliability of cognitive ability tests to make assertions about Christian intellectual inferiority. What I did was look at one of the tests suggesting that Christians have a lower level of cognitive ability than the irreligious – a study done by Robert Altemeyer in his book The Authoritarian Specter. He gave respondents a series of statements and asked them whether they agreed with those statements. He wanted to see how well his respondents were able to assess if there was sufficient evidence to support the assertions in the statements. He used 20 statements but on 4 of them religious individuals who had “authoritarian” (I have questioned the use of the concept of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in a previous blog, so I will not deal with this concept further here) tendencies tend to make incorrect assessment of the evidence presented in these statements. The four statements are:
1. Just because many religions in the world have legends about a big flood, that does not prove the story of Noah in the Bible is true.
2. The accounts of many people who nearly died, who say they traveled through a dark tunnel toward an all-loving Being of Light, proves the teachings of Christianity are true.
3. The fact that archaeologists have discovered a fallen wall at the site of ancient Jericho does not prove the story in the Bible about Joshua and the horns.
4. The fact that the Shroud of Turin was scientifically shown to have been made in the Middle Ages indicates it is a fake, not a miraculous impression made by God.

Assertions in such statements cannot be proven unless there are no other logical possibilities. However, the religious respondents in Altermeyer’s sample did not seem to understand that simply because other religions discussed a big flood that this did not mean that the story of Noah in the bible is true. They did not see how the accounts of those who nearly died failed to prove that Christian teachings are true. They seem to believe that discovering a wall at the site of Jericho proved that the story of Jericho in the bible is true. Finally, they did not understand that scientific evidence showing that the Shroud of Turin was made in the Middle Ages indicates that it was not made by God for Jesus in Biblical times.
I am not surprised that Christians are less likely to correctly interpret these statements since a correct interpretation of these statements would challenge their epistemological presuppositions. But as I was reading this research, it occurred to me that none of the statements Altermeyer used would challenge the epistemological presuppositions of atheists or agnostics. If Altermeyer’s work is an example of the type of research used to indicate the intellectual inferiority of Christians, then such research is incomplete unless the irreligious also face the same level of intellectual challenges provided to religious Christians.

It is with this in mind that I devised a study to do just that. I basically replicated Altermeyer’s study with one important exception. I added four statements that would also challenge the epistemological presuppositions of atheists and agnostics. Those statements are:
1. The existence of tragedies such as the Holocaust proves that there is not a loving God that cares for us.
2. The overwhelming evidence for evolution proves that Christian assertions about God creating the world are false.
3. Research has suggested that people who pray for better health are not any healthier than those who do not pray at all. Other research shows that people who pray for financial assistance are not more likely to become wealthier than those who do not pray. Yet this does not prove that there is no God who will answer prayers.
4. Psychological and sociological explanations for why people believe in religion prove that worship of God is driven by natural human needs instead of a supernatural deity.

I want to see if the irreligious recognized that the Holocaust does not prove that a loving God does not exist, that evidence of evolution does not prove that assertions about God creating the world is false, the fact that people who pray are not wealthier/healthier does not prove that there is not a God who answers prayer and that psychological/sociological explanations for why people believe in religion does not prove that worship of God is driven by natural needs instead of a supernatural deity. Let me be more specific. Three of the statements suffer from a post hoc fallacy, or assuming a causal relationship where one does not have to exist. There is not an automatic relationship between tragedies such as the Holocaust and the nonexistence of a loving deity since the deity may not be able to prevent tragedies or such tragedies may prevent greater horrors. Evolution can only tell us how life has developed and not whether there is a deity initiating that development. Psychological and sociological explanations do not pre-empt the possibility that individuals are worshiping a supernatural deity. One of the statements is logically accurate as studies indicating that prayer is not correlated to wealth or health does not eliminate the possibility of a deity that selectively answers prayers or who answers certain prayers, but not those concerning wealth or health.

Given this type of format, and the length this post has already run, I will not go into the details of the collection of the data or the statistical techniques used in this research. I do not mind answering questions about those issues in the comments below, but those wanting a more comprehensive explanation will have to read the article in Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion when it comes out later this year. It is sufficient for me to say that the atheists and agnostics did no better on statements that test their epistemological presuppositions as Christians did on statements that challenged their epistemological presuppositions. If Altemeyer had replaced his original statements challenging the epistemological assumptions of Christians with my new ones challenging the epistemological assumptions of atheists and agnostics, then he would have made the opposite finding of Christians lacking in cognitive abilities. He would have found that atheists and agnostics had lower levels of cognitive abilities than religious individuals. I question whether we can use his study to assert that religion is connected to lower cognitive abilities. Assertions that Christians are less intelligent than the non-religious should not rely upon tests only challenging Christian’s presuppositions.

Of course this is only one study, and it would be fair to see if other tests of cognitive abilities are also culturally or ideologically skewed. The types of previous assessments of such tests concerning racial differences are also relevant when making assertions about intellectual differences based on religious ideology. Until I see tests that have been proven to be culturally and/or ideologically balanced, I will be extremely skeptical of claims that Christians, and other religious individuals, are intellectually inferior to those who are not religious. Until proven otherwise, stereotypes of religious causation of intellectual inferiority are as viable as stereotypes of racial causation of intellectual inferiority.

Who is Listening to You? – The Lesson of Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling is a pig. That is clearly not a controversial statement given all that we have learned of the displaced Clipper owner over the past month or so. It is not just the racist statements we recently learned about but it is also his history of potential racism and racial mistreatment. Even beyond that, I find it distasteful the way he paraded his ex-mistress in public. A fifty year marriage evidently meant nothing to him. Perhaps this makes me a prude but I still think that adultery indicates poor character and I have little respect for anyone who participates in it. But as bad as adultery is, it is much worse to exhibit it publically and humiliate one’s wife. Finally, he has a reputation as being a litigious person. I know that at times one must use the law to correct that which is wrong but litigious people strike me as people who care much more about their rights than what is generally right. I like to try to find the good in people, but Sterling makes it very difficult for me to do that with him.
Blasting Sterling is not a brave thing to do these days. There seems to be no one to defend him. How can he be defended given his many sins and shortcomings? Furthermore, he does not help his case when he states that the lesson he learned was that he should have paid his mistress off. I have no desire to defend him as a person. And yet there is an aspect of this controversy that does not sit right with me. I fear that it may set a precedent for our society if we do not confront it. That aspect is the violation of Sterling’s privacy. According to reports, his comments were recorded on what he assumed was a private phone call. No matter what I think about the fact that he has a mistress, it is reasonable for him to think that this was a private conversation and not a public speech. Yet, it was the source of his undoing. That is troublesome.
There is more than this single conversation that provides evidence to disturb us about Sterling. He has been the target of racial discrimination lawsuits. The government has accused him of housing discrimination. Somewhere there are poor Hispanic and Black residents who did not obtain housing as easily as they should have because of his racism. We could argue that the conglomeration of this evidence was the undoing of Sterling, but the reality is that it was the taped phone call that got all of the attention. All of the other evidence we have against Sterling was present before the taped call, but we did not really pay attention to that evidence until the phone call. It was the taped private conversation that was the precipitating event in Sterling’s downfall.
So if I am honest, the question of Sterling comes down to this – he is being punished because of a private conversation? He made repulsive disgusting statements in that conversation, but it was done with an expectation of privacy. What disturbs me is that he is being held accountable for a private conversation. Does this mean that the new standard is that we have to not only watch what we say publically but also privately? Is this getting into thought police territory? Think the right thoughts or you will be punished. In the case of Sterling this is not merely a loss of reputation but he has been fined and his ownership of the Clippers is being taken away from him. As ugly as his comments are, the implications of this is even uglier.
We already live in a society where there is more information out there on us than ever before and that information can be easily obtained. Generally, we ourselves put that info out there for all to see. I am amazed at what some individuals put on their facebook or twitter accounts. Those of us who write blogs need to be aware that our comments can be used against us in future years. However, that information is public and those who offer it have to be responsible for what they have said, as long as it is reported back in proper context. I retain the right to present myself publically in the way that I want to be presented and accept that I will be judged for that presentation. Fair enough.
But it is not fair when information about me that is not public can now be used to judge me. I am being told that I am responsible for my private conversations as well. It is not merely this taped private conversation. Freedom of information requests can be used to gain access to private emails. I am not a techie but I know that there are ways people can snoop on us and find out which websites we have visited. Information about where we live and work can be gained for a price. I have watched friends and colleagues of mine have their private worlds made public due to these sorts of techniques. I do not like hyperbole, but this does sound like what is expected in a totalitarian society.
It is tempting to ignore these ramifications because of the character of Sterling. Surely a nice person like I would not say something as despicable as he did. But I know that I have said things in private that I am not proud of. I would hate to be judged on the worst thing I have ever said in private. I get a feeling that all of us would have a sick feeling in our stomach if we were judged on the worst thing we ever said in private. I suspect that anyone’s reputation can be destroyed if that person had his/her private conversations aired. Furthermore, in a society with so much cultural hostility, anyone who takes a strong stance on anything will gain enemies who will desire to destroy such reputations. Yes we can feel good about the fall of Sterling, but if we are not careful we may face a similar fate if we move towards a society where our private, as well as public, conversations and ideas are held to such scrutiny.
The saving grace in the Sterling situation is that there is so much other information to justify the punishment he will receive. The lawsuits and accusations provide a fuller picture of who this man is. But what will happen when we have a case of someone saying a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic etc. thing that is totally in private and then that person loses his/her job. Has the Sterling example made us less sensitive to the loss of privacy that person has suffered from and the unfairness of how he/she is treated? Is this the precedent that will ultimately threaten the sense of privacy, that we have enjoyed? It is questions like these that force me to consider issues beyond the ugliness of Sterling and consider the larger ramifications of what has taken place.
One possible solution is that we as a society learn to ignore information gained by the violation of a person’s privacy. Thus no matter how bad it makes a person look, we as a public learn to negate any information we learn when his/her private conversation is disclosed to us. But ultimately that is not realistic. As concerned as I am for the violation of Sterling’s privacy I cannot dismiss the knowledge I have of his racial attitudes. My attitude towards him is forever changed.
So perhaps the only real solution is to make sure that we provide disincentives for individuals to violate the privacy of others. My understanding is that the recording of Sterling violated the law in California. What that means to a non-lawyer like me is that V. Stiviano and possibly whoever else released the taping to TMZ needs to be on the legal hook. But that is not good enough. I think TMZ should also be accountable. There is too much at stake here with our privacy. It would be acceptable to me if Sterling is able to sue TMZ for lost reputation and financial damages. It would be acceptable to me if he won a huge settlement – the type of settlement that would make a media organization think twice about running a taping of a private conversation. The idea of Sterling obtaining more money is not a desirable idea, but he is already a billionaire. The addition of a few hundred million dollars is not going to lead to any great changes in his life. But the loss of that money from TMZ may prevent the next media outlet from running the tape of a private conversation obtained by illegitimate means. So I believe that if I was on the jury of a civil trial of Sterling versus TMZ, given my current state of knowledge, I would rule in favor of Sterling despite the personal disgust I have for him so that I can make sure that TMZ is punished. There are simply too many other important issues of privacy at stake for me to allow my personal feelings to lead to any other decision.
Since I am not a lawyer I have no idea whether such a lawsuit is possible. If it is not, then we as a society may have to engage in informal sanctions against TMZ. Sterling has taken it on the chin over the past few weeks and the scorn launched his way is well deserved. Some have questioned the role of V. Stiviano in this fiasco and that is appropriate. TMZ should not escape unscathed for their participation in this mess. We as a public should begin to question those who are willing to violate our privacy. But I doubt that we will do this. We enjoy the tantalizing stories gained by the invasion of privacy of famous individuals. I fear that we do not consider the long term effects of this invasion and at some point we common people will lose our privacy. That will be a tragedy as I have stated that I do not want to be judged by the worst thing I have ever privately said. Do you?

Symbolic Hostility as an Explanation of Anti-Christian Expression

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