Is our Religious Freedom Connected to whether we are Christian or Not?

I have caught a certain amount of grief arguing that some individuals do not want to provide religious freedom to Christians unless they are in their own churches and homes. I have pointed out that such restrictions are not applied to non-Christian groups. However, when I illustrate this differential treatment with examples of punishment of Christians and non-punishment of non-Christians, many detractors work to find differences from the incidents involving Christians and those involving non-Christians. Ultimately these detractors are arguing that nearly every time Christians express their basic freedom of religion or conscience (in the case of the nonreligious) rights then they are wrong, but every time non-Christians do so then they are right. This is a position you realistically cannot ask Christians to accept.

The latest example concerns Muslim truck drivers who recently won a case for $240,000. These Muslim drivers did not want to transport alcohol as they felt that it went against their religious beliefs. The Obama administration supported the drivers and it was ruled that Star Transport, their former employer, should have made accommodations for them. This is the latest of cases in which freedom of religion matters as long as the group seeking to exercise that freedom is not Christian. Therefore, I have a hard time believing that such protection would have been offered to Christian truck drivers. Indeed, the only recent case that I can remember where Christians had their freedom of conscience rights affirmed was the Hobby Lobby case and we all remember the hysteria following that ruling. I can think of no recent case in which a non-Christian did not have such rights affirmed, but I am open to being wrong if someone can show me a recent ruling when that occurred.

My point is this. It really does not matter if one can find procedural reasons for Christians losing their case and non-Christians winning theirs. If Christians almost always lose their case and non-Christians always win their case then we have a systematic institutional problem where one religious group is not being treated as well as others. Either the rules are shaped to work to the disadvantage of that group or they are being selectively enforced. This is why rules of disparate impact are so important. We can always find a reason to justify punishing out-groups and supporting in-groups. It is human nature to have confirmation bias whereby our team never commits a penalty whereas the other team is always fouling (Yes, I used to play pickup basketball). When only one group is being punished then introspective thinkers have to seriously consider why this is the case beyond finding reasons to justify the punishment.

Perhaps a different example will illustrate the folly of the approach my detractors have taken. We have recently seen the activism of black lives matter (BLM) movement. The basis of this movement is the blacks are more likely victimized by the police. They are not arguing that only blacks are so victimized, as I can argue that only Christians are being victimized in freedom of religion or conscience cases. But they point out that blacks are more likely to be victimized by our criminal justice system than whites, relative to their numbers in society. Does this mean that police officers are KKK racists? Not really. It is more likely that our criminal justice system is constructed in such a way so that blacks are more likely to be harmed. The activism of BLM will enjoy success when they are able to make systematic changes that reduces racial disparity. While I disagree with the tone of BLM, I do not doubt the validity of their general critique. Likewise, when only Christian are denied freedom of religion or conscience rights then there is a systematic problem behind this issue. If BLM has a justifiable case with law enforcement then Christians certainly have a justifiable case with religious freedom.

I support a generous level of freedom of religion. But, as I look at the case of the Muslim truck drivers even I find myself relatively unconvinced by their cause. The drivers were hired to do a job. If they could no longer do the job then perhaps they should find another one. It is similar to the Kim Davis situation (For the record, I think Davis is wrong in what she was doing. I would prefer that she merely allow others to do what she is unwilling to do herself or resign). Or perhaps another illustration is that a pro-life Christian nurse should not work at an abortion clinic and then not expect to help perform abortions. But it was ruled that accommodations should have be made for these drivers. If that is the proper ruling, given relative weakness of this case, then it makes sense that accommodations should also be made so that Christian bakers and florists can have their freedom of conscience rights. But, I seriously doubt that the Obama administration believes that accommodations should be made for Christians. If in the past the administration had shown itself to be sensitive to the freedom of religion for Christians, then this particular ruling would not be problematic. But it is hard for me to believe that they have the same concern for accommodations for Christians that they do for Muslim drivers.

Some may say that they disagree with the ruling. They may argue that both the Christian baker and the Muslim truck driver should just get on with their job. Fair enough. That is a consistent application of a limited freedom of religion standard. But in the real world we do not have that consistent application. In the real world Muslim truck drivers have their freedom of conscience respected and Christian bakers do not.

I know some will try to defend these cases by pointing out differences from the Christian baker from the LGBT baker or the Muslim truck driver. Such arguments extremely unconvincing and the very illustration of confirmation bias. The overall results argue against the notion that these rulings are done in an environment of religious neutrality. If police review boards found every police shooting of a black justified but every police shooting of a white illegal, would you think that race played no role in the shooting? Me neither. If that was the case, then you would have an extremely difficult time convincing me, an African-American, that there is not some sort of racial injustice occurring in our society. Either criminal justice officials have racialized stereotypes or expectations contributing to this problem or there are institutional problems in our criminal justice system which unfairly target blacks. Do not try to go case by case to convince me that each shooting of a black was justified and then try to go case by case to convince me that shooting of a white is unjustified. Do you really believe that I can be convinced that it is all just “coincidences.”

Likewise, if almost every case of religious freedom involving Christians is found to be unjustified, but every case of religious freedom involving a non-Christian is found to be justified then why would we not think that religious identity played a role in such outcomes. We would have to be naïve to believe otherwise. The nitpicking done to justify fines in the six figures for Christian bakers is not very convincing. Given what I know about human nature, to ask me that Christians, and only Christians, abuse their freedom of religion or conscience rights strains all credibility. Or put it another way. If there is a supposedly neutral rule that only atheists or feminists are found guilty of violating then would not atheists and feminists be right to believe that either the rule, or the way the rule is implemented, is unfair? So do not be surprised that Christians do not believe that freedom of religion rules are fairly implemented given the reality of who they are used against.

There is a very good explanation for the source of this differential treatment. Christianophobia is the best explanation for what has occurred. When I studied Christianophobia I found that those with animosity towards conservative Christians tend to be highly educated and wealthy. Those with animosity towards Muslims tend to have lower levels of education and are not wealthier than average. So when a highly educated, and relatively wealthy judge makes a decision on religious freedom there is a much greater chance that this judge has Christianophobia than Islamophobia. The same can be said of officials in the Obama administration making decisions whether to support freedom of religion petitions of Christians or Muslims.

I suspect that some will contend that I do not recognized the problems of anti-religion bias unless those problems are directed at Christians. Those detractors would be mistaken. I recognize that there are more people with anti-atheist disaffinities than anti-Christian biases, which is one of the reasons why it is relatively difficult for atheists to win political office. My work also suggests that about the same percentage of individuals in the United States have Islamophobia as Christianophobia. So Muslims are just as likely to have to deal with an anti-religious bigot as Christians. However, those with Christianophobia are more likely to be in a position to punish their religious out-group through official channels. Noting this proclivity provides a powerful explanation for why freedom of religion is less important to legal and governmental officials when those wanting these rights are Christian.

Does this mean that Christians are intentionally target? The qualitative work I analyzed indicated that those with Christianophobia prefer to think of themselves as religiously neutral. I suspect that their higher level of education make it harder for them to admit to their religious bigotry. As such, I do not think that they go into a situation overtly thinking about how they can punish Christians. However, I suspect that over time they are able to find justification for treating Christian differently than other religious groups. Once a person has come to a conclusion about his/her beliefs or actions, then that person will be highly motivated to find justification for that belief or action. Those with Christianophobia are not looking to go control Christians in their churches and homes. They cannot rationalized such intrusions. However, they can rationalized keeping Christians out of the public square, even if they do so by treating them differently than other religious groups.

If we reject the notion that only Christians violate freedom of religion or conscience rights, and I do not see that notion as intellectually viable, then the unique problem of Christianophobia is the best explanation of this disparate impact. This case of the Muslim drivers is not the “final straw” to illustrate this point. There have been other cases in the past and I suspect that there will be more in the future. The Muslim drivers’ situation is simply one more case in which a non-Christian group has its freedom of religion rights respected in a way that is generally denied to Christians. For those who have decided to stick their head in the sand this case will not matter. Nothing can convince them that Christianophobia is a problem because they do not want to see it as a problem. Indeed, I suspect that a thousand cases of the affirmation of the religion/conscience rights of non-Christians while 1,000 cases of that right being taken away from Christians will not be sufficient evidence for some individuals. But in time I hope we take a realistic understanding of this problem and find ways to deal with the unique challenges offered by Christianophobia.

Want to Live Longer? Go to Church

When I was growing up, I was a kid. My friends were kids, too. As I kid when I thought about my kid friends, I viewed of us all as roughly social equals. Sure, one friend could run faster, 2404125449_7a9472d8dcand another was smarter, and another more good looking, but these differences were dwarfed by our common statuses. We were all children in families and students in school and watchers of the same several television shows the night before (a time before cable television). Somewhere in my young mind, I just assumed we would all grow up to be about the same. Fast forward several decades, and every class and family reunion brings new realizations of different social outcomes. One friend has been happily married with four kids, while another is on their third bad marriage. One has a steady, mostly-satisfying job, another has had endless temporary lousy jobs. A common starting point, but such different outcomes.

Now the same thing is happening with health.

In my thirties and forties, my peers all had pretty good health. Sure, there were occasional maladies, mostly overcome, but our base rate was functional and our outlook optimistic. Now, though, at 52, I am starting to see signs of health stratification. One friend goes on 100 mile bike rides, while another moves slowly with an awkward walk. One friend hasn’t seen a doctor in years, while another regularly posts pictures of himself in the hospital on social media. In twenty years, some portion will be dead or disabled.

As a sociologist, how do I respond to the unfolding demise of my friends? How else but to start wondering about why some people live longer than others. There are lots of factors, of course—genetic, dietary, health care, and simply luck—but one factor that’s often overlooked is religion.

It turns out that religious people live longer, a lot longer, than none religious people. One study followed 22,000 adults for eight years. Those who never attended religious services were 1.9 times more likely to die in the period than those who attended religious services once a week. Using statistical projections, the researchers calculated that if you have two twenty-year-olds, one attends church weekly during his life and the other never does, the church goer will live 7 years longer. Seven years! That’s a long time. (That’s almost as big an impact as not smoking, for cigarette smoking shaves 10 years off of life).

Another study summarized data from 42 different samples and found a robust association between religious involvement.

But, perhaps my favorite study on this issue just came out. An undergraduate at Ohio State University, for her honors thesis, looked at obituaries from 50 different areas of the country. She tallied up how long the person lived as well as if the obituary listed religious involvement. Sure enough, obituaries that mentioned a religious organization eulogized lives that were 8 years longer (83 years vs. 75 years for no church).

So, it’s clear that church involvement is linked to longer lives. The following, and more involved, question is why. It might be that people who would have lived longer anyway are drawn to religion. However, there is good reason to think that religious involvement itself adds years to life. Most religions lead people into healthier behaviors such as doing less drinking and drug use (though I’m not sure how snake handling fits in here). Religion connects people with other people, and social ties are great for living long. Religion gives people a sense of purpose, which itself is linked to longevity.

So, if you’re going to church each week, it’s probably adding years to your life. Just think, you’ll have more time with your grandchildren to look over the church bulletins that you collected over the years.

If you’re a church leader, you’re doing maybe as much good for the physical health of your congregants as a public health official. Add that to your resume!

In thinking about all this, and how it affects my life, I suppose that I should be extra nice to my friends at church because it looks like we’re going to be together for a while.

Image source

(Originally posted at

A Policy Change

In my last blog entry I dealt with a subject I felt deserved discussion but only if the discussion was informed. So I started the blog with a disclaimer that I would remove any comment I thought was merely argumentative. I did have to remove the comments of one visitor. But then a great thing happened. There was good conversation. It was the type of conversation that I have consistently hoped that would occur as a result of my efforts.

This has gotten me thinking about the balance I have tried to strike. I think one of the purposes of blogs is to spur useful conversation. For this reason I have been very lax in allowing individuals to comment on my blogs. However, it has become clear to me that many individuals take advantage of this to initiate demeaning arguments rather than discussions and to mock rather than communicate. Often I find the comment section littered with such attempts and it gets harder to have productive discussions. I also fear that such individuals tend to drive away people who do not want to have to deal with unreasonable hostility. I have come to the conclusion that my previous policy of tolerance is not working.

There are those who do not allow any comments on their blogs. I think it is unfortunate that they restrict all comment but I have come to understand why they do this. Instead of a rich conversation so many times the comment section turns into mockery and shallow comments. Those who do not allow comments take away the possibility of a conversation that would build on the insight they offer in their blog. However, they also deprive certain individuals the chance to insult others and to distort the ideas presented. Given my experience taking out the comment section is a reasonable position for a Patheos blogger to take. However, I am not quite ready to take that measure.

Therefore, from this point on I will be more proactive in pruning the comment section. Comments that start out with an ad hominem attack or insult will be removed. Those that are merely argumentative will also be removed. Comments that are merely sniping at me or at others will not be tolerated. I will not blacklist the commenter so the person can come back if he or she so chooses. However those particular comments will be removed as soon as I find them. Please note that this policy change is only linked to my blogs. The other Black, White and Gray bloggers have their own philosophy on how to handle the comment sections of their blogs and it is not my business to alter them.

This means more work for me. It means I will have to check the comments from time to time to make sure that they meet with my new standards. It also places pressure on myself to make judgments as to what is acceptable. I understand that I run the risk of stifling discussion. My last blog indicated that I do not remove comments simply because they disagree with me. However, it is possible, indeed even likely, that I may remove what I perceive as an argumentative comment from a well-intention person. This may discourage individuals from commenting. That is one of the reasons why I have been hesitant to make this policy change. Please know that I take this new role very seriously and I would prefer not to “police” the comments. But quite simply I think the upside is much greater than the downside of my previous approach. Even though I anticipate that this will reduce the number of comments to my blog entries, I also anticipate that the quality of the comments will be much higher. I look forward to better discussions as I implement this new policy.

Christians have not taken over Sociology of Religion

I begin this blog entry with a disclaimer. Normally I do not police the comments to my blogs very heavily. However, the topic of this discussion deals with some degree of inside baseball of social science academics and especially academics who study religion. If there is a discussion in the comments, I want it to be informed. As always I welcome dissenting opinions, but this time I am going to insist that these opinions are not merely argumentative and, dare I say, trollish. If you do not know about the dynamics of getting articles published in social science journals, then do not come here to try to get a rise out of me. On this one blog entry, I am removing comments I deem to be merely argumentative. If you want to argue against my position, then be sure to demonstrate that you know what you are talking about. If you do, then we can possibly have a productive discussion, which is what I like to see without visitors to the blog having to wade through a bunch of irrelevant statements and proclamations.

The topic concerns a recent blog by J. Sumerau. In the blog he complains that there are too many religious scholars, and it seems that he focuses more on Christian scholars, in sociology of religion. His basic contention is that the presence of religious academics has muted a critical examination of religion. He points out the fact that many sociology of religion scholars (and I am one of them) signed a document supporting Mark Regnerus. He also offers a research article arguing that there are fewer articles with a critical perspective in religion journals than in gender or sexuality journals. He speculates that many in this field tend to work to support a religious or Christian ideology, which implies that they are not in a position to offer critical analysis. He also offers his own experience and difficulty in getting his research, which would have a more critical orientation, published in sociology of religion journals. Finally, he argues that academic meetings dealing with research about religion have the feel of a “church” rather than an academic conference.

I hope I accurately characterized his arguments. If I have not, then I would like clarification on where I am off. But for now, I want to look at these arguments as I have stated them. My contention is that he is wrong and my counterarguments are more based on evidence than his original arguments.

His first assertion, that research in sociology of religion is not as oriented by a critical framework as research in gender and sexuality, is probably correct. However, if we look at religion as a phenomenon to understand, then we can see that studying religion does not necessarily lead to the level of critical analysis one uses to study gender and/or sexuality. Gender and sexuality have generally been conceptualized from a social problem perspective. As such, it is understandable why there would be more critical analysis in the study of gender or sexuality than in religion. Yes, one can use a critical perspective to explore religion, and we need such research. But such research has been done, and more will be done in the future. However, religious organizations are exceptional institutions which invite descriptive as well as critical analysis. The comparison of the study of religion to the study of gender or sexuality is one of apples to oranges.

Let me spend a little time on his criticism of those of us who supported Regnerus. I signed the document and would again. Anytime there is research that violates the political powers that be so much that a researcher is being investigated and audited as well as facing political actors attempting to remove the article from the journal, then I will protest unless you can show me that the research is so badly done, not just politically incorrect, or so much fraud was involved that such steps are warranted. I will do it whether the researcher is a Christian or not. It is an issue of freedom of academic inquiry. The Regnerus controversy influenced me to read the previous work on same-sex parenting. To be frank, the vast majority of that research is worthless. Regnerus’s work was not perfect, but what research is perfect? And it has spawned other research that supports much of what he found. Why not investigate and audit some of the previous work on same-sex marriage that was so awful? That was not done simply because previous research provided the answers wanted by the political powers that went after Regnerus. I fail to see how any fair-minded person could not see this double standard. The question Sumerau asks implies that it is wrong for so many sociologists of religion to support Regnerus. My question is why aren’t there more scholars who, although they disagree with some of the political implications of his work, still care about real academic freedom enough to support him against this double standard?

Sumerau also argued about the difficulty he had getting published in sociology of religion journals relative to the gender and sexuality journals he normally publishes in. Sometimes going from one subfield to another brings with it a learning curve about what gets published. Thus, publications do not always come as easily as they did before. But a Google Scholar search has shown that Sumerau has been published in sociology of religion journals. So clearly it is not impossible for him to obtain publications. Critical analysis is not banned in sociology of religion journals. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that some of his efforts were unfairly rejected. Without an audit of the manuscripts he complains about, I cannot know this for certain, but it is likely that he has had, in terms of poker, some bad beats.

But when you have been at this game as long as I have, you know that this is not strong evidence of a biased field. I also have been rejected by reviewers and editors for reasons I felt were less than adequate. I had a paper rejected because a reviewer said it was “too trite.” One review was so bad (claimed I missed arguments that were clearly in the paper and suggested a statistical methodology that was obviously inappropriate) that I wrote back to the editor. The editor could not defend the review, but basically told me that this is the way it goes. So bad reviews and editing happen. It probably happens in sociology of religion journals just as much as other journals. But that is just part of our occupation as scholars, not evidence that the Christians have “taken over.”

By the way, having published early in my career research on racial issues that mostly criticized Christians, and now later in my career research on Christianophobia that is more sympathetic to Christians, I can tell you that it is easier to get your stuff in the better journals and book publishers when you are criticizing Christians. I consider my career a natural experiment that tests the proposition that publishing critical work is harder in sociology of religion journals. In my experience, the opposite is true. But if scholars believe it is extra difficult to publish work critical of religion in sociology of religion journals, then try publishing something critical of the feminist movement in a gender journal or the LGBT movement in a sexuality journal or blacklivesmatter in a race journal. I suspect you will find much more powerful examples of bias if you attempted to conduct the research in the previous sentence.

Do the meetings at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) meetings resemble worship services? In addition to having attended those meetings, I have also attended academic meetings for the American Sociological Association, Midwestern Sociological Society, Southwestern Social Science Association, and Southern Sociological Society. Set aside the American Sociological Association as that is unique. The other meetings are basically similar to the SSSR except that the focus of that meeting is entirely on religion – which makes it more fun for me. I am a Christian, but I know plenty of non-Christian academics at SSSR. I do not go around asking to pray for them, and I cannot conceive of my other Christian scholar friends doing that. I do not pray during a paper presentation, and I would be surprised if the Christian scholars I know did. (Although at times I admit that if I am in a very boring session then sometimes my head may be down as if in prayer, but it is just sleep.) I am not saying that the episode Sumerau talked about did not happen. I am saying that it would be highly unusual. The meetings are professional occasions where we go to get caught up on the latest research, learn the latest gossip, hug some old friends, and make connections with potential future research partners. I not only study religious congregations, but I am in one almost every Sunday for my own spiritual growth. I have also gone to a wide variety of worship services for personal reasons and for research. Meetings at the SSSR are no more like any worship service I have attended than any other professional academic meetings.

To this point I have merely compared my experiences to Sumerau’s. There is no reason for a nonbiased reader to accept my experience over his. But there is also data to bring to bear on this issue. This data indicates that academia, and especially the social sciences, do not favor Christians but rather are biased against them. Some of the data comes from my own research. In my book, Compromising Scholarship, I discuss the survey I sent out to academics in a variety of fields. I asked the respondents if they would be more or less willing to hire a candidate for a position in their department if they knew some characteristic of that person. Among the characteristics I tested for was religious affiliation. I found that academics were less willing to hire a conservative Protestant than any of the other religious, political, sexuality, lifestyle or age characteristics asked about. About half of all academics are less willing to hire someone simply if they find out that he or she is a fundamentalist or evangelical. Assuming that these respondents are telling the truth, we have a basic case of religious discrimination.

Other research indicates that I should not doubt the honesty of my respondents. Tobin and Weinberg also found that academics have a great deal of anti-Christian hostility. Rothman and Lichter (“The vanishing conservative: is there a glass ceiling?”) documented that cultural conservative academics are systematically in lower status academic positions even after controlling for academic achievement. Finally, we have court cases such as Mike Adams where the university clearly engaged in anti-Christian discrimination by denying him a promotion. Perhaps there is a recent court case won by an atheist or agnostic academic who was denied a promotion based on their lack of religious beliefs, but I do not know of it. If someone can produce such a case occurring at a non-sectarian campus, I would like to know about it. These findings make my point that arguments of a pro-religion bias do not hold up when we get beyond the stated experiences of secular professors. Christians do enjoy advantages in certain areas of society, but in academia the evidence suggests that they are treated as a minority group.

But I know the comeback to these research findings. While it is pretty clear that anti-Christian, rather than pro-Christian, bias is the issue in academia, it may be the case that the reverse is true within the subfield of religion. Perhaps within that small segment of academia, Christians have taken over and the non-religious operate at a disadvantage. Fortunately, when I did my survey, I asked the respondents in sociology about their area of specialty. Of the 380 respondents who worked in an academic setting, 29 of them are in sociology of religion. So I compared those respondents to the rest of academic sociologists on my 7-point scale indicating how willing they are to hire individuals from certain religious groups. Higher scores indicate that the respondent is more willing to hire someone because of a particular religious identity while 4 indicates that this particular religious identity does not matter. Here is what I found when I compared the results on my respondents being asked about a variety of different religious groups. (Please excuse the formatting as I have not figured out how to do good tables with this program.)

Sociologists of Religion Everyone else
Jews 4.143 (28) 4.051 (331)
Muslims 4.036 (28) 4.012 (331)
Evangelicals 3.607 (28) 3.387 (331)
Fundamentalists 3.286 (28) 3.19 (332)
Atheists 4.071 (28) 4.027 (329)

None of these differences are significant. I am under no illusion that these are publishable findings as I clearly lack statistical power. But these results are still informative. There may be some advantage for evangelicals applying for positions in sociology of religion relative to other subfields, but even then the average score is not at the 4.0 level where a person is not penalized for being an evangelical. So even though an evangelical scholar applying for a position faces less potential discrimination when applying for a sociology of religion job, he or she still does face potential discrimination. On the other hand, while not significant, atheists fair better in sociology of religion than other sub-fields. There is no evidence that secular academics are being punished for their non-belief. If anything, since the scores for evangelicals are relatively higher among sociologists of religion, the relative degree of privilege secular academics enjoy in other subfields appears to be less in sociology of religion than in the rest of the discipline. That loss of privilege may help to account for the sentiment some secular scholars have that they are being treated unfairly.

It can be argued that I am not engaging in a valid comparison. Sumerau complained about his opportunity to publish while I am looking at whether someone can be fairly hired into an academic position. But in the absence of perfect evidence, we have to look at the evidence we do have. That evidence indicates that there is not general bias against secular individuals in sociology of religion. If new empirical evidence can be produced that indicates a bias against secular individuals, then I am more than willing to look at how things should be changed. I would like to think that given the strong evidence that there is a general academic bias against conservative Christians that secular scholars will also look at how we can address this problem. I have been disappointed by the response of those scholars, and their failure to support Regnerus does not bode well for their willingness to protect scholars with whom they disagree.

Regardless of whether such scholars are willing to address the anti-Christian bias in academia, we must be careful not to allow claims of pro-Christian favoritism to worsen this bias. Christian scholars should be allowed to compete for positions, publications, and grants on an even field with everyone else. I fear that worrying about an anti-secular bias that has not been demonstrated to exist will make it even harder for Christian academics.

What Liberty University can teach Elite Colleges and Universities

A few weeks ago my facebook feed was somewhat abuzz with the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders was speaking at Liberty University. Yes, that Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist, speaking at that Liberty University, the education institution founded by the man who started the Moral Majority. It was not a news event I ever anticipated occurring. Even though I am a Christian, like many people I had stereotypes about the narrowmindedness of Christian colleges and did not consider that one as conservative as Liberty University would require its students to listen to a socialist.

I will spend the bulk of this blog discussing the implications of Liberty University’s decision. However, I first want to compliment the senator. It is not easy to speak in front of an audience who deeply disagrees with you. He probably did not gain one extra vote from a Liberty student by his talk. But he is committed to his vision of a better society and willing to go places where he does not have an admiring crowd. I give sincere kudos to Senator Sanders and if more of us would be willing to try to communicate with those we disagree with, then we would have a better society.

However, the senator would not be able to speak before the students if Liberty had not invited him to do so. Furthermore, the actions of the students were commendable. Most of them disagreed with most of what the Senator had to say. But they let him say it, and they treated him with respect. There was no protest. There was no attempt to shout the Senator down. No, they did not give him enthusiastic applause. But we do not have to agree with someone to give him/her the right to tell us his/her ideas. He was allowed to inform them of his ideas, and they did not interrupt him.

I cannot help but compare this event to what happens so often when unpopular speakers come to many of our state and elite campuses. There are a wide variety of incidents that illustrates the unwillingness of students and faculty on those campuses to allow for such free speech. Perhaps a striking example is when students at the University of California at Berkeley protested the commencement speech by Bill Maher. The political distance between Senator Sanders and the average Liberty University student has to be much greater than between Maher and these progressive students. However, Maher has been highly critical of Islam and in doing so, broke one of the tenets embedded in Education Dogma. For certain students this meant that he should not be allowed to address other students, even though he likely agreed with them on most other subjects. Contrast this reaction to the politeness shown the Senator by the students at Liberty. Consideration and tolerance was found at the Christian school instead of the place where the modern free speech movement originated.

At least in this situation, the University of California stood by Maher and let him give his speech. Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau and Condoleessa Rice were all invited to speak and then later disinvited, or withdrew due to pressure, from delivering their commencement address. The reasons given may vary, but essentially students and faculty members protested these speakers and the administration caved to their demands. Colleges and university are supposed to be places where we encounter different ideas. But influential segments on many campuses do not want graduating students, who should be fully prepared for dealing with different ideas, to hear alternative opinions. This type of censoring is not even including the type of silencing that comes from mechanisms such as safe spaces and trigger warnings. Whereas Liberty University brought different ideas directly to their campus, it seems that many of our highly esteemed colleges and universities work hard to keep them out.

What is ironic is that Christian schools such as Liberty University are typically stereotyped as being unwilling to consider alternate points of view. As I stated earlier, I have bought into those stereotypes. One blogger argues that Christian colleges should not be accredited because they do not allow for intellectual freedom. I am certain that this blogger would put Liberty University squarely in the “do not accreditate” category even though Liberty appears to better prepare its students to hear opposing opinions than the University of California. Accreditation is important for helping an institution of higher education serve its students, and this stereotype can have important implications for the freedom of Christian colleges.

While I have heard this stereotype many times, the incident at Liberty helped me realize that I have yet to see any empirical evidence that supports it. I know in theory nonreligious colleges and universities should be free to pursue whatever ideas academics come up with. In reality, there is a culture of conformity that inhibits the freedom of academics to pursue all ideas. Sociology of science is a subset of epistemology exploring how science is not an objective search for truth, but that search is influenced by the social and psychological pressures placed on the scientist. For example, Thomas Kuhn’s work suggests that scholars operate in an ideological paradigm that provides them the answers to the questions they study before they even analyze the data. In a similar way, there are paradigms on our non-sectarian campuses that provide answers to questions before we have even fully asked the question. This type of social, and sometimes even institutional, pressure can be just as limiting to academic freedom as the theological doctrines commonly found at Christian educational institutions.

I am starting to believe that non-Christian colleges are at least as narrow-minded in their epistemological approach as Christian schools. When I did research on academic bias, I found that about half of all academics are willing to discriminate against conservative Protestants when they apply for an academic position. Clearly, limiting the ability of individuals from a given social group to participate in academia can serve to limit the scholarly ideas from that group. This is a clear violation of the academic freedom allegedly not found at Christian colleges. When I went back to my data and looked to see if those at Christian colleges are more unwilling to exclude non-Christians from their jobs, I found that the degree of exclusion was about the same as their non-religious counterparts. I did not see evidence that Christian educational institutions were more restrictive in their willingness to hire than non-Christians, despite the doctrine requirements that undoubtedly are part of their hiring process. Looking at who academics are willing to hire, I do not have empirical reasons to think that there is more academic freedom at non-sectarian educational institutions than sectarian ones.

To be fair, I have heard some students complain that they are not free to start progressive political or sexual minority student organizations on Christian campuses. I take them at their word and am willing to believe that some Christian educational institutions restrict the type of student organizations allowed on campus. A few years ago, this would have been a killer argument for pronouncing Christian colleges and universities as intolerant. But lately some non-sectarian educational institutions have found a way to deregister Christian groups from their campuses. If Christian groups do not open up their leadership to non-Christians, then they are not allowed to be official student organizations. It is not only Christian schools that unfairly restrict student organizations, and I suspect that we will see more non-sectarian schools employ these tactics in the coming years. Ironically, many who attempt to defend such “all-comers” policy would be quick to argue that prohibiting progressive students at Christian colleges to start their own organizations is evidence of intolerance.

I am not arguing that Christian colleges are more open to alternate ideas than other educational institutions. I am arguing that we do not have any empirical evidence to state that this is not the case. The perception that religious institutions value intellectual diversity less than other types of institutions is based more upon prejudices and confirmation bias than actual systematic research. I am certain that individuals will produce personal stories about the intolerance they have experienced at the hands of Christians at sectarian educational institutions. But such anecdotal accounts are not the sort of scientific evidence needed to justify removal of accreditation or the stereotypes that I have, until recently, accepted myself. There are many Christians who can also tell stories of intolerance experiences at elite and/or state schools as well. What is needed is the type of academic research where we can properly test the degree of ideological intolerance that we may find on both types of campuses. Without such scientific research to document that there are higher levels of intolerance at Christian campuses, we run the risk of supporting one type of intolerance while ignoring other manifestations of this problem.

When I heard of Senator Sanders speaking at Liberty University and the way students treated him, one of my first reactions was that students in many of our elite institutions have something to learn from Liberty students. Our progressive open-minded liberal students from elite schools have something to learn about political tolerance from the “intolerant” Christians at Liberty. Soon afterward I became acquainted with a professor who works at Liberty. She informed me that the university has a tradition of inviting progressive speakers to the campus. She told me that, when he was alive, Ted Kennedy had spoken on campus more than once. She informed me that the philosophy at Liberty is to foster a politically conservative environment, but one where their students are exposed to ideas from a variety of sources. Oh that we would see this at non-sectarian schools with a more progressive agenda. Despite the common stereotype that colleges like Liberty are a cocoon protecting students from non-Christian, non-conservative ideas, it seems plausible that their philosophy does the opposite. In light of the actions of Liberty University in regards to Sanders and University of California in regards to Maher, perhaps it is time to retire this stereotype – at least until we gain empirical evidence supporting it.