A couple of years ago I was approached with an opportunity to collect some data on college teachers in the United States. I was quite busy and the project took more of my time and energy than I thought it would. But in the end, we finished the project, and now the paper has been accepted in a peer review journal. The paper is now online and so I decided to talk about it and some of the implications that flow from these results. The general aim of the paper was to use an online survey to look at the attitudes of these college teachers towards different Protestant groups.. We had the respondents define fundamentalist, evangelical and mainline Protestants. After rating each of the three groups, we asked them how the groups were distinguished from each other. We also asked other questions about their religious attitudes. This is the type of combination of quantitative and qualitative data I find quite useful.
Using factor analysis, we found that the coded answers could be broken into three different groups: Conservative Protestant Critics, Theological Definers and Low Information. The Conservative Protestant Critics come as no surprise. These were individuals with very hostile and negative attitudes against conservative Protestants (fundamentalists and evangelicals). Given my past research on academic bias against conservative Protestants and the Christianophobic nature of highly educated individuals, I would have been shocked if we did not have a fair amount of what we called Conservative Protestant Critics. Indeed, the largest group in our sample was Conservative Protestant Critics (However, this is not a probability sample, so I cannot say with certainty that this is the largest group in reality).
Neither was I surprised by the presence of what we called Low Information respondents. These were individuals who were not very knowledgeable about any of the Protestant groups nor did they care about the groups. There were fairly apathetic about religious issues in general. I have run into such individuals many times in my career and knew that they would be out in the general academic population.
So I will not spend more time on these two expected groups. Instead what I think is the real knowledge added by this research is the exploration of what we call Theological Definers. These were individuals who were most supportive of conservative Protestants. They were more likely to be Christians and especially likely to be evangelicals who were more likely to attend church, compared to the rest of the sample. So it is not surprising that they rated conservative Protestants higher in our quantitative questions and were less negative of them in our open-ended questions. On the one hand, I expected to see some theologically conservative Christians in the sample. Being such a Christian in academia, I am more likely to have social networks with them than other academics. So I knew there would be some conservative Christians in our sample, and such individuals would naturally be more sympathetic to conservative Protestants.
Where the data gets interesting is how the conservative Protestants expressed their support of conservative Protestants in compared to how Conservative Protestant Critics expressed their non-support of that group. For example, the Conservative Protestant Critics were overtly harsh in their condemnation of conservative Protestants:
Social, cultural, and economic political agendas of this group, in general, run counter to humanistic, scientific, open, and diverse multicultural societies. Their decision makers, lobbyist, and political figures have historically developed hegemonic power bases that benefit few at the expense of numerous, creating disenfranchised (both legally and economically) social groups. Social politics of this group seem “hell-bent” on limiting the rights of others while creating top-heavy societies that are unsustainable, unethical, and, ironically, immoral. See creationism, cuts to social programs and education, art censorship (film ratings), limits to stem cell research and scientific funding, pathologizing LGBTQ communities, monotheist binary ideological constructs, and global evangelism. Historically have marginalized women, gay folk, persons of color, artists, and atheists. (Kinesiology Professor age 36-45 in four year school)
Self-identified Fundamentalists as I have encountered them tend to be more narrow and rigid in their religious views and more extremely conservative in their political views, usually with an extensive political agenda that has little or no respect for Constitutional safeguards on the separation of Church and State. (History professor age 56-65 in Doctorate program)
These were typical statements demonstrating how free those hostile to conservative Protestants felt to criticize them. They were making a quick online statement so it is not reasonable to expect a deep academic analysis from these respondents. Thus it is not surprising that those with grievances towards conservative Protestants would illustrate them with many of the basic stereotypes and negative images I outlined in my book So Many Christians, So Few Lions.
But such simplistic stereotyping was not the case when looking at how Theological Definers described conservative Protestants. Instead they were careful to express their descriptions in academic, and even technical, terms. Those comments, unlike the typical comments from Conservative Protestant Critics, were the type of comments one might find in an academic treatise.
Local church governance, perhaps only slightly beholden to a denominational hierarchy, but remaining fairly independent. Belief that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the only path to heaven and reconciliation with God the Father. Belief that the Bible holds the truth of the word of God, and understanding that truth is communicated in various literary forms. (Theology professor age 46-55 in Doctorate program)
A segment of Protestantism that emphasizes the gospel teachings of redemption, individual conversion, and the immediacy of Christian experience–often enthusiastic experience–centered on Christ as manifested in Scripture. (English professor age 56-65 in Doctorate program)
These examples indicate a desire to be precise in their descriptions of conservative Protestants. They do not illustrate the sweeping stereotypes the Conservative Protestant Critics tend to rely upon. Thus the powerful negative rhetoric of Conservative Protestant Critics is not met with powerful positive rhetoric by Theological Definers. There are distinct approaches for each group in their description of conservative Protestants.
The question is why the two different approaches. To get at the answer to this question, I tap into some of my previous work on academic bias, as well as other work on that bias, which I have discussed in the past. That work shows the disadvantage conservative Protestants have in academia, merely because of their religious beliefs. Conservative Protestant academics are not fools. They quickly realize that their religious beliefs can be used against them in their chosen profession. As a result of this realization, they likely dampen a positive expression of their faith. So even when discussing their religious beliefs to an online survey, they may strive to be academic in their descriptions and forego overt claims about the virtue of conservative Protestantism. On the other hand, critics of conservative Protestants feel no similar pressure to moderate their views with an academic presentation and can be very overt about their negative perceptions of conservative Protestants.
I am not the only one who thinks that our findings reflect the social pressures in academia that conservative Protestant face. One of our reviewers commented that there is a closeted effect that applies to conservative Protestant academics. While we alluded to this potential dynamic in the article, I prefer to think of this as a “silencing” effect. It is not that conservative Protestant academics completely hide their religious identity from their colleagues (Although those who are graduate students tend to do so for good reason). It is more accurate to envision this as their unwillingness to allow their colleagues to know their full religious beliefs. It is simpler to use the generic description of a Christian rather than to let on that one believes in Christ’s resurrection or that Hell exists. The comments of the Theological Definers usually distanced themselves from these beliefs whereas there was evidence in our closed ended questions indicating that many of the Theological Definers accepted those beliefs. A scholarly description provides protection against the charge of being unscientific and those who are Theological Definers understand that they need this protection.
This point was made clear to me when I think about some of the events in my past. For example, when I was a teaching adjunct, I had a semester where I taught two introduction courses, a race/ethnicity course and a religion course. But some of the professors were worried about my teaching the religion course since I was a Christian. None of them questions me teaching a race/ethnicity course because I am black. Being black is not seen as being a barrier to teaching racial issues as it is thought that being black helps me to bring something to the course. These professors did not see my Christian faith as something that I could bring to a religion course. Of course my race helps to shape how I teach racial issues, and my faith helps to shape how I teach religious issues. But anyone who teaches either race or religion is going to be biased by their race or presuppositions about religious answers. But being black is something to be respected in academia while being a Christian is something to be watched and regulated. This is just one example of the type of silencing that I suspect established the type of answers the Theological Definers shared on our survey.
While I am discussing this research, I want to touch on another issue that can be addressed with these findings. One of the criticisms of my work on Christianophobia is that the data from the American National Election Study asked individuals to rate fundamentalists. Some have argued that this is not a true test of attitudes towards Christians as clearly fundamentalists are only one subgroup among Christians. I would have preferred if they had asked about evangelicals, a group I see as mainstream conservative Christians, but I have to work with the data provided to me, not the data I want in my fantasy world. Furthermore, I have argued that this is a good measure for assessing conservative Christians in general. The more I study Christianophobia in the United States the more I conclude that it is an affliction limited to conservative Christians. My blog on how progressive Christians reject their conservative co-religionists merely reinforces this perception. But now with this data I have an opportunity to see if these educated individuals distinguished between evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Looking at the thermometer ratings of these highly educated respondents, I should get the attitudes of those who are highly educated and should be the most knowledgeable of differences between fundamentalists and evangelicals. Thus I can see if fundamentalists are a good representative of conservative Christians in general. There was a difference between the two groups. The average score for evangelicals is 47.78 while the average score for fundamentalists is 44.99. That is less than 3 percent of a difference between these two groups. It is hard for me to see how this small of a difference indicates a dramatic contrast in how our respondents envision fundamentalists and evangelicals.
We asked in one of our open-ended questions how they may perceive the two groups to be different. The major difference they articulated is that evangelicals were more concerned with proselytizing than fundamentalists and fundamentalists were more likely to believe the Bible to be the inherent word of God. Really not much of a difference as there was the same tendency to see members of both groups as intolerant, stupid, bigoted and other negative stereotypes that the highly educated tend to possess about conservative Protestants.
Ultimately, I came away from this research believing that my decision that fundamentalists are good proxy for conservative Christians is valid. Ideally I would love to run the evangelical and fundamentalist thermometer questions to the general public and see if the answers wildly differ from my respondents. Such a test is the only way to put to bed forever the argument that fundamentalists do not represent conservative Christianity to the general public. But given the results of this current research I am satisfied, at this time, that my findings about Christianophobia and its effects on conservative Christians are basically correct.