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.

Revisiting “Compromising Scholarship”

Three years ago my book Compromising Scholarship was published. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first systematic documentation of political and religious academic bias. Since then, other information on this topic has come out, and I have had a chance to see responses to the book. Based on both this new information and these responses, I have become even more convinced that this bias, particularly as it concerns conservative Christians, is a real problem. I have also come to the conclusion that this will be a very hard bias to overcome – if we ever are going to be able to overcome it. I take this occasion to revisit that book and look at this issue in light of the new information I have gained in the last few years.

First, let me examine the reaction to the book. A few individuals have pointed out the low response rates of my surveys. That was a problem I dealt with in the book where I showed that the results are not due to the social dynamics of my sample differing from demographic makeup in academia. There are researchers who have debated whether low response is the problem; some say that it is, but the power of my findings strongly suggests that low response rate bias is not a serious problem to the overall results.

Other than a couple of mentions about the response rate, there are two other criticisms of the work. First, some have argued that this one study does not prove that academic bias is a problem. I will go into more depth about this critique later when I discuss other work supporting my argument. Second, some have argued that even if there is a bias that this is not important since Christians, especially conservative Christians, are not suited for academic work. I saw many such claims in comment sections in online articles about the book and in response to a video I made about the book and some of my other work.

The implication of this argument is that religious discrimination is okay. That is quite disturbing. But perhaps it is not a surprise. Whenever a social group mistreats an out-group there is a need to find legitimation for that mistreatment. Is it true that Christians are not suited for academic work? It is possible that anti-intellectual trends in some Christian circles results in some Christians being less open to academic work. However, having a contrasting epistemological framework can also allow Christians to bring ideas into academia that are normally ignored. Having individuals who are nonconformist to the current scholarly paradigms can provide new fruitful academic directions. The argument that Christians are not suited for academic work can be used to suppress voices challenging the academic status quo. Part of my disappointment in my findings is the loss to science when voices that do not comport with the current scholarly fashions are silenced.

But even if those voices do not contribute to science, bias against someone seeking a place in academia due to their religious beliefs is just wrong, even if we believe their religious beliefs to be wacky. I do not expect everyone who works around me to agree with my religious and political viewpoints. Unless I am working in a ministry where promotion of a certain religious perspective is one of the main objectives of the job, then it would be wrong for me to not hire someone who disagrees with my religious perspectives. This moral truth seems so self-evident that I scarcely see a need to defend it.

However, there may be a need to assert that anti-religious discrimination is wrong since there is an assumption by some that Christian scholars bring their faith into their work. The implication is that a Christian professor cannot help but promote his/her faith in scholarship and teaching instead of doing quality work based upon data. My response to that claim is that all scholars bring their beliefs into their work. As I stated in a former blog, objectivity is a myth. What I find curious is that there is a worry about objectivity when a scholar or potential scholar is a Christian but not if that person is a Marxist, homosexual or feminist etc. I would argue that given the atmosphere of skepticism against traditional religion in academia, a Christian scholar is more likely to be challenged on his/her own belief system than those with a more secular and/or humanist perspective and thus more likely to engage in introspection than other scholars. This said Christian has to be willing to challenge his/her belief system since it is clear that other scholars will challenge it when that professor presents research or uses a given pedagogical approach. If I am right then Christian scholars are more likely to work at being unbiased than other scholars.

As stated earlier I have found work supporting my argument about academia bias. Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers also did a survey of 800 social and personality psychologists finding that they are willing to discriminate against political conservatives when it comes to hiring, reviewing papers, reviewing grant proposals and invitations to a symposium. Furthermore, Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter (See their chapter “The Vanishing Conservative” in The Politically Correct Univeristy) found that cultural conservative academics tend to work at jobs that are lower status than would be expected given their achievements and qualifications. Finally, there are case studies such as the trial of Mike S. Adams revealing what happens when this bias flairs up from behind closed doors. Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga sued Peralta Community College when they were punished for praying for an ill professor. Another example can be seen in the case of Jennifer Keeton who faced pressure from professors for her traditional Christian-based views on sexuality.

To be fair, Neil Gross provides some evidence that directors of graduate programs do not discriminate against political conservatives. However, I pointed out some weaknesses of his approach in an earlier blog. Furthermore, he only looked at political bias and in Compromising Scholarship I found bias against religious conservatives to be more powerful than bias against political conservatives.

This leads me back to the question of whether my study proves that academic bias is a problem. I argue that my study in and of itself shows that bias against religious, and to a lesser extent political, conservatives is a problem. I found that slightly less than half of all academics stated that they were less willing to hire a job candidate if they found out that the candidate was a fundamentalist and only a slightly smaller percentage were less willing if they found out the candidate was an evangelical. I only have to point out that if we found such percentages less willing to hire a candidate if that candidate was Jewish, Muslim or atheist that we would rightly look at the problems of religious bias in academia. Should we be less concerned if the candidate is a conservative Protestant?

The additional research lends even more power to that argument. We not only have a survey indicating that academics are less willing to hire from a certain religious group, but we have case studies where it appears that bias is a problem and evidence that cultural conservatives, who are highly likely to be members of this group, may not receive as much of a return on academic achievements as other individuals. Once again if we were talking about, well name your favorite non-Christian religious group, having professors talk about not willing to hire them, cases where it is likely they were discriminated against and evidence that they face systematic, structural disadvantages in their job placement, then it is highly unlikely that individuals would state that there is no evidence of discrimination and prejudice. If there is discrimination against a group by highly educated academics, who are highly motivated to hide overt signs of bias, the evidence noted above is what I would expect to find.

What is of real interest is the double standard that snaps into play when the subject of anti-Christian bias comes up. Some argue that unless we have people overtly stating that they will not hire someone because they are a Christian or that a person cannot get tenure because they are a Christian then we have not PROVED anti-Christian bias. By that standard we have not PROVED contemporary anti-black bias in most institutions as educated individuals know not to be blatant with their biases. In one of my blogs, one person commented that unless there are “Christian need not apply” signs that we have not proven bias. Do we have any modern “Blacks need not apply” signs out there today? How often do we have people who overtly state that they will not hire or promote African-Americans? I, and other race scholars, clearly know that we have problems of racial bias even today and yet we do not have the type of evidence demanded by critics of my work. Critics of the notion of academic bias demand far more evidence for that bias than what is provided to show racism, sexism, homophobia etc. in our social institutions.

So three years after the publication of Compromising Scholarship, I am more confident that religious, and to a lesser extent political, academic bias is a real problem. However, I am less confident that it is a problem that will be solved in the foreseeable future. Previous research has shown that conservative Protestants are quite underrepresented in academia. Given that those with a more secular perspective are overrepresented, those with anger towards and contempt towards Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have more power in academia than those Christians. While Christians have social advantages in other important sectors in society, they have a marginalized position in academia. This reality is a blind spot for many scholars. When I did the research and wrote that book, I hoped that pointing out such blind spots would raise enough concern that there would be those who would work towards creating a more equitable environment. I did not expect overnight results, but I thought that there would be recognition of the problem which would be the first step towards finding lasting solutions. I realize now that I was naïve. Academics, even those who study issues of power and its abuses, are just as willing to legitimate the use of power over marginalized groups when it concerns groups they do not particularly like. A willingness to punish out-groups one does not like may be a universal quality that does not know political and social boundaries.

Perhaps I should not be surprised. History has shown us that when groups have power over others that it is difficult for the members of the powerful group to perceive this power as a problem. Social scientists should be able to recognize good evidence of bias. But the evidence of double standards indicates that when it comes to looking at those that scholars likely perceive as out-groups, they seem as vulnerable to social and cognitive biases as others in our society. One may hope that academics would be more knowledgeable about dynamics of social power and more sensitive about using that power over out-group members who are in subordinate positions in the institutions they control. But everything I have seen indicates that academics are not immune to using social power in unfair ways against groups they do not like. My hope now is that in time academics will engage in the self-introspection necessary to fully address some of the issues that Compromising Scholarship has brought out. But that hope has waned over the last three years.

Academic Bias? – Does it Affect Business Professors?

My previous book, Compromising Scholarship, documented the willingness of academics to engage in political and religious bias. One of the criticisms I have heard about that work is that occupational bias is not limited to social scientists, physical scientists and professors in the humanities. This is obviously true. I have never argued that social bias is only found among academics. My goal was to show that scholars who prided themselves on being inclusive may not be quite as inclusive as they portrayed themselves to be.

A corollary of the critique that bias is not limited to academics in the sciences and humanities is that we should expect to see social bias among other academics. Since there is research indicating that business professors are not as politically liberal as other academics, it seems likely that academics in the business fields exhibit bias against different groups than academics in the sciences and humanities. A difficulty of comparing the social biases of academics in the sciences and humanities to other professionals is that we rarely make apples to apples comparison. The same measures used to assess the strength of the social biases in other professional occupations have not been used to assess those biases in academia.

However, it is possible to compare academics in the sciences and humanities to those in the business fields. While finishing Compromising Scholarship I decided to send out a survey to accounting and marketing professors. The survey was the same one I used in my book. After the book came out I worked on that data a bit. Other research interests got my attention (Squirrel!!) and I did not have time to do the additional literature background needed for a fully developed academic paper. But given that we do not have other relevant empirical comparisons, I decided to go back to the data and see if those in the business fields have the same degree of willingness to discriminate against out-groups as academics in the sciences/humanities and if so then which groups they would discriminate against.

A quick recap of the research in Compromising Scholarship. I sent a survey out to academics labeled for addressing issues of collegiality to academics in nine disciplines. I included a question that asked how a scholar feels about a job candidate who came from a given social group. There were twenty seven groups for the scholars to assess on a seven-point likert scale. The groups were chosen to assess possible political (Democrats, Republicans, Green Party, Libertarians, Communist Party, ACLU, and NRA), sexuality (Heterosexual, Homosexual, Bisexual, Transgendered), religious (Atheist, Mormon, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish), lifestyle (Vegetarian, Hunter), family status (Married, Divorced, Cohabitating, Single with Children) and age (Under 30, Over 50) dimensions of bias. Higher numbers on the scale indicate that membership in a given social group enhances the desirability of a hypothetical candidate while lower numbers indicate that membership damages desirability. If belonging to a social group neither enhances nor damages a candidate’s desirability then the respondent was allowed to respond with a “4.”

In my original research I found that academics in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities were willing to discriminate against fundamentalists, evangelicals, Mormons, NRA members and Republicans. The bias was stronger against religious out-groups than political out-groups and it varied by discipline. For example, 60 percent of anthropologists were less likely to hire a job candidate if they find out that the candidate is an evangelical. Respectively, I found that 38.8 percent of sociologists, 52.6 percent of English literature professors and 31.1 percent of chemists are less willing to hire a job candidate if they find out that the candidate is an evangelical. On the other hand, 32.3 percent of anthropologists, 28.7 percent of sociologists, 26.9 percent of English literature professors and 16.4 of chemists are less willing to hire a job candidate if they find out that the candidate is a Republican.

My survey to business professors produced a sample of 82 accounting respondents and 144 marketing respondents. I eliminated those who did not work on a college campus which left 63 accounting professors and 111 marketing professors. Like my other work, the response rate is lower than I would have liked, but I did similar methodological checks to make sure that the social demographics of my sample did not determine my results. While these particular findings have not undergone peer review, my original work was reviewed and my methodology is not significantly different.

Because of the contrasting social and political makeup of business professors, I expected that there would be different groups that they would be willing to discriminate against. I found that accounting professors did not reject political and religious conservatives but showed a willingness to reject members of the communist party (32.8% of them were less willing to hire them) and the transgendered (27.1% of them were less willing to hire them). Marketing academics are also likely less willing to hire members of the communist party (38.1% of them were less willing to hire them) and the transgendered (28% of them were less willing to hire them). Both marketing and accounting professors are less willing to hire members of the communist party more than any other group, and I suspect that this is the least popular of the 27 groups I asked about for members in the general business disciplines.

As I expected, there are distinct social groups more likely to be rejected by business professors than by professors in the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. It should not come as a surprise that members of the communist party are not held in high esteem by business professors. The philosophy of communism is not exactly conducive to the profit-making goals of business. The resistance to the transgendered may represent a desire of business professionals to support traditional sexual norms. I did not document resistance to homosexuality or bisexuality but it may be that transgenderism is a bridge too far.

Critics are correct when they state that social bias is not limited to the academic disciplines investigated in Compromising Scholarship. Business academics seem to exhibit bias towards norms of traditional sexuality and rejection of economic radicalism. The idea that the same groups face negative biases in all sectors of academia is not supported by this study. However, there is no evidence of a positive bias within the business academics towards religious and political conservatives. Since political conservatives are more likely to be business academics than academics in the science and humanities, it may be that explanations of ethnocentrism or group interest are not useful for understanding academic bias. Yet it is possible that because the ratio of conservative to progressive academics in business disciplines is much less than the ratio of progressive to conservative academics in the sciences and humanities that political conservatives are not prominent enough in the business disciplines to create ethnocentric norms that generate positive bias for political conservatives.

Beyond understanding which groups business professors may reject, it is also important to speculate about whether there is a stronger or weaker propensity of business professors to reject out-group members relative to other academics. Among business professors only communist party members and the transgendered had percentages of respondents willing to reject them significantly higher than the general percentage of professors willing to reject other social groups. There were at least five social groups (fundamentalists, evangelicals, NRA members, Republicans, Mormons) who consistently had significantly lower scores when looking at these 27 groups with professors in the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, the level of rejection of members of the communist party and the transgendered is distinctly lower than towards at least fundamentalists and evangelicals. A quick examination of my previous reporting of the percentage of professors in the various disciplines less willing to hire individuals from the noted groups demonstrates that business professors reject out-groups in much lower percentages than other professors. Another piece of evidence suggests that professors in the business fields are more open to hiring out-group members than those in the sciences. A significant minority of business professors did not favor or disfavor any of the groups by indicating that social group membership did not matter for all 27 groups. This would have been done by scoring a “4” for all 27 groups. As it concerns hiring a potential candidate, 40% of the accounting and 43.8% of the marketing professors indicated this. In my original work only 25 percent of the social scientists, 25.3 percent of the humanities scholars and 31.3 percent of the natural scientists stated that none of the social groups mattered as it pertains to hiring a candidate. Thus, business professors are more open to ignoring social group membership of all different types as it concerns hiring a potential job candidate than professors in the sciences and humanities.

It is quite possible that my listing of the 27 groups to test did not include groups that would be especially distressing for business professors. This oversight may create findings indicating that business professors are less open to hiring individuals with whom they disagree than other academics. I believe that I attempted to add a wide enough variety of social groups to irritate just about anyone. As I look over my listing I am hard pressed to think of what groups may be more hated by business professors than members of the communist party. However, my lack of imagination, rather than social reality, may contribute to the potential assertion that business professors are less likely to reject out-groups than other professors. Thus, I am hesitant to make such an assertion. What I do assert is that notions that professors in the business fields are more likely to participate in discrimination against social out-groups than those in other academic disciplines do not seem accurate. I am critical of assertions of greater tolerance within academic fields supposed to be more open minded than business disciplines.


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