Racism, Not Christianophobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianophobia in the United States – Part 2

This is the second entry of the blog series about my latest book – So Many Christians, So Few Lions – Christianophobia in the United States. I waited until the book was officially out before posting as I anticipated that it will be a little more controversial than my previous entry. Readers can look to the book for a fuller explanation and for more evidence of the processes I will discuss. Last time I looked at contours of the basic animosity towards conservative Christians in the United States. This time, I qualitatively explore the nature of the worst of such attitudes. For those of you who have not read my first entry, I defined Christianophobia as unreasonable hatred or fear of Christians.

I have established that those with animosity towards conservative Christians tend to have more per-capita social power than those with animosity towards other religiously based groups. They are more likely to be white, educated and wealthy. The education advantage creates a unique dimension in this group as one may contend that highly educated individuals are unlikely to engage in unreasonable level of hatred or anger. The common social image we have of highly educated people is that they are measured and tolerant. This is why merely documenting that animosity towards conservative Christians is fairly common is insufficient for producing evidence that this animosity is unreasonable hatred or fear. To assess whether generalized animosity towards conservative Christians can lead to what I have defined as Christianophobia, we need qualitative data whereby those who have this hostility are allowed to express their potential animosity.

My previous research allows me to possess such data. That research was the examination of cultural progressive activists conducted by David Williamson and myself. I wrote about that study in an earlier blog. In that research, we asked our respondents to fill out an online survey with open-ended questions. The questions dealt with their attitudes towards the Christian right. However, for many of the respondents, it was clear that they were also exhibiting attitudes towards Christians in general. Indeed several respondents commented that there was no difference between Christians and political conservatives. We also replicated our thermometer technique used with the American National Election Studies data so that our final sample only contained individuals who would have been found to have had anti-Christian animosity in our original quantitative sample. We used a series of “liking” thermometers for a variety of religious groups and evaluated if Christian fundamentalists were scored a standard deviation below the average of those thermometers. Those that did were coded as possessing animosity towards conservative Christians. Our original sample contained 2,859 respondents who filled out at least one of the open ended questions, but the final sample included 2,061 respondents, or 72.8 percent, who qualified by indicating anti-fundamentalist animosity with our thermometer measure.

Since this is a qualitative sample, it is fair to ask whether our results can provide generalizable information. But I have already demonstrated with a probability sample that this type of general animosity towards conservative Christians is quite common. I also showed that those with this animosity tend to be white, educated and wealthy. Our sample also was disproportionately white, educated and wealthy. So the sample can be used to do what qualitative work is supposed to do and go more in-depth to understand the nuances and perspectives of those with animosity towards conservative Christians.

Since Christianophobia concerns having unreasonable hatred, fear and/or anger towards conservative Christians, the first order of business is to assess if this can characterize a significant number of comments by the respondents. Perhaps the negative emotions they exhibit are due to a reasonable assessment of the failures of conservative Christians. Many of these respondents did talk about concerns that I and other Christians have enunciated previously about conservative Christians. Thus, it is inaccurate to assert that the comments of the respondents were devoid of any reasonable content.

However, I now must confess about why I named the book So Many Christians, So Few Lions. When I looked over the comments of the respondents, several respondents made comments about lions in some form or fashion that implied the desirability of feeding Christians to lions. Even as a joke, it is indeed a sick joke and the sickness of the joke is illustrated if we consider how Jews would feel about jokes of having them put into ovens. When I went back and counted how many times lion references occurred, I found that it happened seven times. Okay, this is more than once or twice, but it is not an overwhelming amount. Perhaps if those were the only times of an expression of an unreasonable hatred, I could let that go. But alas, this was not the case. Here are three examples of other expressions of such hate:

I want them all to die in a fire. (Male, aged 26-35 with Doctorate)

They should be eradicated without hesitation or remorse. Their only purpose is to damage and inflict their fundamentalist virus onto everyone they come in contact with. (Female, aged 66-75 with Master degree)

They make me a believer in eugenics….They pollute good air…I would be in favor of establishing a state for them… If not, then sterilize them so they can’t breed more. (Male, aged 46-55 with Master degree)

These are only a few of the responses that I found quite distasteful. If they are not enough evidence, then one can read more in the first chapter of my book. If the number of comments in the book does not convince one of unreasonable hatred, the data can be located at the ARDA website. People of good will can disagree with conservative Christians on issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, church/state separation, religious freedom etc. But these comments are indefensible and an excellent illustration of an unreasonable level of animosity. Thus, the term Christianophobia applies to at least some of my respondents.

Some respondents have an unreasonable hatred, fear and/or anger towards Christians. But how do these emotions manifest themselves in my respondents in ways that differ from other populations? Since the population that tends to have Christianophobia have progressive social and political proclivities, it is possible that these qualities negate their ability to develop many of the socio-psychological dysfunctions we see with other types of out-group hatreds. In the book, I discuss elements of dehumanization, prejudice, bigotry and hatred within these comments. Space does not permit me to go into depth on any of these qualities. However, I will partially illustrate one of these qualities – dehumanization – to better show how animosity among those with Christianophobia can manifest itself.

Several researchers and social thinkers have written about dehumanization. But the best conceptualization of dehumanization comes from Nick Haslem. He identified two types of dehumanization: animalistic and mechanical. A cursory reading of the answers from the respondents indicates that animalistic dehumanization fits their responses better than mechanical dehumanization. He identified five qualities of animalistic dehumanization – lack of culture instead of civility, coarseness instead of refinement, amorality instead of moral sensibility, irrationality instead of logic and childlikeness instead of maturity.

I do not have the space to explore all five of these qualities within the answers of my respondents (I did such an exploration in the book). But I will look at the last characteristic which is the notion that Christians are childlike instead of mature. Indeed my respondents tended to paint a picture of Christians being immature individuals led by powerful, manipulative leaders.

The leaders are deceptive and power hungry individuals who invoke “God” in a political sense to rally their supporters…They play to people’s emotions, daily. (Female, aged 26-35 with Bachelor degree)

Their movement’s leaders are the worst type of manipulative authoritarian scum and their millions of followers are sad, weak people who are all too willing to give up their self-respect and liberty for a fantasy. (Male, aged 26-35 with Bachelor degree)

In this way the respondents take away the agency of Christians by suggesting that they are weak individuals unable to resist the desires of evil leaders. Rather the respondents support an image of Christians as being children misled by bad parents.

This type of stereotyping fits quite well with some of the insults that my respondents used in describing Christians. For example, some variation of the term “brainwash” came up 137 times, from 125 respondents. Almost every time the term was used, it was to note the inability of Christians to think for themselves. For example, a female, aged 56-65 with a bachelor degree wrote, “I believe that this group is in general poorly educated and often brainwashed to the point of seeing no perspective but their own. Many allow themselves to become tools of charismatic, self serving leaders because they have been deprived of the education and tools to ever think otherwise.” This respondent, like many other respondents, have a stereotype of Christians reflecting them as unthinking imbeciles. It is a dehumanizing stereotype creating an image of Christians as not having full human capacities.

Beyond the notion of brainwashing, 66 of our respondents use the terms sheep and 5 of our respondents used the term lemmings to describe Christians as well.

…they’re lemmings that despite factual evidence to the contrary, will usually follow the guidance of their pastors and church leaders. (Male, aged 36-45 with Doctorate)

A gullible group of poorly educated dupes, willing to allow themselves to be herded like sheep, to be shorn or slaughtered by unscrupulous con men wearing clerical garb. (Male, aged 56-65 with some graduate school)

These numbers seem low considering that I have a sample of almost three thousand respondents; however, it should be noted that these comments comparing Christians to animals are unprompted. (It is also instructive to consider which terms were not used at all. For example, ape or gorilla was not used by any of the respondents to describe conservative Christians.) Closed ended questions providing respondents with the opportunity to characterize conservative Christians in animalistic terms would likely garner a nontrivial level of support. The comments about Christians as passive animals, combined with the relative willingness of the respondents to use the term brainwashed, occur often enough to provide some confidence that characterizations of Christians as unthinking passive followers are accepted within subcultures with high levels of Christianophobic animosity. If there is any doubt that there is an animalistic element to the type of dehumanizing occurring among my respondents, the use of these animals clearly indicates that Christians are not always seen as human. Obviously what lemmings and sheep have in common is that they are animals that easily follow a leader. This is different from the dehumanization of minority racial groups as vicious animals, and there are distinct aspects of how conservative Christians are dehumanized relative to minority racial groups. Racial minorities are perceived as physically dangerous by those who dehumanize them while conservative Christian are perceived as mindless non-thinkers by those that dehumanize them. However, the use of animals to describe humans is dehumanization nonetheless.

These responses, along with the other qualities of dehumanization found among the respondents, indicate that a significant percentage of them generally perceive conservative Christians as a set of negative characteristics instead of as fully formed humans. Furthermore, the data also indicates powerful patterns of anti-Christian hatred, bigotry and prejudice among my respondents. In my data set, I found that those who are most likely to have strong hostility towards conservative Christians also tend to have relatively few conservative Christians in their social networks. Previous research suggests that intergroup contact tends to encourage humanization of members of social out-groups. My data does not allow me to accurately assess all of the sources of Christianophobia; however, it appears that a lack of contact with conservative Christians is part of the source of this phenomenon. This lack of contact would explain the ease by which many of these respondents were able to develop unflattering caricatures. This is not likely the only explanation and ideally future research will further explore the sources of Christianophobia.

So now what do we know? The information in the first blog informed us that there is a significant minority of relatively powerful individuals who have anti-Christian animosity. In this blog entry we learned that many of them have an unreasonable hostility towards conservative Christians. The joking about putting Christians to death combined with the willingness to dehumanize Christians speaks to a propensity of these individuals to devalue Christians. This sort of devaluation can precede some of the worst treatment of out-group members in human history. But we cannot assume the inevitability of such treatment unless we have more than unpleasant comments. Furthermore, those with these attitudes towards conservative Christians tend to be well-educated, supporting notions of multicultural and tolerance. These qualities may ameliorate their willingness to convert their animosity into public or private actions that disproportionately punish Christians. This research can only document the attitudes of the respondents and not their actions. However, we did ask the respondents about what measures they would like to use to control conservative Christians. That information, combined with the results of other research and informed speculation, leads to my assessment of the possible implications of Christianophobia. That assessment will be the focus of my last entry in this blog series.

Christian Persecution – Fact or Fiction

“Persecution!” is the cry that we hear from some Christians today. Detractors of those individuals complain about a “wahbulance” attitude these Christians have. Supporters of these individuals point out ways in which Christians have faced discrimination or are victims of unfair measures. The historical persecution of Christians is not an illusion. Knowing that Christians in the past have been tortured and killed for their faith may make it easier for Christians to see themselves as victims of persecution. There is need for a level-headed assessment of the question about contemporary Christian persecution. Hopefully, I can provide some perspective that may aid such an assessment.

The basic definition of persecuting is “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict” and specifically “to cause to suffer because of belief”. So the question becomes – Are Christians being harassed or punished because of their belief? We know that this sometimes happens internationally. Youcef Nadarkhani is sitting in an Iranian jail over his refusal to recant his Christian faith. He clearly is being harassed and injured because of his Christian belief and has every right to complain about being persecuted. All of us, Christian or not, should be willing to speak on the behalf of men like Nadarkhani.

But when Christians talk about persecution, they do not limit themselves to international persecution but they imply that Christians in the United States are being harassed or punished for their faith. It is a given that there are certain countries where Christians face persecution but the real question is whether persecution of Christians occurs today. When I read other Christians referring to persecution, they tend to fall into one of two schools. Either they see Christians as always wrong and thus are just crying wolf about persecution, or they believe that just about every slight Christians suffer from are examples of persecution. Yet, there is a more reasonable middle group position.

Are Christians consistently harassed and punished in the United States because of their faith? My short answer is no. We are not subject to arrest, to firing, to violence simply because of our Christian beliefs. This is not to say that Christians do not face discrimination. My previous work (Compromising Scholarship - Baylor University Press) documents discriminatory attitudes some academics have towards conservative Christians. There is other research, such as Inbar and Lammers (2012), documenting the propensity of academics to discriminate against Christians. There are practices such as Vanderbilt’s insane policy about student group leadership being open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs that institutionally discriminate against Christians. So yes, Christians face discrimination just as other religious groups in our society can face discrimination. But this does not rise to the level of persecution.

If we had real Christian persecution then we would see authority figures attempting to find Christians in an effort to jail them. In countries where there is real persecution, believers have to meet in underground churches because their actual churches are often burned or closed down by the government. These things are not happening in the United States. To be sure, there are individuals who hate Christians and often that hatred is at an unreasonable level. But if Christians decide to quietly sit in their churches and homes, then nobody will bother them. This is not to deny the right of Christians to participate in society beyond their churches and homes, but if Christians were being persecuted then they would not be able to stay safely in their own spaces.

When Christians in the United States cry that they are being persecuted then they are making claims not evident in reality. They are taking incidents of unfairness or discrimination and claiming that these are  an examples of persecution. This cheapens the language of persecution and makes the individuals making the claim look foolish. The Vanderbilt policy forbidding religious student groups from having religious requirements for leadership is idiotic and unfair. The enforcement of the policy appears to be disproportionately aimed at conservative Christian groups. But this is not persecution. Vanderbilt is not throwing Christians off campus for their Christian faith. When the Christian leaders complain about persecution, people rightly see them as trying to play the role of the victim, rather than honestly pointing out real problems. Arguing that Christians face discrimination is more sustainable than attempting to provoke images of a Nazi-like persecution.

Some Christians are hesitant to discuss discrimination as an issue. Christianity is the majority religion in society, and it may seem rude to compare the discrimination of Christians to that of other religious groups. But, given what we know from current research, it is highly likely that discrimination occurs in segments of society where Christians do not have majority group power, such as academia. Even with the reality of discrimination some may argue that our duty is to ignore this discrimination and turn the other cheek. But while Christians have a duty to make sure that those in other faiths are treated fairly, so too should we make sure that those of our faith are treated fairly. It is not any less unjust if a Christian is discriminated against instead of a Muslim. Furthermore, the failure to acknowledge anti-Christian discrimination is a factor that drives some Christians to make unwise claims about persecution. When Christians who face discrimination are ignored, they may naturally make more extreme claims of that discrimination in hopes of drawing attention to the problems they face. Christians who simply tell other Christians to be quiet do not help us achieve a comprehensive state of religious fairness in our society.

In my life I have learned that a sense of balance is one of the most important qualities we can develop. This is true when it comes to the idea of Christian persecution in the United States. The answer is not to see persecution in every slight. Neither is the answer to ignore the reality of discrimination against Christians. Finding ways to address real issues of misunderstandings and discrimination without resorting to wild charges of persecution is the type of balanced approach we need to develop.

I have largely written this blog for the sake of other Christians. Part of the need of addressing this topic is because we have a more multicultural, multireligious society than in the past. Christians used to have a certain level of social control through their religious identity, but now they have to find ways to deal with this new reality. But as Christians lose power as a group, they can be vulnerable to religious discrimination in ways that escaped them in the past. Thus, just as they have to adjust to a new culture where they do not have complete dominance, so too do non-Christians have to learn about using their enhanced status to create a culture where everyone from the most conservative right-wing Christian to the most radical atheist have maximum freedom to live out their beliefs.