“War on Christmas” and Symbolic Hostility

“War on Christmas” and Symbolic Hostility December 15, 2012

          Recently much has been made at this time of year of what has been called the “War on Christmas.” Given the relevance of this topic, allow me to share some of my research published in 2010 that provides insight about this potential war. I cannot find the article online but you can look it up [Review of Religious Research 52(2):159-171] at a local university library.  

          My original purpose was to argue that possession of religious animosity is not limited to certain groups. Previous research indicated that political conservatives, the highly religious, and the uneducated tend to have religious animosity. But that research generally looked at animosity towards Muslims, Jews or the unreligious. I asked whether those with animosity towards conservative Protestants would come from a different social and demographic group.

          I used data from the American National Election Study. They had a series of “thermometer” questions whereby individuals indicated on a scale of 0 to 100 the degree of affection they had with different social groups. Higher numbers indicated more affection for a group. I picked out the seven religious designations (atheist, fundamentalist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic and Christian) and looked at the thermometer scores for all seven groups. (I know that some will dispute using atheists as a religious designation but clearly it is useful to assess attitudes toward them if we are looking at religious tolerance.) I found what I expected to find. Political conservatives and the highly religious as well as those with lower levels of education possess lower thermometer scores towards atheists. Political conservatives were more likely to have low thermometer scores towards Muslims. However the reverse was true when it came to fundamentalists. It was political progressives, the highly educated and the irreligious that had lower thermometer scores toward fundamentalists. These results held up even after applying regression controls for sex, age, race, and region of country.

          By the way, some may argue that attitudes towards fundamentalist do not adequately measure attitudes towards Christians. Technically it does. Fundamentalism is a Protestant movement which emerged in the early 20th century. Yet, it is a term that has been misused by some as they talk about other religious groups as some people have used the fundamentalist term when discussing Muslims or Jews. However, in the context of asking the question in the United States, most individuals think of Christians when they hear the term “fundamentalists”. In our country, fundamentalist has clearly become a pejorative term representing conservative Christians.

          Knowing who tends to have animosity towards certain religious groups provides insight into the “War on Christmas.” But it is also important to comprehend the degree of animosity that exists towards religious groups. To assess this, I averaged the seven thermometer scores and then noted  if any of the scores were at least a standard deviation below the average. If it did then I decided that this was a group to which that individual possesses a significant level of animosity. So if a person gave 100 to all of the groups except Muslims but gave Muslims 70, which is a relatively high score, that person still has animosity towards Muslims since generally that person provides high scores for different religious groups. This way I can assess animosity in those who rank all groups very high as well as those who rank all groups relatively low.

          Clearly the group that faced the most animosity was the atheists. Using this measure, about 27 percent of the respondents indicated a lack of affection towards them. This comports with previous research showing that atheists are the least trusted religious group in the United States. The second “least liked” group is fundamentalists. A little more than 11 percent of the respondents indicated such dislike. But close behind were the Muslims. A little less than 8 percent of the respondents fell into the category of rejecting them. The difference is not enough so that I have confidence that fundamentalists are rejected more than Muslims, but clearly they are not rejected less than Muslims. None of the other groups registered much with this measure and thus these are the three most rejected religious groups in the United States.

          That fundamentalists are rejected at least as much as any other group other than atheists is significant. Some may argue that 11 percent is too low of a percentage to be concerned about. There is concern among many people, myself included, about the problems of Islamophobia in our society. But my research indicates animosity that is at least as intense toward Christians as it is toward Muslims. If we are to be concerned about Islamophobia then does this not suggest that we should be concerned with Christianophobia? Such a concern also provides insight about a “War on Christmas.” Furthermore, those with Christianophobia potentially have a more powerful social position than those potentially with Islamophobia. Remember that those with animosity towards conservative Christians are more likely to be white and well-educated. Those are qualities that provide social status and power.

          Nonetheless, it can be argued that we should not be concerned about Christianophobia since it is not Christians that experience violence in the United States. Some contend that it is mosques, and not churches, that are physically attacked. (Although there is information here, and here  that disputes this notion). They may argue that Christians do not experience violence. I tend to agree that Christians are less likely to be the victims of violence because of their religious beliefs than Muslims, although I do not have any research that supports that inclination.

          This may be a factor of who has Islamophobia as opposed to who has Christianophobia. Those with Islamophobia tend to be political conservatives. While clearly political conservatives are not all violent, they may have a political philosophy that makes more allowances for violent reactions. But those with animosity towards fundamentalists are well educated, irreligious and political progressives. Those individuals are more likely to have educational status and a political philosophy that would reject violence. I do not believe that religious violence is a widespread problem in our society, but when it is a problem it may be the political conservatives who are a major factor in this problem.

          But just pointing this out misses the real question which is how do political progressives, the irreligious, and the highly educated exhibit religious animosity. They may not do it with violence, but it is naïve to believe that such individuals do not show hostility towards their religious out-groups. To get a clue as to how they do so, I look towards the research and theorizing around what is known as symbolic racism. Symbolic racism is built on the notion that whites with animosity towards minority groups do not want to show that animosity with issues obviously tied to racism. But on issues that have racial and non-racial components they can exhibit this animosity. Few people would openly state that they hate Hispanics. But those that do may support a highly restrictive immigration policy since there are non-racist reasons for supporting this policy. This gives them “cover” against accusations of racism while allowing them to symbolically support their animosity towards Hispanics.

          Given the propensity of the highly educated and political progressives to avoid being labeled as intolerant, symbolic racism is a good way to understand how animosity towards Christian conservatives may be expressed. Individuals with this animosity are likely hesitant to openly express it but that animosity can come out on issues where a different reason can hide a hostile expression. Resisting expressions of Christmas is a way to accomplish this.. Individuals can make a religiously neutral argument of protecting church/state separation even as they oppose expressions tied to conservative Christians. Actions that lead to complaints of a “War on Christmas”, such as opposing nativity scenes, refusing to call a Christmas tree by its proper name, or even protesting a Charlie Brown play are likely to come from mixed motivations. It seems likely that some individuals are motivated by the principles of church/state separation while others are motivated by their antipathy towards Christian fundamentalists. While I cannot confirm that speculation, I find it hard to believe that the significant percentage of highly educated individuals with anti-fundamentalist animosity fail to express it. Issues allowing them to combine that animosity with a principle tied to religious neutrality allow them to express their hostility.

          What does this tell us about the possible “War on Christmas?” I have no reason to believe that there is some organizational attempt to fight against expressions of Christmas. In a real world situation a war is usually formally declared but there is no such declaration of a war against Christmas. However, my research suggests that there is a strong sentiment within individuals with social status to oppose who they define as Christian fundamentalists. Given such sentiments it is naïve to believe that some of the actions taken by activists to limit Christmas expressions are unrelated to an attitude of hostility toward conservative Christians. In this way there is informal support of measures that can fairly be seen as hostile to a Christian expression of this holiday but can be justified with arguments of religious neutrality. The informal nature of this opposition may make it more difficult to adjudicate the complicated issues surrounding holiday expressions since it is not always clear how much of the disagreement is driven by valid principles and how much is driven by religious animosity.

          It is illogical to either exaggerate or ignore social elements that can lead the perception of a “War on Christmas.” Educated progressives who tend to initiate those elements are ultimately not different in their propensity to have religious bias than those who engage in cruder expressions of religious bigotry. A healthy approach is to recognize that expressions of religious animosity will vary according to who possesses that hostility. This approach provides a sound skepticism of the actions of educated progressives, but with a compassion that all of us must be careful to monitor ourselves as it concerns those who are in our religious out-groups.

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  • Did you check the religious affiliation of those that were against fundamentalists? Because I would guess most of them are still Protestant. Just more liberal Protestants.

    • George Yancey

      I could not find a measure of religious afflication that included atheists and agnostic in the ANES. But some of my other research strongly suggests that the irreligious have lower affection for fundamentalists than others. Furtherrmore I did use a measure for religious importance and those that found religion less important had more hostility against fundamentalists. So I am doubting that tis is an effect that centers on liberal Protestants.

      • abb3w

        The nearest proxy measure would seem to be identifying the “nones”, which (if I’m reading the SDA’s copy of the NES-2008 codebook right) would be covered as a “-1” response on v085251a, question V2_1. It’s a broader category than Atheists and Agnostics, also including the “Nothing In Particular” (who I refer to as the “NIPpers”). I think there’s a subsection in the Pew Forum’s 2007/2008 religious landscape survey report about the difference. Still, it seems close enough for the discussion here.

        If so, and ignoring confidence intervals, the Nones average (43) slightly more friendly to fundamentalists than Jews (31) do, but less so than Catholics (54) and almost all of the denominations (average 62) identified by v085251b. Exceptions: Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Orthodox, Quakers, Mormons, and… Jehovah’s Witnesses? I suspect the last might be a result of ignoring confidence intervals; I don’t claim any of these are statistically significant, though the others make sense. But in short, your doubts appear well placed.

        Using question v083184 (the Bible is Inerrant/Inspired/Fable) suggests that it’s those who take non-Inerrant views of the Bible that are more hostile in all groups, including the Nones. Question v083181 (the importance of religion) suggests it’s those who consider religion less important that are more hostile in all groups, including the Nones. Question v083185 (frequency of religious attendence) indicates it’s mostly the least attentive that are more hostile, including among the Nones… but excepting among Jews.

        I would hypothesize that hostility to fundamentalists among Jews is a special case resulting from other particular cultural factors, but that otherwise the dislike of fundamentalism is associated to one’s degree of relative heterodoxy from that strain of Christianity — with liberal protestants likely providing larger numbers of people with some degree of dislike, but with the effect centered out more to atheist territory.

  • abb3w

    I’d suggest you might find it fruitful to look into the work of Robert Altemeyer; particularly, his “Authoritarians”, which summarizes research on the RWA and SDO metrics, and his “Atheists” study with Bruce Hunsberger. (Their “Amazing Conversions” study is also of interest, but less directly.)

    In the Atheists study, Altemeyer also made use of a thermometer scale, and found that atheists in general tend to be less prejudiced than the religious — which correlates well with the low-RWA measurement, which in turn lines up with previous work correlating high-RWA to higher prejudice and to higher religiosity. However, the organized American atheist groups he studied tended rather more prejudiced than his broader Canadian sample, particularly about fundamentalists. He did not measure (or at least, report) the American group RWA levels; however, they do not need to be explained as an outlier on that. SDO levels were not measured at all in either sampel. Prejudice also correlates to higher SDO, and SDO is at most marginally correlated to religiosity, which implies that there are at least as many high-SDO types among Atheists as in the overall or the religious segments of the culture.

    I’ll also note, a quick whack at Google Scholar suggests at least some experimental work has supported Social Dominance Theory better than Symbolic Racism Theory; and that both RWA and SDO are correlated to measures of Symbolic Racism. It remains possible that high-RWA among atheists might be a factor; however, anecdotally, the internal social dynamics of atheist groups do not seem to resemble the stereotypical lock-step organized high-RWA, but ongoing alpha-struggles more reminiscent of high-SDO. However, I lack the means to validate my hypothesis that most Western atheist groups tend low-RWA/high-SDO, with the non-organized atheists tending similarly low-RWA but low-SDO.

    I’d also suggest the subtle distinction — most such groups are not pressing for dominance of Atheism; rather, they are pressing for the dominance of Secularism. They seek to keep religion out of government, rather than establish the official government position as atheist. The distinction might be significant in experimental design, if someone is planning to test these notions.

    Finally, I’ll note that the Berkeley SDA archive includes the 2008 NES data, which might allow the curious to look more directly into the original data discussed by Dr. Yancey. Alas, the NES codes are a bit less memory-friendly than the GSS, but the codebook is also on-line.

    • George Yancey

      I am familar with the work of Altermeyer and in fact am doing some work of my own critquing it. My main issue is that I beleive that target group is more important than he implies. My research indicates that you can generate a lot of his findings about athoritarianism findings among the irreligious, progressives and the religious if you use conservative Protestants as the target group. That comports with my old research indicateing that different individuals have disaffection for religious groups depending on which groups we ask about.
      Using SDO is an interesting appoarch that I had not thought about. I also think you are correct in pointing out a distinction about atheists who are in groups and those who are disaffilated from groups. Just as we should not make the mistake of having Christian right activists speak for all Christians we should also be careful to not allow the people in certain atheists groups speak for all atheists. My agument would be that in both groups you have those who engage in religious hostility to out-group members but how that hostility develops differs according to their social and demographic background.

      • abb3w

        I’d also suggest the work of Sibley might be relevant, indicating high-RWA tends to be more associated to hostility against groups considered dangerous, while high-SDO associates to hostility against groups considered derogated. (Both are hostile against dissenting, so that’s no clue.) Though both appear elements, subjectively it seems Atheist hostility partakes more commonly of disdain than fear.

        I suspect the question of group focus may depend on the underlying RWA construct being based from a combination of aggression, conventionalism, and submission to authority — particularly the last. Atheist high-RWAs may be oriented to alternative social authorities, or (I suspect less likely) oriented to different sub-cultures for ingroup boundary from which they evaluate norm. This might make them have some elements of the high-LWA types he conjectured but that proved thoroughly elusive.

        This piece might suggest some support for your notions about authority. However, while SDO appears to be nearly purely an environmental effect, RWA appears to have a large innate (genetic or epigenetic) basis.

        As minor additional points: The vast majority of the irreligious are (de)converts, which would seem to complicate attribution to “background”, though not impossibly; the “Amazing Conversions” and “Atheists” studies of Altemeyer and Hunsberger both seem to have significant data relevant to your hypothesis, especially regarding the actual expression of hostility; and, since you mention out-group, this tidbit relative to SDO and religiosity.

        Sorry, I’m a bit of a hedgehog on this topic.

        • George Yancey

          I do believe that fear is part of the equation when it comes to this hostility but that is based on some qualitative work that I am not ready to present yet. So I am not yet ready to give up on the authoritarian explaination. This is simply a topic that has been understudied and so we in academic know more about religiious hostility in Christians and Muslims than in the irreligious. I am confused about your intepretation of Amazing Conversions. Altermeyer and Hunsberger found that both atheists and the religious were relatively unlikely to convert from their previous beliefs. Their research was on the few who did. My own work also indicates that most athiest have not deconverted from a strong religious background (although a few did) most grew up in a secular or mildly religious household.

  • Reverend Robbie

    I fail to see the importance in determining anyone’s motivation for defending church/state separation. Even simple intellectual curiosity hardly justifies breezing over the fact that the “War on Christmas” is about safeguarding our society, on Constitutional grounds, from State endorsement of religion. This article reads like bitterness over challenges to governmental endorsement of your religion, poorly veiled as an intellectual exercise to justify some sense of Christian victimization in a battle in which your opponent is taking reasonable positions. It’s telling that your phrasing around the links to protests focuses on “mixed motivation” but fails to acknowledge the facts (the Pagan roots of tree symbology and the Charlie Brown play being held at a church) that led to reasonable conclusions by atheist and/or other secular groups.

    • George Yancey

      What your point? There are reasonable arguments for immigration laws yet it is naive to not think that racism plays some role in passing those laws. It is also naive to think that all of the complaining about Christmas symbols is not at least somewhat motivated by anti-Christian hostility. Should we only pay attention to bigotry when it is racially motivated or religiously motivated at minority groups? What is your basis for that argument.
      Also you talk of “facts” as if there is not another reasonable conclusion other than to rename the Christmas tree a holiday tree. Nothing in my blog denies that there are arguments supporting some of these actions. That is the power of symoblic hostility. There are fair arguments for enforcing our borders but those who are anti-Hispanic can use those arguments to vent their hostility. Likewise there are fair church/state arguments but it is not the slam dunk that you seem to think that it is. Thus it seems to me that some with hostility towards conservative Christians use “reasonable” arguments to hide that hostility.

      • abb3w

        I suspect there’s a nuance of philosophical distinction to be had between “bigotry” and “hostility”.
        In so far as: some traits that vary exist, and some of those variations are actually “better” and others “worse” (such that particular hostility may be considered justified) — it would seem that to the extent that distribution of trait variation differs between subgroups in a strong and reliable manner, a categorical hostility may be justified to a probabilistic degree. In so far as the attribution of difference exceeds the strength and reliability of relation (as for most traditional prejudices), the hostility would be unjustified.

        I may be hostile to serial killers, but I don’t think that’s exactly bigotry.

        I would thus suggest that more attention would be warranted when 1) the undesirability of the trait is most in question, 2) the association of the trait to the group is weak, nonexistant, or reversed, 3) when the association of the trait to members within the group is unreliable, and 4) there is high relative capacity of the hostile group to harm the object of their hostility.

        So, while more attention should be given when hostility is directed to minority groups, some should also be given when hostility is directed by minority groups. Besides which, the current demographic trend seems likely to have the US majority-None before 2050 — meaning it’s probably better to have the answers before they’re no longer the minority.

        • George Yancey

          I am probably influnced by some of my qualitaitive work whereby some of the statements where clearly, in my opinion, examples of bigotry. For example, many of those individuals openly talked about the desirablity of the death of conservative Christians. Why it is hyperbole, I still call that bigotry. In the quantitative research I canonly document that hostility exists. The qualitaitive work indicates a bit more of the nature of that hostility. I hope to write about that work in the near future.
          I am also uncomfortable supporting “justifiable” hostility. We tend to see hostility as justifiable or not based on our own values. It enables justifying hosility against groups that we do not like that much eaiser. Thus we can compare fundamentalist to serial killers and justify hostilty to them on that bases. I guess I fear the demonization of groups becasue of where that can lead. I believe that critquing groups is approapiate but demonization should be resisted.
          You are right that there is value in looking at hostility by minority groups as well as by majority groups and there are different consequences to each type. I hope that in time there will be more work that does this with racial minority groups as well as between religious groups.

  • Reverend Robbie

    Ultimately, this is an example of victim blaming. A church violates the rights of citizens to be free of state established religions, citizens make legal challenges to the violations, and you speculate (accuse) that they are motivated by a form of racism toward Christians. If you want to know where the “perception” of the “War on Christmas” comes from, it does not come from the actions of those trying to uphold the Constitution. It comes from those who are used to having the privilege to violate it and resent the enforcement of church/state separation.

  • George Yancey

    Right because anyone who disagrees with you must be trying to take over the constitution. You may have that victim-blaming thing backwards in this discussion.

  • Good job linking the political progressives with the “irreligious,” as if, if you are not a conservative Christian, then you are not a Christian at all. Christians who are not conservative also have disagreements with conservative Christians on many issues, on some religious grounds (though not on essential matters of the faith), but especially politically, usually; yet, that hardly makes them “irreligious.” Conservatives pick culture wars, IMO, deeming any who don’t take their positions – usually considered extreme by any who are moderate/not conservative – as less than adequate as Christians, apostate or heretical, and condemning the rest of the world to hell. By definition, when you don’t agree with them, if they think they are right on everything, all of the time, they feel that their self-fulfilling prophecy of culture war(s )waged by them has been fulfilled, and those with whom they disagree have, in fact, waged the war, on them, by their own projection onto their opponents. Yes, extremes on the other side – Muslim fundamentalists, atheists et. al. probably do hate conservative Christians as much as the animosity as the latter displays towards the former, without antagonism, in most cases. But, to argue that fact is not to say that conservative Christians do not wage culture wars with all who disagree with them, or that the fact that their opponents hate them is validation of a theory that their enemies started the war(s). It is a truism that we live in a pluralistic, multi-faith society and that the separation of Church and State constitutionally stands. Conservative Christians have always hated, and some, even contested, this latter fact. As a result, it is begging the question to assume ‘proof’ of a “war on Christmas” simply because they celebrate Christmas, and some in the country hate them and their celebrations. Conservatives want to force their faith and celebration on all American citizens because they believe that that is the govt. that the Founding Fathers set up constitutionally, that religious freedom only applies to denomination within the Christian faith, and Christian practices/expressions of faith were never supposed to have been divorced from public life/govt. That said, I have no problem with being wished “happy holidays” by merchants, because my Christmas celebration is being wished merry when that is said, along with joyous celebrations of Ramadan to Muslims, and Chanukkah to Jews, Kwanzaa to African Americans, etc., among others. Isn’t Christmas a holiday, wouldn’t a happy one be merry? I also accept that my secular govt. cannot allow offensive (to some) representations that endorse one faith over others (even my own), that allowing all representations to be displayed simultaneously won’t solve for atheists, who don’t want to see any of them, because I believe in the Church State separation that conservative Christians neither like nor accept; to allow any such displays would be to allow the same govt. to force public celebration of a religious practice to which I do not adhere, if the adherents grew into a large enough majority – such as how theocracies with state religions are run. So, it doesn’t matter to me what the motives of those who seek to attempt to limit (any) faith displays in public are. All such attempts are legally and Constitutionally legitimate, whether we like it or not; no ulterior motive like a “war on Christmas” need be sought.

    • George Yancey

      Please point out where I argue that conservative Christians do not engage in a culture war. The fact that I am pointing to a likley source of some of the actions conservative Christians do not like does not mean that conservative Christians are free of hostility. There is a lot of work that documents that hostility. My research is based on that work and illsutrates that hostility towards religious out-groups is not limited to conservative Christians.
      There is a lot of work indicating a correlation between political progressiveness and irreligious beliefs. Furthermore, in my article I show that both political progressiveness and irreligion is related to hostility to conservative Christians. Thus it make sense to talk about those qualities as well as higher education when exploring that hostility.
      The point of symoblic racism is that there is jusfiable reasons why people hold certain positions that disporportionately disadvantage people of color. If there were not jusfiable reasons then those with symbolic racism would avoid such positions. There are also reasoanable positions about church/state seperation. But such reasonable positions allow indivdiuals hostility to conservative Christians to express that hostility in socially acceptable ways. In both cases the reasoanble arguments mean that we cannot charge a person with hostility merely becasue they oppose open borders or the expression of Christmas. So the reasonableness of the arguments in each case is not only real but it is necessary for theories of symbolic hostility to make sense.
      Of course this is theoritical at this point since we barely have done any research on anti-Christian hostility in academia. We really do not know what it looks like. It is may hope that we recogonize that there will be similarities and differences from other types of religious bias.

  • George Yancey, I agree with Reverend Robbie. Are you seeking meaningful discussion, open to alternative viewpoints that may disagree with your own, in this thread, or are you preaching a sermon, to be heard, and accepted, without question?

    • George Yancey

      I am all for meaningful discussions. Name calling is not the way to do it. The accusation of victim blaming is unbecoming when I am presenting research and trying to draw conclusions. As you can see in my reactions to others I will discuss and respectfully debate those who disagree with me. Those who decide that insults is the way to win the argument is a different matter altogether.