I tend to take people at their word. I also make what I see as logical connections from what they say to how they feel about others. Thus, given what we know about favoring in-groups, when someone says he is a Christian then I assume that he likes Christians. Yet President Obama, who proclaims himself to be a Christian, has sometimes been accused of not liking Christians. This makes me wonder if progressive, or liberal, Christians do have some degree of animosity towards other Christians.
To do this examination, I have to recap some of my methodology in So Many Christians, So Few Lions. In that book we qualitatively documented some of the hateful, bigoted rhetoric some individuals had for conservative Christians. But our quantitative work was based on a measure of whether the affinity towards Christian fundamentalists was assessed a standard deviation below the measures of affinity towards other religious and some racial groups. While we could not argue that such disaffinity was automatically linked to the angry comments in our qualitative research, this measure was useful in determining the characteristics of those most likely to have hatred towards conservative Christians. If you do not want to read the full findings in that book, then you can see the start of my blog series of the book here.
I decided to go back to the data source of our quantitative work – American National Election Studies – to ask questions about whether progressive Christians can have the sort of animosity I cited in the book. Because I do not have access to the type of qualitative data I collected for the text, I am not in a position to see if progressive Christians have the same type of hate and vitriol associated with Christianophobia. But I can explore whether they have the type of disaffinity that is likely linked to those with Christianophobia. So for the balance of this blog, I am not going to talk about Christianophobia but disaffinity, or animosity, with the understanding that these results may tell us something about the potential of progressive Christians to have unreasonable fear and hatred towards conservative Christians.
Let me put this into context. When my book came out, some pointed out that I was not talking about hatred of all Christians but of those who are conservative in their theology and politics. I countered that such images are generally how those with Christianophobia see Christians and indeed for many of them this is true. However, I did not appreciate at the time that Christians who were not politically or theologically conservative also may have animosity towards conservative Christians. My focus is more on the theological differences as I found in my assessment of academics that religious conservatism attracts more discrimination than political conservatism. So I begin to ask the question of whether Christians with a more progressive theological outlook would have a level of animosity that rivals that of others or whether, as I hypothesized, their Christian identity provides more sympathy for those in their faith.
I now apologize for those who do not have statistical training. I have to be a little technical in the next paragraph or two for those who would question my assertions on the basis of methodology. If you prefer to skip that section then just go down to the paragraph below that starts with “Okay, that is enough of the statistics.” I promise that I will summarize in laymen terms what I have found and discuss some very interesting implications.
I defined progressive Christians with a question on whether the Bible should be taken literally. If the Christian indicated that it should not be taken literally, then I recoded that person as a liberal Christian. Among liberal Christians, 36.1 percentage ranked Christian fundamentalists a standard deviation below other groups. A t-test indicates that liberal Christians are more likely to have disaffinity towards Christian fundamentalists than the rest of the sample (36.1 v. 20.2: p < .001). It may be the case that the inclusion of conservative Christians in the control group artificially lowers the percentage of people who rank conservative Christians in such a low position. In a sample where I eliminate all non-Catholic Christians who assert that the Bible should be taken literally, liberal Christians were still more likely to have animosity towards conservative Christians but the difference is not significant (36.1 v. 33.0: ns). However, when I compared the percentage of liberal Christians who rank Muslims a standard deviation below the other groups to those who rank fundamentalist Christians in such a manner, I found that liberal Christians have more disaffinity towards their fellow Christians than to Muslims (36.1 v. 32.7: p < .05). Clearly, liberal Christians are at least as willing to have animosity towards the fellow Christian brothers and sisters and may even have less disaffinity towards those of other religious faiths.
I believe that part of this animosity is due to the allegiance liberal Christians have towards certain political and social issues. The areas where they do agree with Christian conservatives (i.e. basic beliefs about the existence of God) are not as important to them as their different approaches to society (i.e. social gospel v. personal evangelism). They may be embarrassed at the political actions of conservative Christians, and that embarrassment can be a vital source of their animosity. Nonetheless, there are powerful barriers that will work against potential alliances between conservative and liberal Christians. In fact, it is reasonable for members of each group to see the other as their political and cultural enemy.
It is quite possible that the type of animosity that liberal Christians have is not the same type of Christianophobia where participants joked about feeding Christians to lions or bombing churches. In fact, the few respondents in my cultural progressive activist sample who identified as Christians did not tend to make such wild statements and seemed less likely to accept the most dehumanizing stereotypes about conservative Christians. I suspect that anti-Christian animosity may manifest itself in different ways from how non-Christians may resent conservative Christians. In time I hope to do some work, or find an enterprising graduate student who will do that work, that may disentangle the different ways animosity towards conservative Christians is reflected in progressive Christians and non-Christians. I have an open-mind about whether the animosity of progressive Christians may develop into a Christianophobic level of unreasonable hatred and fear. However, I will not again assume that such bigotry is not possible simply because an individual identifies with the Christian faith.