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
The results get really interesting when I use the Bible question to look at only Christians who not only think that we should not take the Bible literally but also that the Bible was written by humans instead of God. Almost three out of four of them (59.4%) rank fundamentalist Christians a standard deviation lower. They are more likely to have disaffinity towards conservative Christians when looking at the entire sample (59.4 v. 26.0: p
Okay, that is enough of the statistics. Basically, liberal Christians are just as willing, and maybe even more willing, to have animosity towards conservative Christians than others in society. Being a Christian does not generally lead them to have sympathy for those they disagree with theologically. Instead, these theological disagreements harden into disaffinity towards those Christians. This was not what I expected when I first looked at the data, and it has important ramifications for how I understand social conflict between Christians. I used to assume that Christians have a natural sympathy for each other even if they have theological disagreements. I am now cured of that naïve belief, and it shapes how I understand certain social events.
This allows me to address the provocative title of this blog. When President Obama first started running for president; there was nonsense about him being a Muslim. There is no evidence for such a claim. From what I can gather from my observations, he seems to be a Christian with fairly universalist perspectives. I believe that he sees many ways to spiritual truth, and he happens to be on the Christian path towards that truth. I may be incorrect in assessment of his spiritual beliefs, but I am confident that I am closer to the truth than those who see President Obama as a Muslim.
Along with the claims that he was a Muslim there was what I thought to be a similarly silly claim that President Obama did not like Christians. My comeback was that this made no sense given that he was a Christian. In the light of these findings, I have to reconsider that comeback. If our president does not believe that the Bible should be taken literally, and I tend to think that this is his belief, then according to my data, there is a basic 36.1 percent chance that he sees conservative Christians with a significant degree of disaffinity. If he believes that the Bible is written by humans, something I am less confident about but is possible, then the chances of this disaffinity goes up to almost three of five. Of course there are other factors besides his liberal Christianity that may predict this potential animosity but even controlling for such factors, liberal Christianity still leads to animosity towards conservative Christians.
So does President Obama hate conservative Christians, despite his identity as a Christian? I do not claim that President Obama does not like conservative Christians. I do argue that making this assertion is not unreasonable and the fact that he is a Christian is not an adequate defense of such an assertion. I am certain that some would be glad if the president has animosity towards conservative Christians. But even if they justify such animosity, it is still the case that conservative Christians who claim that progressive Christians are hostile towards them cannot be dismissed as merely being paranoid. Conservative Christians still have the burden of showing evidence of President Obama’s animosity as some have argued through his recent Prayer Day speech, but arguing that he does not like conservative Christians is no longer an unreasonable thesis. In my mind from this day forward I no longer see the fact that he/she is a Christian as a reasonable defense against the charges that one person does not like other Christians. (The phrase “I am a Christian too but…” comes to mind as one that has lost all of its rhetorical weight in my opinion.) In fact, if they are liberal Christians then, all things being equal, I will be more likely to suspect that they have animosity towards conservative Christians.
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.