For the first fifteen years or so as an academic, I focused on research that dealt with race and ethnicity. Then about eight years ago I published my last research based on racial issues and began to study anti-Christian bias in the United States. But even though I no longer did original research on race, I have still been in demand to speak on racial issues. Because of this I have continued to think about those issues and will continue to talk about them from time to time in this blog. But for a while this demand for me to talk about racial issues while I also did research on anti-Christian bias lead to identity confusion.
However, slowly the Lord has shown me that these two interests do fit together. God has put me in a unique situation whereby I have dealt with both racism and Christianophobia. Adjusting to this new situation has been a growing process. Part of that growth is the new insights I have come to appreciate. For example, it has recently occurred to me that two groups that seem to have little in common – white conservatives and progressives with Christianophobia – actually have a great deal in common. This has become clear to me in my attempts to talk to white conservatives about racial issues and Christianophobic progressives about anti-Christian bigotry.
In the past I have talked about the similarities and differences of racism and Christianophobia. But over the past few months I have noted similarities of those with attitudes supporting our racialized institutions and those with Christianophobic attitudes. While there are important differences, these critical similarities can teach us a lot about human nature. Exploring these similarities can provide insight into how biases distort our ability to have healthy intergroup relationships.
One final caveat before I do this exercise. I know that someone is going to argue that I am conflating the fate of racial minorities with conservative Christians. I am doing nothing of the kind. Indeed my major point is to show that the way we think about social out-groups does not tend to vary. With that in mind let me explore some of the similarities between white conservatives and Christianophobic progressives.
Willingness to Blame the Victim
The first similarity between the two groups concern what we commonly call “blaming the victim.” This is when we blame a group being mistreated for the mistreatment that they received. Such a tactic helps us to feel better about an unfair situation since we can then justify the unfairness.
For example, as I talk with some white conservatives about racial issues I get pushback about how we should stop paying attention to race. Indeed, they argue that paying attention to race is creating racial stress. Indeed, when I point out that there are discrepancies in how people of color are treated by the criminal justice system, they argue that if people of color stopped committing crimes then they would not have to worry about jail. If I argue that there are educational barriers facing people of color putting them at an unfair disadvantage, they insist that people of color should just work harder. As I talk about the hostility Middle Easterners face because of Islamophobia, they reply that we have to protect ourselves against Muslim terrorists. So the problems people of color face is because of their own doing.
Of course there are people of color who create their own misery. No one denies that. But if we do not recognize the additional hurdles that people of color face, then we fool ourselves into thinking that the reason racial minorities do not enjoy the success of whites is solely due to their shortcomings or inferior culture. This type of dismissal of the legitimate concerns of people of color is a key reason why our race relations continue to deteriorate.
On the other hand, I do not have any more success when I discuss the presence of anti-Christian bias and discrimination with some political progressives. They also have a strong tendency to “blame the victim.” They will argue that Christians cannot be victimized since they are the majority group in our society. I will agree that Christians have advantages in many areas of our society but that those who hate them tend to be socially powerful. However, my research has shown that those who hate Christians are more likely to be white, male, wealthy and highly educated than the general society. These are characteristics of people who are quite powerful in our society. While Christians have advantages in certain areas in our society, clearly there are other areas where Christians can be victimized.
Additionally, other research I have conducted shows that conservative Christians face discrimination if they seek employment in academia. Ironically even after I point out my data, some will argue that Christians deserve to face discrimination in seeking academic employment, that they deserve this discrimination because they cannot critically think and are unable to do academic work. It is the textbook example of blaming the victim. Discriminate against the victim then tell the victim that they are at fault for the discrimination. Other than academia it is probably true that being a Christian is more of a disadvantage, than an advantage in Hollywood, the media and the arts.
I fully admit that some Christians complain about discrimination when there is no religious bias. Furthermore, anti-intellectualism is a problem within American Christianity and so there are Christians who do not engage in much critical thinking. And of course there are ways a Christian identity works to one’s advantage. But in a post-Christian society that identity can work to their disadvantage in key cultural institutions. Ironically, reflexively applying a “Christians are the majority” template in every social situation is precisely the type of non-critical thinking that many of these progressives complain about.
Dehumanizing the Other
Another key similarity is that both groups do not hesitate to demonize their selected scapegoats. Such demonization is another way to justify not listening to those with whom we have disagreements. If we can envision those individuals as less than human, then we do not have to worry about giving them full human rights.
White conservatives often dehumanize people of color with stereotypes of them being thugs and/or lazy. Of course they will admit that they know a few people of color who do not fit these stereotypes. They will use the famous excuse, “Some of my best friends are black” to show that they are not really racist. But then they engage in racial stereotyping in order to justify doing nothing about racial inequality. I grant that they probably do have a few friends who are racial minorities. But their words often reveal an attitude that reduces the rest of those racial groups into impersonal stereotypes.
But of course many progressives also dehumanize Christians. They freely talk about Christians being stupid and unable to critically think. When I did my research on Christianophobia, I was astounded by how many times individuals exhibited a stereotype of Christians being mindless followers who were obeying evil leaders that were trying to set up a theocracy. These images also reduce Christians to impersonal stereotypes whose concerns can be dismissed. Indeed, many of my respondents did not even offer up the excuse of having Christian friends and some even stated that they got their information about Christians from the media. Let’s just say that the media is not always the best place to gain a sophisticated understanding of Christians. With such sources of information, it is easy to see how these progressives can so easily accept caricatures of conservative Christians.
They see their Opponents as Having Unfair Power
To hear white conservatives talk about activists for people of color one would think that these whites are fighting against the entire society. There seems to be a particular animus against Black Lives Matters (BLM). My conservative friends tell me about how the media, the government and the Democratic Party are forced to march to whatever tune BLM plays. They believe that because of the BLM’s activism, blacks have additional rights denied to everyone else. For example, race-based scholarships are seen as unfair since they allow blacks to have resources that others do not have. These white conservatives also argue that others in society do not hold blacks up to the same standard that the rest of us must abide by. For example, they would contend that blacks are allowed to act in a racist manner towards whites, but whites are not allowed to do this to blacks. When I hear talk like this, I can only imagine the type of power these white conservatives believe blacks to have. It is as if they fear that blacks are going to set up a two-tier social system where blacks are the dominant group and whites are subservient.
But the same can be said for the rhetoric that so often comes from progressives as it concerns conservative Christians. Even though Christians have lost so many legal and political battles in recent history as it concerns religious freedom, these progressives talk about Christians having so much political power that they may be able to set up a theocracy. They contend that the majority group status of Christians, combined with this incredible political power, puts the freedom of all non-religious and non-Christian religious groups at stake. Indeed to hear them talk, only the efforts of progressives such as themselves will save the rest of the society from being returned back to a Christian led dark age.
In both cases, the power of people of color and Christians is vastly overstated. There is no doubt that at times people of color get a certain level of grace that may not be extended to whites. Yet we still live in a society whereby whites have more per-capita economic and educational resources. This “reverse racism” two-tier system is a long way from occurring. And it is true that Christians have political leaders with some degree of power, although not nearly enough to set up a theocracy. However, Christians lack a great deal of cultural power. Their low influence in academic, media and entertainment institutions speaks of a group that is limited in its ability to shape the larger culture. So even if most Christians wanted a theocracy, and most do not, they do not have the cultural tools to bring a theocracy to fruition.
Perhaps a corollary to this tendency is the propensity of white conservatives and Christianophobic progressives to see themselves as victims. They resent the claims of victimhood of people of color and Christians because they are the true victims of the unfair power that those out-groups possess. Think about the talk of All Lives Matters which is used to argue that whites are the victims as much as, or more than, blacks. Think of the claims that progressives make about Christians forcing their religion on others for engaging in the same type of political activism that other groups conduct. The claims of unfair power being possessed by racial minorities and Christians are also claims of victimization by white conservatives and Christianophobic progressives.
They Attribute the Worst Motives to Their Opponents
A final similarity is the way both white conservatives and Christianophobic progressives ascribe the worse motives possible to racial minorities and conservative Christians. This may be part of the stereotyping of out-groups I have mentioned before. When we reduce people to dehumanized stereotypes, then we will be very ready to believe the worst about them.
For example, I have found that white conservatives often believe that activists for racial minorities are bullies who are intentionally creating havoc so that they can justify their existence. I have forgotten how many times I have heard a white conservative talk about how activists or organizers want to see people of color shot by the police so that they can blow the situation up and create riots. To hear these conservatives you would think that people of color love to tear down their neighborhoods. Rather than assume that these activists are attempting to address real social problems, these conservatives assume they have the worse of motivations.
This pattern can also be found with Christianophobic progressives. When Christians talk about incidents that are troubling to them, these progressives engage in many of the same arguments white conservatives have about people of color. They assume that Christian activists are only attempting to create trouble. I have forgotten how many times I have heard one a Christianophobic progressive talk about how Christians are blowing situations out of proportion, or even lying about incidents, so that they can keep their followers angry. To hear these progressives you would think that Christians make up stories about religious discrimination or are just mentally unbalanced. Rather than assume that these Christians are attempting to address real problems, these progressives assume that they have the worst of motivations.
I have no doubts that there are activists for racial minorities who have less than pure motivations for their activism. Indeed, I have been a critic of BLM and have not put them, and other activists, on some sort of pedestal. I also have no doubt that there are Christians who exaggerate religious discrimination. In fact, I have criticized Christians who complain about persecution instead of recognizing mere religious discrimination. The problem with making the worst attributions of the motives of others is not that those attributions are always incorrect. The problem is that generally we look at the motivations instead of whether there are real problems.
There are some clear patterns emerging from my observations about white conservatives and Christianophobic progressives. These observations are connected to a tendency to stereotype and dismiss the concerns of others. This is probably not surprising since we may have a willingness to dismiss problems members of an out-group may face. We have powerful motivation to pay attention to the plight of our friends and to ignore the problems faced by those we do not care about. To do this, we are willing to construct stereotypes and justifications that meet our socio-psychological needs.
It is rather ironic that white conservatives have so much in common with Christianophobic progressives as it concerns their ideological opponents. There are clearly different political goals between these two groups, yet they tend to treat outgroups in a similar matter. I suspect that commonalities reflect the human condition. We may naturally develop dehumanizing stereotypes and inflate the perceived power of our ideological opponents. Perhaps we also have natural proclivities to try to paint ourselves as victims and to see members of the out-group as having unfair power. It may be human for us to find ways to blame them for their failings rather than consider the role we may have played in making matters worse. White conservatives and Christianophobic progressives may be no different than the rest of us. This essay is not just about those two groups. It is about all of us. We may be just like those white conservatives and Christianophobia progressives. Our ideological opponents may be the only difference.