Prejudiced Professors?

June 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

What are your overall feelings toward Catholics? Use a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is very cold or unfavorable, and 100 very warm or favorable.

That’s a question from a survey of college faculty. Sociologist Brad Wright has been blogging recently about one finding from this survey. On this warm-cold question, 13% of faculty have a view of Catholics that's below 50 out of 100. The religious group viewed most unfavorably is Evangelical Christians.
Evangelicals were the only group that a majority of faculty rated as less than 50. Brad Wright, himself an Evangelical, sees this as “prejudice,” similar race prejudice. And he thinks that this unfavorable attitude probably takes the active form of unfavorable treatment of Evangelical students.

The report has no evidence on discriminatory treatment, so we’re all just speculating on that. But in any case, prejudice is probably the wrong term for these unfavorable feelings. They are not based on some irrational stereotype. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t ask the faculty why they hold their favorable or unfavorable views. That’s one of the big problems with survey research— it doesn’t go very deeply into what people actually think. But from other evidence in the report, it’s pretty clear that the attitude towards Evangelicals is not primarily about religion; it’s about politics. Faculty are more liberal than mainstream America; Evangelicals are conservative. And what faculty were primarily concerned about was not someone else's personal relationship with God and Jesus but their political actions.

In fact, while a bare majority of faculty viewed Evangelicals unfavorably, 71% felt that “this country would be better off if Christian fundamentalists kept their religious beliefs out of politics.”

Strictly speaking, the terms fundamentalist and Evangelical are not interchangeable. It is the fundamentalists who are more politically active. But I suspect that many of the faculty surveyed ignored these differences (if they were aware of them at all) and lumped fundamentalists and Evangelicals together into the single undifferentiated category of conservative Christians. The people who designed the questionnaire did mention this distinction and may actually have encouraged the oversimplification. The question about politics referred to “Christian fundamentalists,” but the questions on warm or cold feelings asked only about Evangelicals and omitted fundamentalists entirely.

Conservative Christians have been loudest in their views condemning if not criminalizing abortion and homosexuality. (Does Jesus every mention either of these?) Most faculty (and most Americans) take a more tolerant view on these issues. But what if these Christians had instead been putting their political muscle into raising the minimum wage, creating more equitable health care and tax policies, restricting access to deadly weapons, protecting workers and the environment against powerful corporations, etc.? (I’m not a theologian, but I suspect that you could make a “what would Jesus do” argument for the liberal side of all these issues. In fact, some Evangelicals work for goals liberals would certainly support — adult literacy, food banks, day care, etc.) And then there’s the most important political issue of the day — Iraq.

If the politics of conservative Christians were different, with no change in their theology, faculty would surely view them more favorably.

(I'll continue tomorrow with a more personal take on this issue.)


SARA said...

"the terms fundamentalist and Evangelical are not interchangeable. It is the fundamentalists who are more politically active"
Thank you for explaining if the faculty surveyed ignored these differences or didn't know about them, then that would make the results inaccurate.
I look forward to reading your more personal views.
ohhh and on a scale of 0 to 100...i'll give the Catholics 83.7%*smile*

trrish said...

My take on this is that asking someone about "evangelical christians" vs. catholics, muslims or anything else sets up a false interpretation.

If you asked me about "evangelical" anything - "evangelical protestant", "evangelical jew", etc, I would likely have a slightly colder reaction. For me, the "evangelical" implies something far beyond just the term "christian". I guess it implies that said imaginary person is going to be trying to convince me to believe what they do.

I don't want them to. And it's got little to do with whether they are christian, jewish, catholic or muslim.

I guess I think the term "evangelical christian" means something different depending on how involved one is in the whole crazy differentiation of christians. I don't think "evangelical christians" should take it personally. It's not a comment on their beliefs as much as it is the perceived style.