Thursday, June 07, 2007

Are university professors prejudiced against evangelical Christians?

Here are some rather disturbing data from a study university professors in the United States. This study, conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research of 1,269 college faculty members. Faculty were asked: "What are your overall feelings toward the following groups using a scale of 0-100, which goes from 100, very warm or favorable feeling, to 50, neutral, to 0, very cold or unfavorable?" Which religious group do college faculty feel most unfavorable toward? Evangelical Christians... by a lot. Here's a graph of the results:

What are the implications of this finding?

1) Double-standard. It indicates a double-standard regarding tolerance and diversity and academia. Imagine the outcry if so many professors disfavored other religious groups, such as Jews or Muslims? What if the same was said about other groups: gays, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled. I'm not saying that Evangelicals face more prejudice than these other groups in society in general, but rather prejudice against evangelicals is widely accepted in academia. In fact, when asked about these findings, a union representative defended this unfavorable posture as cultural resistance, not prejudice. (BTW, "cultural resistance" is highly valued in academia, ironic given our central place in the formation of culture). I can't imagine any professors arguing for "cultural resistance" against any of the other groups listed above.

2) Prejudice vs. discrimination? Does this mean that the unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals gets translated into unfavorable treatment of them in the classroom? Probably. Central to studies of social psychology is the link between attitudes and behavior. It's not a perfect correlation and its strength varies by personal, situational, and attitudinal factors, but it is usually there. In a sense, though, it doesn't matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice. These attitudes based on race are called racism, based on ism, against Jews antisemitism... all bad things.

3) Students' response. There's an old quip that "it's not paranoia if people are really out to get you," and some of that is going on here. I have long noted the discomfort many evangelical students feel in expressing their worldview in the classroom. Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word "Jesus" in any context other than swearing. The unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals held by a majority of professors suggests that this stifling of expression is both inevitable perhaps well advised, given professors' power in the classroom.

A related story

(Thanks to Ben for bring this study to my attention).


Michael Kruse said...

Very interesting post. I saw several interesting things in this study as I skimmed it. I may have to blog this one myself. Thanks!

Brad Wright said...

Please do... there's a lot of interesting stuff there.

Jerry said...

That's really interesing. It's one of those things I've found experientially true but haven't seen formally studied. Both my wife and I have had the feeling of being "in the closet" as academics and evangelicals, though I now hesitate to even use that term since I have to immediately qualify it. One difficulty of the "if it were anybody else..." argument is that those groups are distinct cultural minorities while evangelicals are arguably as or more powerful than academics in shaping the current cultural discourse. But within the academy itself, it's obviously a different story. Thanks for sharing this.

Corey said...

Interesting study... It's not clear how they measure "evangelical." Could it be that evangelical, as an undefined label, translates to many in the culture as "right-wing bigoted monster"?

Who are the iconic exemplars of evangelical in the broader culture? The late Jerry Falwell? Jim Dobson? Monica Goodling?

These are people that many self-proclaimed evangelicals distance themselves from.

Hypothesis: If the public face of Evangelical were associated with, rather than Jim Dobson, there would be a much more pleasant reaction.

Brad Wright said...

Interesting, Jerry, about relative strengths of Evangelicals inside and outside academia. Still, the result certainly is Evangelicals "being in the closet," an apt phrase, and, frankly, being alienated from their own religion--something we don't ask of many other religious adherents.

Brad Wright said...

I think that you're right, Corey, about the extreme negative baggage attached to the term Evangelical. The problem is that most of it is inaccurate, but, I suppose that's the nature of stereotypes.

Brad Wright said...

Not sure about being the public face of anything, except for maybe sociologists in need of a nap this afternoon. :-)

Jay Livingston said...

I'm one of those who 'would like to see the influence of "Christian fundamentalists" on American politics lessened.' (The quote is from the news story Brad linked.) But I don't think that political attitude affects how I treat students. I'm also not so sure there's a link between these political attitudes generally and a discriminatory treatment of evangelicals by professors. I'd like to see some evidence.

Of course, if I'm teaching sociology, and some students write exams and papers explaining things with the Bible and with no mention the sociological readings and data, those students will not get very good grades. But it's not because I feel "cool" or "unfavorable" towards them.

S.S.Stone said...

"If the public face of Evangelical were associated with, rather than Jim Dobson, there would be a much more pleasant reaction." I will second that thought.

Interesting study -causing a little commotion out here.
Yes, there would be public outcry if the results came in negative against Jews or Muslims.
I'm confused as to why the percentage is so high among academia. I'd like to think they were above prejudices and racism.
I'm wondering if respect for others and good manners comes into play in any of this?

It's my feeling that if a professor has negative feelings toward Evangelicals (or any other group), it will show up in the matter how much he/she tries to suppress it, it will exist/operate in the mind beneath or beyond consciousness.

Brad Wright said...


I too am not a big fan of injecting Christian fundamentalism into politics. As I read this survey, though, it's not about political attitudes, it's about attitudes toward group members. The latter might be more troublesome.

Brad Wright said...

Sarah, I agree with your statement that "if a professor has negative feelings toward Evangelicals (or any other group), it will show up in the matter how much he/she tries to suppress it, it will exist/operate in the mind beneath or beyond consciousness."

For me, that's the big problem identified by this study. I just don't see how professors can fully separate their attitudes toward a group of people and their treatment of that group.

Ideally, we would have positive, or at least neutral, attitudes toward group members regardless of their creed (or race/gender/sexuality).

Anonymous said...

I wasn't in the sample of surveyed professors, but if I were, I probably would have had cooler feelings toward evangelicals and Mormons than other groups. And I'm an evangelical professor in sociology at a public university. I suspect that even though I have had lots of excellent interactions with evangelical students, many of whom have a clearer idea than other students about what they are going to do with their sociology to change the world, I have also had plenty of interactions with evangelical students who try to 'out' me in the classroom. They have either tried to get me to be more explicitly spiritual in my sociological theorizing or to take a more conservative political stand than I normally hold. These experiences, plus the mental association of particular abrasive Christian political leaders with the term 'evangelical', make it hard for me to be as positive toward fellow evangelicals as I am toward other religious, cultural, and racial groups that I know lack power in America. This ambiguity, if I'd had the chance to be in the survey, would have led me to give weak if not critical answers about evangelicals in the survey.

I think this study is an important one especially since it was not commissioned by evangelicals. The rebuttal that such prejudice need not impact classroom environments seems to rely on a lot of faith in professors' abilities to suppress their prejudices.


Maurice said...

This was a very interesting study. As a graduate student who recently completed my undergraduate degree, I found that though professors rarely spoke out by saying "evangelicals are radicals," there was often (not always) implications through lectures and discussions that Christians had imposed their wills on others throughout history and in the present. Some professors I had went on to clarify the division between academia and religious views. As an public school educator I think this a poor teaching strategy. These rants by academics do not consider student engagement and self application, instead I found that rote memorization and pandering to the will of the professor prevailed in undergraduate "education". As a Christian who would consider myself to be an evangelical, I have often held back from making a comment in a class discussion in order to avoid the Christian opposition.

Brad Wright said...


What an interesting post. What you speak of is almost group-level self-estrangement, no? I wonder if this isn't a natural by-product of how society portrays Christians and their leaders?

I agree that this survey being conducted by non-Evangelicals is important--gives it all the more punch.

Brad Wright said...

Maurice, I have a similar perspective about life in the classroom as a Christian. Most professors don't come out with straight name-calling, but certainly Christianity, especially evangelicals, are on the receiving end of lots of negative assumptions.

Whether accurate or not, I perceived there being lots of opposition to what I believed, and so, as both a student and a professor, I would keep very quiet about my religious identity.

Tom Volscho said...

The evangelical Christian identity is easy to hide just as sexual preference--so I am guessing that discrimination against E.C.s is predicted by whether or not the (presumably) liberal professor is aware of an E.C. students beliefs.

People can choose to advertise these identities or suppress them. Why would university professors be so prejudiced against evangelical christians? Because there is a latent political belief system that corresponds to the E.C. identity that is in binary opposition to the overwhelmingly liberal beliefs of most college professors. This is what Corey stated.

Since Brad has the GSS handy in most of his blog posts, he could create a left vs. right scale and then see whether E.C.s score higher than others in terms of right-wing beliefs.

I am not a liberal and in fact move very far left and I see very careful intellectual/sociological observations (in classes I have taught) made by students who mention their faith (some who I think would be considered E.C. by conventional definitions) and they are more insightful than observations made by "knee-jerk" liberals and radicals. This is not to say there are not zealots but they will not be getting jobs teaching evolutionary biology so it does not matter.

Gael Trisha said...

Hi! I'm Gael . I am a sociology prof here in the Philippines. Almost everyone in my country is Catholic, which makes teaching a very secular science very challenging. I certainly will include this study in my lessons.