The desperate plight of Christians in academia

Evan makes a sensible point about the controversy over adjunct Catholic studies professor Kenneth Howell’s dismissal from University of Illinois and subsequent reinstatement, in the course of a discussion of Tim Larsen’s article on discrimination against Christians:

there’s no reason to think that any crisis of anti-religiosity is demonstrated at UI. If anything, the only reason why Howell has successfully been reinstated is because of the huge influence that Christianity maintains in our universities. Other adjuncts have not fared so well. If an adjunct instructor were dismissed for offending students with a Judith Butler reading, for instance, I can’t imagine they would have received such support or had such luck in being reinstated. The incident would have been another data point amongst many others and wouldn’t have made any news.

I agree with Larsen that if discrimination against Christians is happening, it’s bad and some kind of action should be taken. I do think that conservative Christians do present special pedagogical challenges, both because of their own attitudes (above all the tendency toward persecution complex, which is understandable given that Christian leaders are constantly teaching them to expect persecution from godless liberals) and because of the tendency for non-Christian students and, unfortunately but sometimes understandably, non-Christian faculty to react very negatively to them.

Faculty are of course the adults in the room and should figure out better ways to deal with them and guide their students in such ways — in particular, I think faculty need to be sensitive to conservative Christian paranoia and do their best not to set it off — but I think Christian leaders need to be held responsible here as well. There are probably better ways to spend the kids’ time in youth group, for instance, than presenting high school as a hotbed of violence where you’re likely to step on a used syringe while trying to dodge the couple fucking openly in the hallway and presenting college as a place where the godless indoctrinators are going to give you an F unless you tow the party line. The reality is that non-Christian faculty and students are human beings who necessarily bring their experience into the classroom, and often their past will have included negative experiences with Christian intolerance — a situation that is not helped when Christian kids are taught from age five to be as militant and defensive as possible when the topic of religion comes up.

16 thoughts on “The desperate plight of Christians in academia

  1. Discrimination against Christians in America, of all places? I think where comparisons with race, gender, sexuality etc fail is:

    1. I don’t think there’s a systemic element to anti-Christian discrimination here.

    Still, in order to find out: one would need to ask where, and how? What kinds of universities? What faculties? What regions? Certainly in the South, where the first people ask you is “what church do you go to?” it seems *far more* heavily weighted against non-Christians.

    Indeed, what Christians are (apparently) being discriminated against? Intersectionality, anyone?

    2. when you look at communities with high unemployment rates, the issue is very often *not* getting fired for your beliefs.. it’s that you don’t even get an interview, let alone a position. Especially in this dire economic climate, universities can afford to passively discriminate without anyone really noticing.

    Further, if you are from a community with high unemployment, then university discrimination is far from the main problem. Lack of access to *any* kind of job is the issue. A number of my friends have been homeless, and had to turn tricks to survive – presumably Professor Howell can say the same?

    3. The idea that anti-Christianity is the last acceptable prejudice implicitly posits all the other ones as “past” because unacceptable, which just feels like tiresome kvetching from the already privileged to me. I know it totes make sense if you’re a Comedy Central writer bawwing about how you can’t use certain words any more, but it’s essentially totally bollocks if it’s not backed up institutionally.

    Unemployment discrimination plays in so many varied and fucked-up ways in African-American, Native, GLBT (especially the T), disabled and any combination thereof communities etc.. but Christian qua Christian? Seems unlikely.

  2. On point #3, I think we could bring up another point about racism, sexism, etc. — often the burden of proof will be much higher for demonstrating such discrimination simply because it’s seen to be so reprehensible (and therefore an unjust accusation will hurt the professor or whoever), and/or people will assume that the discriminated-against person is just whining or will ignore it because they’re sick of hearing about how that group is all victims, etc., etc. That’s probably especially the case in academia, where everyone is supposedly 110% politically correct — the general public is unlikely to give such accusations much credence, compared to accusations of anti-Christian discrimination by the godless liberals.

  3. Right. It “makes sense” to some people that the godless liberals of academe are discriminating against Christians.

    I think you’re right that the perception of academia as politically correct conceals the very real problems in who gets hired, tenured etc and why. Like, the unspoken tokenism where you get one postcolonial scholar, so you don’t need another, and the illegibility that can come with being identifiable as a member of a group but *not* doing the particular kind of research that’s supposed to connote.

    Did you see the thing awhile back with Andrea Smith at University of Michigan? Her tenure submission wasn’t supported by the women’s studies department of all people, which given her publishing profile certainly raises some interesting (if depressing) questions about how women of color’s intellectual labor is valued in the academy.

  4. With regard to the comparisons to other sorts of discrimination, I tried to make the point in my post that one can still talk about possible discrimination against Christians in a more modest and non-systematic sense… that it happens sometimes and should be addressed… without trying to argue that it’s a more pervasive problem than other sorts of discrimination or that it’s “comparable” in the sense of being an interchangeable situation. I think Larsen avoided these sorts of comparisons, too, and it’s only in the comment section where folks start to bring up that sort of thing.

    As far as I can see, there’s no reason to have to justify any sort of threshold for discrimination… It’s super bad, like as bad as Nazi Germany or Jim Crow South, so everyone needs to be nice to the Christians… that would be just silly. I suppose it’s a bit over-optimistic to think that problems like this can be brought up and talked about on their own terms, though. Inevitably one form of discrimination is going to be compared to another either to argue that they’re comparable and should be treated as such, or that they aren’t and therefore the lesser of the two evils shouldn’t be taken seriously. It strikes me as fair enough to say that something like discrimination against Christians in U.S. academia is real (if not a pervasive crime against humanity) and worth addressing (if not worth passing a Constitutional amendment and bringing in the National Guard over).

  5. I would probably be more bothered by the discrimination if it was for, say, Christians rightly refusing to fight imperial wars of aggression as a result of their faith (as has been the case historically for the Quakers, for example), rather than for holding a position which is problematic to say the least.

  6. Evan,

    Well, the fact does remain that resources are finite, and giving attention to relatively rare discrimination against Christians takes away attention from more systemic and difficult problems — especially given how often people who complain about discrimination against Christian use rhetoric that basically claims the “classic” forms of discrimination are solved.

    I think that situations where conservative Christians feel discriminated against are largely problems of cultural misunderstanding, exacerbated by the fact that conservative Christian culture inculcates kids to have a chip on their shoulder when facing resistence of any kind (real or imagined) from “secular” authorities.

  7. … and I was also going to say that they are probably fixable problems the vast majority of the time, although I think that some conservative Christians (probably especially males) are just going to be simultaneously pushy and persecuted-feeling no matter what the professor does. I’ve heard more than one story of a conservative Christian male who dominates class discussion, constantly makes everyone else uncomfortable, but is indulged by the professor and even gets an A — yet still feels like he never got a fair shake. That’s one toxic effect of the persecution complex that seems to be an irreducible part of conservative Christian culture — anything short of total dominance and approval feels like persecution.

  8. Sorry it was just on my mind today. Maybe I’ve spent too much time around Libertarians, but they frequently deploy an “argument from the scarcity of resources” in a specious way to justify various austerity measures, and I noted a similarity. Your point about limited resources is totally reasonable, though.

  9. Over two decades I’ve had many run ins with religious students in the classroom, and not only evangelicals and Tridentine Catholics. I recently encountered a really aggressive Marxist. A group of Muslim males would not not listen to a female guest speaker. A particularly mean spirited Wiccan snapped at all of us convinced we wanted to ‘burn’ her…she may have been disturbed. A Pentacostal once gave a presentation in class on bioethics in which he went off topic by telling the class the professor (me) was a minion of AntiChrist, presumably for his ‘allegiance to Rome. I teach at a Catholic college. Recently I gave a lecture on evolution and Father Teilhard, a Catholic student walked out muttering heresy, while an evangelical student shot out of ‘her’ chair, and proceeded to tell the class that maybe the professor’s relatives were fish, but she wouldn’t listen to me spout lies about her family… Still the absolutely worst and nastiest incident I’ve had in two decades was with a guest speaker from PETA. A student politely asked given the speaker’s compassion for animals whether he was also pro-life. After a five minute rant about the perils of overpopulation, the cancer of humanity etc, this chap became apoplectic, calling my student a ‘two legged’ devil’, and a meat eating fiend. He had to be escorted off campus. Since then I’ve included a caveat in my syllabi about professionalism and the necessity of arguing the argument.

    Some of our religious students come to us as transferees because they do feel unwelcome at state schools. I’ve read some of the papers they submitted at State schools. To be frank, some faculty comments were very nasty. One former student, a baptist fellow told me he tried to organize a student group of young conservatives (I know…) at U of M. He could not find one faculty sponsor. When I brought this up at a faculty round table (an informal meeting of teachers from local colleges), I was surprised to hear several faculty members express satisfaction. It was as if this student tried to organize a neo-nazi hate group. Very odd to hear a room full of academics throw out canard after canard, implying that all religious folks are fundamentalists, there was only one acceptable political orientation (democrat), that secularism was normal, that religious belief was a form neurosis etc, etc. Makes me long for MacIntrye’s vision of the university, an arena of ideas….

  10. Just to echo Rob, while I think Adam’s concerns are basically on point, depending on where you are, there may be more secular bullying of religious believers than vice versa. I think we have to be careful about portraying either arrangement as a homogenous phenomenon in “America,” which is one error made by right wing commentators.

  11. @ Rob: In terms of the baptist student wanting to find a faculty sponsor for the conservative club, that really is a shame. It does sound like people are talking the talk and not walking the walk.

    But I can also see why that student might have to look a lot harder to find that sponsor. I advise two student clubs and its a heck of a lot of work. I like the students, I like the theme (its the history honors society and the history club for non-honors students). But you know what, its a lot of work and after awhile I get heartily sick of going to the meetings and shepherding the students through the administrative hoops. I’ve been doing it four five years and its wearing at the best of times.

    Now, would I be willing to sponsor the Young Republicans or the campus YAF chapter? I don’t know. I have no interest in conservatives or Republican party politics, so it would be really hard for me to summon the genuine enthusiasm and support that the groups deserve. I would probably do it on an interim basis, because they should have their club and get a share of the student fees to support their interests. But I could not do it for more than a year.

    So maybe your colleagues are frauds. Or maybe they can’t summon the intellectual and emotional energy necessary to support a student whose beliefs are completely unlike their own. But I am sure if the student looked long and hard they could find a sympathetic soul on faculty in the business school, or in engineering.

  12. re: walks and walking. Diversity. Inclusive excellence. What ever its called at your school. In general I refer to the great educational ideal that there is room for everyone at the table. I am not sure that there is a great understanding of Diversity of belief.

    The same colleagues who can tell you all about the different varieties of Islam or Buddhism, can’t explain the differences between the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, or any other non-mainline Christian faith in America. They are all “Christian.”

    It would be tough for a state school to officially consider religion a category in their diversity program. But certainly, it would be nice if the faculty knew a little more about their students religious beliefs. The seemingly homogeneous mass of mostly white, mostly middle class students that populate my campus, might actually prove more diverse than it did at first glance.

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