In which I blame the “victim”

Inside Higher Ed has published my response to Timothy Larsen’s piece on discrimination against Christians in academia. I argue that the evangelical community itself bears most of the blame for any tension that evangelical students experience in higher ed.

I already have my first comment, from someone who apparently thinks the purpose of liberal education is to turn students into New Atheists and who refers to me as Mr. Kotsko. Ah, IHE commenters: you are truly amazing.

12 thoughts on “In which I blame the “victim”

  1. A great essay. I think you have a very astute analysis of the dynamic between the Conservative evangelical Christian (CEC) leaders, parents, and students. I didn’t read the comments at IHE. I am sure that someone will say that you are blaming the victim, or a self-hating ex-Christian. This is unfortunate because I think you are pointing out something fundamental about the relationship between the religious right and society.

    CEC leaders have spent the last thirty odd years denouncing the secular world, especially its scientists and university professors as agents of secularization. If you spend eighteen years raising your kids to believe that secular academics are hostile to your version of Christianity and then send them off to a state university, how could you not expect your child to experience some sort of meltdown or conflict?

    More than a persecution complex, I think that the Conservative Evangelical Christians have indulged in the biggest sin of modern American life: the attitude that “its all about me.” They demonstrate the same fundamentally self-centered attitude as the rest of our consumer society. They assume that the secular academy’s main mission is to satisfy their narrow interests in terms of what an education should mean. When they don’t get what they want as consumers, they assume its because the main mission of secular academia is to destroy Christianity.

    Personally, I am probably as secular and intellectual as it gets, but my main purpose in life is to study nineteenth century European history, to share that information with my students and other scholars. I would feel badly if a student lost their religious faith because they read the textbook chapter on Darwin and his intellectual significance in European history. Same thing with the unit we do on Marx. I teach Marx not because I want my students to become socialists, but because its hard to understand over a 170 years of European politics without a grounding in that political philosophy.

    The purpose of this education is not navel gazing. Its to equip students to make their way in the world. They need to learn about not only their own traditions, but they need to have some understanding of other peoples’ as well… not that they should believe every idea that comes across their plate.

  2. I think it’s a good piece, and you point out well the wider issues that feed into the situation. I see in it, though (and this isn’t a bad thing or an inconsistency) some of what came up in your earlier post about this issue. There is a lengthy treatment of the evangelical persecution complex, and I think you’re right to highlight it. At the same time, though, there is an agreement with Larsen about the problematic nature of some of the anecdotal evidence he brings up… presumably you wouldn’t have acted as the professor or the editorial board did in the situations he relates. The word you used was “errors”, although you also called them “boneheaded”, apparently to explain them by not explaining them: they were just dumb, or ill-considered. There’s really no telling why these errors were made and it’s probably best to just shrug one’s shoulders at the anomaly, and not assign such papers in your own 101 course (you don’t address, unless I’ve missed it, how you would respond to the book proposal about T.S. Eliot… perhaps because the anglo-catholicism doesn’t fit Larsen’s supposed subtext of conservative evangelicalism when he says “Christian”?).

    As I read it, then, you’re agreeing with Larsen on his substantive point. You and he may have some different opinions about how widespread and systematic the “persecution” is (although I doubt it… I imagine Tim would nod his head in agreement about much of what you say re: evangelicals’ persecution complex), but you both agree that instances such as he related shouldn’t be happening, and are worth avoiding. Where you might differ, then, is how serious the problem really is and whether it’s worth it to devote certain resources to it.

    Maybe this is all obvious and not worth clarifying, but to me the rhetorical whole of your piece offers a feeling of wanting to counter Larsen’s extreme concern, although you two don’t actually seem very far apart concerning the actual facts of the matter. For the same reason, I think, I replied to you in your last post by saying, “Right, I’d certainly agree with everything you’ve said here,” although you seemed to be responding to me with the intention of countering something or other that I was saying. I guess I just don’t get the sense that I have, and I’m wondering whether this isn’t just a differing of personal fancy over whether we should get worked up about all this. I certainly don’t see that much difference in reasons offered by you compared to me or Larsen, at least.

  3. My favorite comment so far?

    “Jesus warned his followers that they would be persecuted for His name’s sake. Some of my co-religionists in academe whom I have observed from both inside and outside academe seem determined to behave in such a way as to make sure that Jesus’s prophesy is fulfilled. They should be called on it. That prophesy should not be considered justification for, let alone an injunction for, making an ass of oneself.”

    I believe from now on, I will open every statement with some version of “Jesus said…”

    There was a story on NPR about Christians in the academy – was it related to Larsen’s piece or a separate deal? I didn’t pay attention to the names. Good analysis all around, I thought.

  4. Evan, The “boneheaded errors” I was referring to were the factual errors that Larsen keeps talking about — the claim that CS Lewis was a pastor, the idea that the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Bible are wildly different, etc. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. And yes, I agree that evangelical students shouldn’t be made to feel picked on in the classroom, because no one should. I’m not sure how to respond to the rest of what you’re saying, though.

    Mikhail, I hadn’t heard about the NPR piece. If it was about the Larsen article, it’s too bad mine didn’t come out before the NPR segment so I could have a chance to get mentioned on the air!

  5. Okay, how about this? I agree that there are people in academia who really are prejudiced against Christians — sometimes because they’re ignorant, sometimes because they’ve had bad experiences with Christians, sometimes because they’re self-hating ex-Chrisitans, etc. When they get power over Christians, bad things sometimes result. That’s bad. But there are also profs who hate football players, or business majors, or whatever. I don’t think it’s anything approaching a systemic problem. I’d even go further than I do in the article — the very existence of Larsen’s hypothetical study would stoke the flames of the persecution complex, and then it would get even worse when, as is almost certain, the study found it wasn’t a widespread or systemic problem (“Of course those godless liberals are washing their hands of how they treat us!”).

  6. What sickens me about evangelicals crying “persecution” is that there are people around the worldwide church who can show them what *real* persecution looks like. You know, where they actually kill you, rather than say nasty things about you.

  7. I found the story:

    Actually I remember this one part very well because I was yelling at the radio (something to the effect of “I wonder if this guy was denied tenure because he’s a real jerk, not because he’s a Christian – “strongly worded op-ed pieces” sounds like a euphemism for “really assholish types of pieces that no one appreciated but he felt the need to publish anyway because that’s just what he believes”):

    “Mike Adams begs to differ. Adams teaches criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A few years ago, he began writing strongly worded op-ed pieces expressing conservative views on religious and political issues. When he applied for promotion to full professor, his colleagues voted him down. Adams sued. He claimed, among other things, that he was rejected because of his religious speech.”

  8. The most bizarre thing about evangelicals crying “persecution” is that they often do have connections through various mission organizations or sister congregations with genuinely persecuted sisters and brothers. Under such circumstances, you think they’d be more circumspect about taking on the label themselves. I imagine the answer has something to do with (at best) naively wanting to identify with fellow Christians and (at worst) feeling some sort of guilt for not being truly persecuted, and so making up a narrative that fits alongside fellow Christians who face real hardship.

    That said, we should be careful about who is crying “persecution”. Larsen certainly doesn’t seem to be in his article- in fact he explicitly says with Adam that an evangelical persecution complex is problematic and needs to be avoided. There are some anonymous/pseudonymous/first-name responders in the comment section who cry “persecution”, and of course Adam does it for them by diagnosing a persecution complex. But that surely doesn’t mean that everyone who is raising this issue is thereby taking it to be a matter of “persecution”. Yet again, I agree with Adam (and now Simon), but I’m not sure who they’re speaking of, exactly, or how relevant the critique (true as it is) is to Larsen’s concerns.

  9. A commenter to the article pointed this out, but there are actually two different issues, and the label “evangelical” doesn’t really help in trying to make sense of both of them. Having grown up in a deeply evangelical context, there are James Dobson “evangelicals,” but there are also NT Wright “evangelicals” and the two don’t really claim each other, and they relate to or exhibit the persecution complex to significantly different extents.

    The issue that Larsen addresses, and Adam less so, is that there are plenty of instances in the academy where religious belief per se is viewed as a mark of intellectual deficiency (and the complicating factor that this is only ever mentioned in the context of Christianity and almost never in the case of the other Abrahamic religions or Eastern religions, although it applies in the same way to many or most of them). In places where this doesn’t come up explicitly, like science departments, it is because it is simply viewed as too risky to admit that you do things like go to church. There are plenty of otherwise well-intended academics that would honestly think this compromised your ability to engage in the type of critical thought required of science. The opposite is frequently true, but this is typically a difficult point to make.

  10. Great article, Adam. Fair and accurate. I wish I’d read it before I gave a sermon on Romans 12-13 yesterday – I would have nuanced my mention of ‘persecution’ a bit.

    I, too, appreciate that comment “Jesus warned his followers … They should be called on it,” especially since it demonstrates an obviously deficient reading of Mt 5, Ro 12, etc. That is, although many with an evangelical persecution complex validate their interpretation of persecution by appeal to scripture, they always seem to short-circuit before reading the response they are ‘supposed’ to have. Clearly, their diagnosis of persecution is an invitation to hate, curse, and froth, not, say, bless the ‘godless liberal atheists.’

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