A difficult issue...
The major exception to these findings, as Dr. Wright points out, are evangelical Christians. The study asks respondents to rate various religious groups on an attitude thermometer, where 100 indicates maximum warm feeling, 50 indicates neutrality, and 0 indicates maximum cold feeling. It then reports on the percentages of faculty who feel "cold/hostile" towards certain groups. Presumably, "cold/hostile" means that the attitude thermometer score was below 50. The results, taken from the study, are interesting:
Indeed, based on these results, it would appear that 53% of faculty are cool/hostile towards evangelical Christians. This makes evangelicals, far and away, the most disfavored group, and the only one to crack the 50% mark. Speaking as someone in a social science department, I don't find this difficult to believe- evangelical Christians are not, in my experience, a particularly liked group among my colleagues or even those in neighboring departments.
Dr. Wright, who identifies himself strongly as a Christian, is disturbed by this research and goes on to discuss the implications of the study:
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.
And it is here that I start feeling uneasy. I feel uneasy, first off, because Dr. Wright is approaching this issue as though an overwhelming majority of faculty members are virulent haters of evangelical Christians. As it happens, this is untrue- barely over half of faculty report negative feeling which means that 47% are neutral or positive. This is not to say that such a large level of coolness isn't problematic, potentially, but it's hardly a crushing majority. It's also a little unclear exactly how "cool" faculty are towards evangelicals as the study doesn't report means. There's a big difference between a mean score of 15 and a mean score of 45- both are "cool/hostile" but one is a lot more "cool/hostile" than the other. Now, obviously Dr. Wright is correct that intolerance of evangelicals does constitute something of a double standard in an institution that seeks to be accepting of all. That said, there's something unique about evangelicals relative to other groups that may help account for it. We'll return to that in a moment.
Dr. Wright also brings up the posibility of discrimination or prejudice against evangelical Christians and concludes that it almost certainly occurs given the link between attitudes and behaviors. I have mixed feelings about this point- on the one hand, I think attitudes and behaviors are connected but, on the other hand, it assumes that we lack professionalism. Readers of this blog know that I am a staunch atheist who would likely rate evangelicals quite low on the attitude thermometer. Yet what you don't know is that one of my favorite past students was an evangelical Christian. When discussing the course material with her I often found myself using biblical metaphors and analogies to help her understand and, in the process, likely convinced her that I, too, was evangelical. She was not my only evangelical student either, I've had many, and I have always worked hard to scrupulously avoid treating them any differently from other students. Does a negative attitude necessarily translate into negative treatment? No, but it does put a heavy burden on us to be professional. I also, to be frank, take issue with Dr. Wright's claim that, "...it doesn't matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice..." All jokes about "thought crime" aside, do we really want to take the position that your opinions are the problem rather than your actions?
Turning to Dr. Wright's observation that evangelical students may feel hesitant to bring up their religious views in class, we discover some particularly informative points. Specifically, Wright comments: "Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word "Jesus" in any context other than swearing." But is this true? Is it impossible to bring up Jesus in a religion class? A philosophy class? An ethics class? Of course not- although it may not be on topic (i.e. when discussing Nietzche's thoughts on ethics, Jesus' views are beside the point). In these courses the views of a variety of religious figures are relevant and often discussed. Then again, is it appropriate to bring up Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or any other deity or prophet in Physics 101? How about a genetcs course, or non-Euclidian geometry, or even neurology? Not so much. In these cases, Jesus' views are quite beside the point as we aren't discussing moral philosophy, religion, or history, but instead are discussing highly technical scientific issues. In point of fact, no religious figures are really appropriate topics of conversation in a great many classes unless, for example, they did post-graduate work in particle physics.
And, as it happens, the pressure that evangelical students feel to not discuss Jesus in these classes brings us back to cultural resistance and the point I alluded to above. The defining characteristic of evangelical Christianity is that it is evangelical- its adherents are strongly pressured to "spread the word" as it were. As such, they make themselves potentially disruptive to a classroom in a way that non-evangelical Christians do not. Saying that academics have negative feelings towards evangelical Christians* is, in this context, not dissimilar to saying that we have negative feelings towards students with behavioral issues.** Academics may not dislike evangelicals, per se, but simply find their behavior disruptive to our work.
Then consider the evangelical community, which includes figures like David Horowitz who routinely villifies faculty for all manner of real and imagined offenses. Consider my favorite cousin, an evangelical Christian, who reads novels that tell how university professors are the witless tools of dark satanic forces.*** Consider that many evangelicals distribute propaganda mocking us and our theories as part of a well-planned and hideously expensive campaign to discredit modern science. Is it any surprise that faculty have some negative feeling towards evangelical Christians? I'm honestly surprised that only 53% of faculty view evangelical Christians negatively. Far from being a sign of prejudice, that the number is so low suggests that tolerance is alive and well in the academy.
I am not saying that it's good that evangelicals are viewed negatively, but let's keep a sense of perspective here. Faculty feel under attack from evangelicals and have to suppress their speech in class about Jesus for good and justifiable reasons. The purpose of the classroom is to teach course material, not to indoctrinate, and that goes as much for the students as for the instructor.
Maybe faculty do feel the need to engage in some cultural resistance, but it doesn't look like they're resisting any harder than they absolutely have to.
* And I once more feel compelled to point out that academics are still pretty accepting.
** Really and truly, how long do you think you're going to be able to maintain a productive classroom atmosphere with a diverse group of students if classmembers are free- at their discretion- to preach to other students?
*** Totally serious here, people.