Are secular university faculties prejudiced against evangelical Christians?
The folks at Volokh [link here] are having an interesting discussion about that question. The conversation was kicked off by a study that, I gather, shows that 53% of university faculty members view evangelicals negatively. Todd Zywicki says that figure suggests a measure of bigotry among those who teach in secular universities.
Having been a part of the secular university world for almost thirty years (counting my student days)—and having belonged to evangelical churches for more than twenty years—I’m quite sure that anti-Christian bigotry exists, and that its targets extend beyond evangelicals. But bigotry is not an on-off category; differences of degree matter. And while I have only my own experience to go on, my impression is that the amount and depth of hostility have declined sharply in the last couple of decades, and especially in the last several years.
I’m not in the closet about my own faith, and I have never been penalized for it, so far as I can tell. Twenty years ago, I think it was reasonable to expect that one would be penalized for religious beliefs like mine: in the 1980s, theologically orthodox Christians were widely seen as mean-spirited, not just crazy or dumb. I have seen no instances of that way of thinking among my colleagues in eight years teaching at Harvard. One consequence of the decline of any kind of bigotry is that the worst bigots keep their views to themselves for fear of being stigmatized. I think that has happened in a lot of universities, including the two that have employed me. Unless I miss my guess, the large majority of that 53% are guilty of nothing more than skepticism about a belief system that seems a little (or a lot) crazy to them. That strikes me as a perfectly legitimate reaction, not a nasty or bigoted one. There are plenty of views that I regard as crazy; it would be self-aggrandizing for me to object to others viewing my beliefs in similar terms. That’s life: people believe different things, and though we can try to convince one another, no one has the right to insist that anyone else buy his beliefs.
If I’m right about the long-term trend toward greater tolerance of religious believers—maybe I’m not: I have only anecdotal evidence—what lies behind it? A couple of things, I think. First, American evangelicals have changed our emphasis over the past decade or so: hang around evangelical churches, and you’ll hear a lot more talk about poverty and disease than in the past, and a lot less talk about the culture’s moral failings. Second, the rising importance of diversity to most secular university faculty members has produced a greater willingness to hire professors who have strong religious convictions, even if those convictions seem bizarre to most of their colleagues. A third reason is the rising political importance of terrorism and the war in the Iraq, and the declining political importance of abortion. After the South Dakota referendum in 2006, it isn’t clear that pro-life folks can win anywhere; even if Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, abortion law would quickly move to something close to its current stance. And unlike abortion, evangelicals don’t cluster on one side of the debates about Iraq and terrorism. That leads to greater tolerance, I suspect. But once again, I could be wrong; others’ experience may be very different—and different parts of universities could respond to religious believers differently. Maybe law schools have grown more tolerant while humanities departments have grown less so. I’d be interested in hearing from others whose experiences differ from my own.
Of one thing I’m pretty certain: anyone teaching in a secular university does his or her reputation more harm by saying good things about the current President Bush than by publicly embracing any set of religious convictions.