Everybody wants to rule the world. —Tears for Fears

Recently I wrote about some reports of surveys of university professors. Today, let’s dig deeper into specifics.

Whether the issue with Evangelicals is a “genuine” expression of prejudice—as in “I hate you because you are X, end of story”—is hard to answer definitively. Certainly the by now well-known fundamental attribution error suggests that it’s important to watch out when we come to this point as it’s very hard to attribute motive accurately, particularly for people you disagree with: “I have my reasons for the things I do, but you are evil by nature.” That said, I’m going to throw out what I think is the modal academic’s unarticulated position, though ultimately it represents mine and I’ll have to hope I’m close enough to the modal opinion for me to be a stand-in.

There is certainly going to be prejudice, much of it social class-based; this is not confined to the academy but is widespread in the population. The extent to which Evangelicals are perceived to be “bubbas” or otherwise lower class will make things difficult for them among groups higher in the social hierarchy. I bet that the view of speaking in tongues in a board room of a Fortune 500 company isn’t very high either. Fire-and-brimstone social conservatism isn’t a great sell among a group that leans to the social libertarian side, either. In addition, with academics, the perception of lack of education is a particularly strong negative—we do like what we’re selling, after all…. 🙂 (Edit: I should note—it’s implicit below—that there is a real diversity among the groups called “evangelical” that many outsiders don’t recognize. The perception among the non-evangelical population is largely the Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson types. It’s really the flipside of “professor = left wing atheist” problem I’m talking about.)

However, a good chunk of the issue I think many academics have with Evangelicals in particular is this: Evangelicals have become the public face of a substantial anti-intellectual movement and, well, intellectuals really don’t like anti-intellectual movements. (Edit: Here and here is a good example of the kind of crap I’m talking about. I can only hope it’s a sick joke but I have my doubts. I bet Senator Brownback would rather not have friends like these….) There is a non-trivial group of hard core moral relativists, mostly concentrated in the humanities, and the staunchly anti-religious who have stronger objections such as Richard Dawkins, but the survey results discussed above suggest that they are quite far from the majority in the academy. The entire attitude of Evangelicals (more particularly fundamentalists, and yes, I know there is a difference, but from a very long distance that’s not apparent or even all that important), is essentially “Everything you need to know can be found by looking in the Bible.” (Fundamentalists in other areas substitute different holy texts, e.g., Das Kapital, The Koran, largely unwritten “tradition”, etc.) For most academics this is a truly alien and essentially horrific basic premise. It’s just not going to fly with people who’s starting premise is “I’m going to look into it… and even then we’re going to argue about it.” Now I won’t deny that there are some very dogmatic academics out there who love their theories to death, but in general the bias of academics is against such views and, at least in my experience, most really aren’t heavily dogmatic. One doesn’t typically go into a job that requires a constant probing of questions with an attitude of dogmatism. The fact that evangelicals are leading the charge against the teaching of evolution is a good specific example, since it is perceived as fundamentally coming from a non-scientific motive.

What about respect for other religions? The authors seemed to have glided by this point in their hand-wringing. If universities were hotbeds of anti-Christian sentiment, you’d expect other branches of Christianity to get slammed. However, the data speaks to the contrary. Why? Let’s look at an example. Catholicism, for instance, has a longstanding tradition of scholarship and a network of universities identified with it. American, Loyola, De Paul, Notre Dame, Marquette and Georgetown are all good examples. (Many American private universities used to be sectarian, but over the course of the 20th Century the connection of institutions such as Harvard (Episcopalian), Princeton (Presbyterian), the University of Chicago (Baptist), etc., were broken or heavily downplayed. And of course state universities have never been sectarian, with possible early 19th Century exceptions.) The big difference between Notre Dame or Georgetown on one hand and, oh, Liberty University (Jerry Falwell), Regent University (Pat Robertson), Patrick Henry College or Oral Roberts University on the other, is the fact that the former are perceived as “real” because they have a long list of high-end scholars, and have for decades, while the latter are tarred (rightly or wrongly) with the anti-intellectual brush endemic to the modern American Evangelical movement. Given the evident quality (or lack thereof) of legal minds graduated from Regent University’s law school, I have to wonder, but rather than speculate, let’s look at course offerings. After browsing their web pages, Liberty, Regent, Patrick Henry and ORU tend to be essentially the equivalent of “teaching,” liberal arts, degree-completion or low-end professional schools, and have quite limited course offerings with little or no science, for instance. One of Regent’s highlighted majors is (surprise, surprise) TV production! They may well provide good but probably pretty limited educations for their students. I don’t know.

There’s a reason for such places, but they aren’t the likes of a Notre Dame… and my money’s on them never becoming so. Let’s consider why. At Wheaton College—one of the best Evangelical schools, and one that does have well-regarded science programs—faculty have to declare how their research is consistent with “biblical doctrine that is consonant with evangelical Christianity.” (Pity the pure mathematician or physical chemist!) They’ve also had issues with faculty conversion, as the dismissal of a professor who converted to Roman Catholicism shows. Having interviewed at Notre Dame some time ago, I can attest that while there is a clearly stated Catholic hiring preference, if being a Catholic isn’t a precondition for your job, i.e., you are not teaching theology or the like and so long as you don’t plan on going on an anti-Pope rampage, you are a viable candidate. Wheaton isn’t lying to you, the job candidate: They tell you right up front what’s up. However, they do drive off people who don’t fit their mold real closely and it will cost the college in terms of scholarship because the number of very solid scholars who also happen to be committed Evangelicals is, by definition, smaller than the number of very solid scholars, i.e., something has to give. By contrast, Calvin College, an Evangelical liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan connected with the Dutch Reformed Church, is quite well-respected more broadly, has science programs, and so on. I’ve bumped into their faculty at academic conferences. So it is possible to make things work.

Furthermore, heavily faith-identified universities such as Maharishi University tend to come in for some pretty heavy skepticism among most academics; it’s not just Christianity. In short, it’s about scholarship, or perceived lack thereof, and not faith identification or Evangelical attachment per se. Naturally, for faith-based institutions, the priorities are exactly the other way around, Wheaton being a laser-spot-on example thereof. On the double standard towards Muslims also mentioned in the articles, I bet that’s mostly ignorance. If Muslim fundamentalists were as in-your-face about things as Evangelicals have been locally, Muslims would receive far more negative attention from American intellectuals. (Take a look at the current attitudes in Europe as an example of how things could go here.) Right now, most of them are sufficiently far away to be under the radar and appear, as the authors of the Jewish Research press release speculate, to be thought of as underdogs.

A few limitations of the studies: The surveys didn’t indicate the number of foreign-born faculty, or at least I couldn’t tell from digging around in their methodological appendix. There are, of course, quite a few non-American faculty members, who can be expected to have rather different views than the rest of the population. This is a methodological limitation of the study I wish they’d addressed more clearly. They also did a lot of data-dredging, which can lead to capitalization on chance. However, the fact that studies were done at all—as opposed to the usual alternative, anec-data—is a good thing.

In sum, my contention is that much of the disagreement between Evangelicals and academics comes from the fact that we are living in the middle (to end) of what’s been referred to as the Fourth Great Awakening or, to use Pat Buchanan’s term, the “culture war.” It’s a genuine disagreement about fundamental issues. One set of priorities sees faith in received wisdom as the defining feature. The other sees largely unlimited inquiry as the defining feature. These two visions just don’t line up. The conflict’s not going to be settled by an affirmative action program or by self-righteous finger-pointing by anyone. In fact, I don’t think it’ll be settled at all—which isn’t bad so long as things do not spiral out of control. As the quote of Karl Popper at the beginning points out, conflict isn’t a bad thing in a society, but (as he goes on to discuss later), the key is finding ways to manage it so people don’t end up dead. The term “culture war” has been bandied about of late, but there are disturbing and bloody precedents of what happens as they get pushed too far (see Eric Rudolph or the Weather Underground and go down from there). So there is a point to sociological representation and (lightly) enforced tolerance because it’s not good for what are supposed to be broad-based institutions to become “hostile environments” to substantial groups in the population. Indeed, the Air Force Academy has had some real issues with a hostile environment for non-Evangelicals, including observant Jews, Catholics, feeling pressured by the numerous Evangelicals connected to nearby Colorado Springs mega-churches. (The AFA is in Colorado Springs, sometimes known as the “Evangelical Vatican.”) Sometimes we have to do some things to make such institutions open up more we don’t especially like, though “thought police” is something we need to stop well short of, as certain academic disciplines show quite clearly. But the problem is broader than just universities and we shouldn’t be selective or short-sighted about it.