Opinion: Stop turning the other cheek

The US academy should treat discrimination against Christian students or scholars as seriously as it would racism or sexism, according to Timothy Larsen, for Inside Higher Ed

August 3, 2010




I had lunch this summer with a prospective graduate student at the evangelical college where I teach. I will call him John, because that happens to be his name. John has done well academically at a public university. Nevertheless, as often happens, he said that he was looking forward to coming to a Christian university, and then launched into a story of religious discrimination.

John had been a straight-A student until he enrolled in English writing. The assignment was an “opinion” piece and the required theme was “traditional marriage”. John is a Southern Baptist and he felt it was his duty to give his honest opinion and explain how it was grounded in his faith. The professor was annoyed that John claimed the support of the Bible for his views, scribbling in the margin, “Which Bible would that be?” On the very same page, John’s phrase, “Christians who read the Bible,” provoked the same retort, “Would that be the Aramaic Bible, the Greek Bible, or the Hebrew Bible?” (What could the point of this be? Did the professor want John to imagine that while the Greek text might support his view of traditional marriage, the Aramaic version did not?) The paper was rejected as a “sermon” and given an F, with the words “I reject your dogmatism” written at the bottom by way of explanation.

Thereafter, John could never get better than a C for papers without any marked errors or corrections. When he asked for a reason why yet another grade was so poor, he was told that it was inappropriate to quote C.S. Lewis in work for an English class because he was “a pastor”. (Lewis, of course, was actually an English professor at the University of Cambridge. Perhaps it was wrong to quote Lewis simply because he had said something recognisably Christian). Eventually, John complained to the department chair, who said curtly that he could do nothing until the course was over. John took this to mean that the chair would do nothing and just accepted the bad grade.

I suspect that many readers are already generating “maybe... ” scenarios that pad out this story so that John was actually treated fairly. Blaming the victim is a familiar response to reports of discrimination. Maybe John is just one of those uppity believers who don’t know their place.

Maybe. Maybe John got an F purely as an academic judgement. I’ve seen the marked paper (and my own view is that it is academically weak, but certainly not deserving of an F), and I’m not in a position to hear the professor or the chair’s explanation of the broader context. But the wider point is that those of us in Christian higher education often hear such accounts. We also experience similar incidents ourselves. Here is a story of my own:

Rethinking the Western Tradition is a Yale University Press series that reprints influential texts along with original essays. It has an editorial committee of eminent academics. I submitted a proposal for a volume on The Idea of a Christian Society by T.S. Eliot (you remember Eliot – for much of the 20th century he was a prominent pastor). Perhaps the committee members did not realise their comments would be passed on, making them unusually frank. They agreed that my proposal was well crafted, drawing on well-chosen experts to write the essays, including an outspoken atheist. Nevertheless, most did not want this volume in the series and the reasons they gave for rejecting it were often explicitly anti-Christian.

One of the few who said they would begrudgingly allow it to go forward justified their decision by conceding: “It is worth considering why ideas we find not just impossible to believe but even impossible to believe that others believe – such as the ideology of the Taliban or Saudis – have such appeal.” (That urbane Modernist poet Eliot, the voice of the Taliban?) One of the “nos” wrote a four-page anti-Christian rant. Here is just a bit of it: “In order to believe in that, I fear, you have to believe in something like the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ (which we who were brought up as Anglicans were taught as children to say we believed in as we recited the Nicene Creed – not understanding even half of what we were professing so fervently to believe)... But who – other than someone willing to swallow all the offensive nonsense in the same creeds (the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the trinity, complete with the filioque) – can believe in that? Surely no one who pays any heed to the historical evidence.” (The filioque? As if the double procession of the Holy Spirit was conclusive proof that Christians always take things too far.) Another was unsympathetic to the proposal, but candidly admitted that “this is doubtless prejudice to some extent”.

A persecution complex is not a healthy thing. A mantra among Christian academics is that if your work is rejected, assume it was because it is not good enough. Like others experiencing discrimination, we expect that we might need to do significantly better than the competition to have a chance and think that we should primarily just get on with trying to do exactly that. We are apt to apply to ourselves the Canadian politician Charlotte Whitton’s observation about gender discrimination: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

So, although we hear these stories frequently, Christian academics are the first to respond to them with suspicion. Maybe John got a bad grade because his work was not very good. Maybe my proposal was written in an irritating tone that baited some members of the committee to respond that way.

Nevertheless, scholars ought to be concerned that Christians often report that the academy is a hostile environment. Are academics generally glad that such a perception exists? If not, how might it be dispelled? If it is based on genuine experiences, what can be done about a climate that tolerates religious discrimination? If the two stories presented here are merely assailable, anecdotal evidence, then why not gather information on this issue more systematically? Do academic institutions ever try to discover if their Christian students or scholars experience discrimination?

I am hereby calling for such an effort. This could be done through surveys, or focus group discussions, or even just by inviting people to relate their experiences and following up on them, seeing if certain patterns emerge. If these are not the best methods, just think what you would do in response to reports that a university or academic society was marked by institutional racism or sexism and then apply those same strategies of listening, investigation and response. Like John with the department chair, however, I too am tempted to be defeatist about the academy being willing even to investigate the possibility of discrimination against Christians, let alone attempt to eradicate it.

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