Friday, July 30, 2010

Tim Larsen on discrimination against Christians in academia

I was delighted to find an article from Tim Larsen in IHE this morning... anything by him is always a good read, whether it's a review essay in Books & Culture, an article in a journal, or a witty email sent out to colleagues.  His level-headedness and humor suites the touchy topic of religious discrimination perfectly.  Larsen discusses particular cases of discrimination on the basis of religious reasons in a student's and his own research, and calls for a closer examination of the presence of such discrimination in the academy, of public perception of it, and of how the problem can be addressed.

Larsen's article comes on the heels of news that Kenneth Howell has been reinstated to teach Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois, and the unfolding of discrimination accusations at Oxford from a convert to Anglicanism.  Apart from those deeply involved in the situation, I think we can set aside the discrimination case at Oxford for lack of information; at this point it seems impossible to tell from the perspective of the onlooker what exactly has happened.  The case of Prof. Howell, however, has been raised as a matter of anti-Catholic discrimination, and so perhaps is more relevant to Larsen's article.

I'm skeptical, however.  As I said on Wednesday, there's no reason to think that any crisis of anti-religiosity is demonstrated at UI.  If anything, the only reason why Howell has successfully been reinstated is because of the huge influence that Christianity maintains in our universities.  Other adjuncts have not fared so well.  If an adjunct instructor were dismissed for offending students with a Judith Butler reading, for instance, I can't imagine they would have received such support or had such luck in being reinstated.  The incident would have been another data point amongst many others and wouldn't have made any news. 

Larsen is similarly cautious in his article.  He's not out to claim that every supposed discrimination is actual, and he stays very close to his anecdotal evidence rather than making broad statements about the academy.  The point upon which he refuses to budge, however, is that this sort of discrimination is present at times, and we shouldn't simply ignore it.

The comment section has abandoned all modesty, however, and tried to make this into a battle of epic proportions.  Odd notions are circulating such as the idea that claims of discrimination are less impressive because they only come from "one brand of Christian".  On the other hand, "liberal Christians never seem to talk about the discrimination they face, even when they incorporate aspects of their religious beliefs into their scholarly work."  For the life of me, I don't see why this is relevant.  Presumably not all traditions of Christianity are equally well assimilated to all cultures of academic or other discourse.  It seems simply commonsensical to assume that certain denominations or political persuasions will sit more comfortably than others within the wider public.  That liberal Christians are (supposedly) doing well seems no reason to ignore Evangelical claims that their own community is not doing so well. At most this seems to be a criticism of Larsen's use of the word "Christian" in the title rather than being more specific, but I don't see this as all that much of a criticism.  And from the point of view of Christians themselves, I can't fathom the point of unnecessarily sub-dividing the Body when certain of our brothers or sisters feel unfairly treated. 

There also seems to be a good deal of unhelpful comparison between religious groups and women, or ethnic groups, etc.-- and this comparative tit-for-tat is being employed by both sides.  For some, discrimination against certain Christians just seems ridiculous in the face of more pervasive discrimination against minorities or those who are not a part of the ideological in-crowd.  For others, discrimination against Christians is the last acceptable prejudice:
Imagine if *Inside Higher Ed* posted an article on anti-black discrimination in the academy, and the commenters all took issue with black students and their supposed malefactions. This would justly be seen as disgraceful. Somehow, however, in regard to Christian students, it's open season.
Again, Larsen's zealous supporters and vehement detractors miss his point.  Does discrimination against religious reasons in the academy even need to be as shocking an injustice as racism or sexism for it to be acknowledged as a veritable problem?  Who cares how "impressive" his argument is- if there are cases of discrimination surfacing, it's worth trying to address them with the end of creating a better and more plural community of inquiry.  And on the other hand, what's the point of Christians in the comment section arguing "if this were a matter of racism, folks wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it"?  Is there any point in competing with other injustices for the limelight?  What does it accomplish to continually assert "You're blind to our plight, and you're playing favorites with other victims!" except to try everyone's patience and sound increasingly disingenuous in the face of other (usually more serious) instances of prejudice?

Larsen does make a comparison of sorts to other more recognized sources of discrimination, but I think he does so with a much different purpose:
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 tell their experiences and following up on them, seeing if certain patterns emerge. If these are not the best methods, just think of 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.
First, he makes clear that this is a matter of (relatively widespread) perception, but rightly argues that perceptions have reasons, and that it is worth investigating troubling perceptions that continue to carry weight with folks.  He also re-asserts the fact that his two examples are merely anecdotal, but continues to point out that precisely because they are anecdotal, more helpful information should be obtained about levels of discrimination in the academy.  This is all, for Larsen (and I think he is right), good enough reason in itself to address the problem of discrimination against Christians.  There is no attempt to argue that "you should pay attention to us if you're paying attention to other victims of prejudice!".  He only brings up the comparisons of sexism and racism as a suggestion for obtaining useful methods of information gathering: "If these are not the best methods, just think of what you would do in response to..." 

Another point that has come up repeatedly in the comment section is that of statements of faith.  While Larsen decries discrimination against Christians in academia, many point out that Wheaton itself, and other evangelical institutions, enforce dogmatic commitments of their own.  This topic was picked up by Adam earlier this month, although he doesn't bring it up in his own comment on the Larsen piece. 

I don't take dogmatic conformity within an institution to be problematic.  It seems to me that such norms are always functioning in communities, and that some norms are more explicit, more demanding, or more restrictive than others.  I don't see how this necessarily restricts free inquiry, however, unless one defines freedom in some flat sense of absence-of-all-constraint.  There will always be frictions and difficulties when these sorts of norms are in place and compete with personal conscience, or wider sentiment, or shifts in corporate perspective over time... in that sense I'm perfectly willing to recognize the imperfections of these systems, and I've often disagreed with the way that norms are enforced here at Wheaton.  I don't take this to be any sort of argument against the norms in themselves, though.  It's simply confirmation of the fact that folks disagree about things.

One can't convincingly raise these concerns against Larsen's discrimination article, however, without coming to the unrealistic conclusion that secular institutions of academic inquiry are meant to be truly "free" in the sense of being normless.  On the other hand, simply telling Larsen, "well, your own evangelical institution is dogmatic too!" doesn't answer anything, and worse, it undercuts any basis upon which one might justify non-discrimination in secular institutions of higher education.  It's simply a destructive argument that we're all guilty of dogmatism, and doesn't really do anything to counter (in fact it makes it easier to confirm) Larsen's single, and rather modest, point: that discrimination against Christians is perceived and at least anecdotally confirmed within academia.


  1. As an atheist I say "Welcome to the party."

    Query: Does Wheaton still have that "no endorsement of human evolution" requirement of its biology faculty?

  2. At most this seems to be a criticism of Larsen's use of the word "Christian" in the title rather than being more specific, but I don't see this as all that much of a criticism.

    This may be a minor complaint, but it's extremely annoying, especially for those of us with divided sympathies. And I'm not sure it's all that minor. I think it contributes to a very destructive dynamic, wherein too many evangelicals are completely unable or unwilling to grapple with the existence of Christians who arrive at different theological, liturgical, and political conclusions in good conscience, with as much biblical grounding as themselves, and liberals spend all their time explaining that they're Christians too, but they're not like those other Christians with whom their intended audience has had such bad experiences. I suspect that this dynamic feeds the alienation that many evangelicals feel in academia and the lack of sympathy from many liberals. And if both sides don't knock it off, then a plague on both their houses (which I say in full awareness of the fact that I live in the house I'm cursing).