The mass martyrdom last week of the 21 Egyptian Copts at the hands of ISIS is a sobering reminder of what real persecution looks like. Yet it is also the kind of thing that people in this country who fear and loathe Christians point to as an argument-ender when Christians complain about social injustice against themselves, e.g., “Get back to me when they’re chopping Christian heads off, then we’ll talk.” I would point out that ISIS is throwing gay men out of high windows to their deaths, and the crowds below are finishing off the job with stones. No secular liberal would — nor should — accept the argument that gays in the US have no right to complain against discrimination because they don’t have it as bad as gays in ISIS-held territory. So let’s put that cheap argument to bed.
I say all that to preface an interesting interview with George Yancey, a University of North Texas sociologist, about his new book documenting anti-Christian bias. They find that it is not general in society, but rather is confined to white, educated elites. Excerpts:
CP: Why did you, and co-author David Williamson, want to research and write about anti-Christian hostility?
Yancey: There is a lot of literature on hostility toward many different groups but just about none on hostility toward Christians. Yet when we collected qualitative data from cultural progressive activists we quickly saw some of the unnecessary vitriol and fears within many of our respondents. We also saw the social status of those who exhibited this hatred and many of them would be in positions that allowed them to at least subtly act on their anger and fears. That motivated us to take a more systematic look at Christianophobia and speculate on how this phenomenon influences certain social aspects in the United States.
Another aspect that drove me to work on this project was that while I consistently saw evidence of Christianophobia in other areas of my life and in our society, unlike other types of intolerances, those who exhibited Christianophobia do not tend to think that they are intolerant. Usually those who do not like blacks or Muslims admit that they are intolerant but simply try to justify their intolerance. Those with Christianophobia tend to deny that they are intolerant but rather that they are fairly interpreting social reality. Envisioning themselves as fair and free of intolerance allows them to blame those they detest rather than recognize how their emotions have distorted their intellectual judgments.
By documenting just how hateful some of the attitudes are toward Christians, and who tends to have such hateful attitudes, I hope to bring Christianophobia into the light so that we, as a society, can discuss this social problem and how we might address bigotry in all of its myriad forms
CP: Demographically, you found that Christianophobes are mostly white, wealthy, well-educated and non-religious. Is the fact that this is mostly an elite group good or bad for Christians? In other words, given a choice, would you rather be hated by elites or non-elites?
Yancey: Obviously all things being equal, an elite individual can do more damage to a person than a non-elite individual. But this does not mean that Christians have it worse than all other groups. We also have to factor in the number of people with Christianophobia. For example, more people have hostility toward atheists than toward Christians, but those individuals do not tend to be white or highly educated. Thus, they do not have the level of per-capita power of those who do not like Christians.
So is a group worse off if more people do not like them or if those who do not like them have a lot of social power, but there are fewer of them? Context matters to answer such a question. If you want to get elected to political office, then atheists are at a disadvantage since more people do not like them. But if you want to get a higher education, then you will run into a lot more people with power who hate Christians than who hate atheists.
This finding makes sense to me. It explains why to people outside the media-university-law circles, the idea that Christians face any kind of fear and loathing is strange. It doesn’t really exist in their world. And it explains also why Christians who are within those circles, and see it clearly, are dismissed by those within the elite, educated circle(s): because they cannot accept that they might be bigoted, and if they are, well, those Christians deserve it, because they’re awful.
Hatred is wrong no matter who does it, but it is particularly worrying that elites hold this hatred. The UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change The World, explained that cultural change typically doesn’t happen on the grassroots level, but begins among the power elites, who embed their ideas and practices within their networks and institutions. In 2003, Justice Scalia, in his Lawrence dissent, observed that the majority ruling was the product of a legal culture that had already accepted the normalization of homosexuality, and was determined to impose it on the rest of the country. This is also true of the media.
To be clear, it is not the case that elites dictate to the the masses what they are to believe, and the masses nod and go along with it. That’s not how it works. Rather, those with power set the tone for society and make the rules — and, in the case of the mass media, set the boundaries for what is acceptable mainstream discourse. This is why bigotries within the academy and the media really do matter. What is thought right and wrong among elites today will likely filter out to the masses tomorrow, in some form.