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Culture Q&A

George Yancey

George Yancey: From racial to religious bias

Academia and pop culture recognize some forms of bias, and are blind to others

George Yancey: From racial to religious bias

George Yancey (Adam Covington/Genesis)

University of North Texas professor George Yancey, the author of 14 books on questions of race and religious bias, based his new ones—So Many Christians, So Few Lions (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and Hostile Environment (IVP, 2015)—on not just a few comments but 3,000 questionnaires. 

You’ve written a lot about racial bias, but not in the conventional way.  I’m obviously an African-American, and that’s helped to shape my perspective on racial issues: I experience race in a way whites don’t. But I still come at it as a Christian, so I ask: “How can we get along with each other? How can we figure out solutions where not one side wins it all and one side loses it all?”

That’s not common in writing about race. A lot of race scholarship is not about dialogue. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement. I get the issue. The evidence is out there about the criminal justice system and African-American males. But the tone is totally wrong. I want these issues addressed, but I want them addressed in a way that finds solutions. 

Some whites see “black lives matter” as suggesting that “white lives don’t matter” or “police lives don’t matter.” I’ve said to some who defend the slogan, “Why not add three little letters: ‘black lives matter too?’” That way we’re not saying that all lives don’t matter, we’re just saying that black lives have been neglected. Yet when I suggest this, there’s a big backlash. That makes me think this is not about finding a solution that all can live with. It’s about imposing a solution—and we can only impose so much on people before they start fighting back.

‘The place that will sell you a “So Many Christians, So Few Lions” T-shirt will not sell you one with the Confederate flag.’

What’s a good solution? It is not going to be what the typical white conservative wants it to be, nor what the stereotypical black radical wants it to be. It’s going to be somewhere in the middle, but until we can communicate with each other, we can’t find it.

What, from your background in writing about racial bias, do you apply to the study of religious bias? The violent element to racism is, by and large, missing in what I and others have called “Christianophobia.” There’s no talk about police harassing you, as with race (but Christianophobia is relatively new). Christianophobic people tend to be white, male, highly educated, and wealthy—markers of social status. Racists don’t tend to be wealthy and educated, so they aren’t very powerful. A judge is much more likely to have Christianophobia than to be a racist. The dynamics are different, but the way we write off people we don’t like is similar. It’s part of our human depravity.

Do you personally experience more religious bias than racial bias? Things outside of academia have happened to me as an African-American. But within academia, I’ve faced more intolerance as a Christian, and it’s not even close.

What’s an example? When I was an adjunct, I taught a sociology of religion course and a race/ethnicity course. There was worry about the sociology of religion course “because you’re a Christian and you would be biased.” I try to present both sides evenhandedly, but in the end we’re all biased—yet it doesn’t occur to people in academia that an African-American would be biased teaching a race/ethnicity course. It occurs to them that a Christian would be biased teaching a religion course.

Non-Christians are likely to say this worry is no big deal. Sure, but what if it had been the other way around? What if someone had said, “We’re not sure you should teach this race and ethnicity course because you’re black.” Go to people who care about civil rights for African-Americans, give them that example, and see what they have to say about that. All of a sudden, this is not such a small deal, especially when it happens multiple times. The place that will sell you a “So Many Christians, So Few Lions” T-shirt will not sell you one with the Confederate flag.

Nor would it sell a T-shirt saying, “So many blacks, so few Ku Klux Klan members.” Or, “So many Jews, so few ovens.” A professor can complain about “Bible thumpers” and no one will stir, but say “raghead” and someone will go to the dean. On our questionnaires, we got responses such as “Nuke all churches” or “Give Christians lobotomies.”

About a dozen years ago I wrote about “Christophobia,” meaning the fear of Christ, but you use the term “Christianophobia”: Do you see more fear of Christians than fear of Christ? Those with this sort of phobia may not like the philosophy of Christianity, but they have the most hostility toward Christians themselves.

How much opposition is due to the action of Christians, and how much is hatred regardless of how Christians act? You’re going to find Christians who are hypocrites or who treat people badly, but that doesn’t excuse prejudice and bigotry. When my respondents talk about how Christians cannot think critically, or are intolerant, or are insane—we shouldn’t stereotype like that.

Many secularists want to exclude Christians from the public square. We would not say to feminists, “Keep your feminism in your homes, in your organizations, but don’t take it into the public square.” But people tell Christians, “Keep your Christianity in your homes and your churches, but nowhere else.”

Your research shows that half of all academics are less willing to hire a candidate for an academic job if they learn the person is a conservative Protestant. Do those not hired because of such bias have any recourse? Religion is recognized as a protected class, but Christians are not thought of as a group needing protection in academia.

How do we address this in a way that leads to solutions, not more complaints? Work on the culture. Christians have to go into Hollywood, media, academia, and keep Christians from being portrayed as intolerant bigots. In the media, when there’s a story about a church shooting, maybe we shouldn’t just focus on the gun. We should think this could be a hate crime, as we would see it if it was an Islamic temple.

At some point will colleges say diversity should include not only race and ethnicity, but worldview—so we might see hiring of token Christian professors? Before that can happen to any significant degree, people have to be ashamed to have Christianophobia. Now, they’ll deny they’re biased, but even when it’s truly pointed out, they’ll say, “Yeah, I wouldn’t hire a Christian because they’re less likely to be open-minded about things.” So there’s a justification. But if you turn that on other issues, and someone says, “I wouldn’t hire an African-American because they tend to be lazier than other people”—you can see how that feels. It will take a while for that to happen.