In 2005, Emily Brooker was hauled before a Missouri State University faculty panel on a charge of discriminating against homosexuals.1 An evangelical Christian, Brooker refused to sign a letter that one of her professors required, urging state legislators to support adoptions by same-sex couples. This incident reflects a burgeoning bias against evangelicals at public universities. Yet the culprit is not necessarily a vast left wing conspiracy. It might be that evangelicals are also contributing to the prejudice.
There is no doubt that university faculties are increasingly biased against evangelicals, according to Gary A. Tobin. He’s the director of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Tobin found what he called an “explosive” statistic: 53 percent of its sample of over 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have “unfavorable” feelings toward evangelical Christians.
We’re not talking Ivy League schools. The Brooker case took place in the Bible Belt. In his survey Tobin asked professors at all kinds of colleges to rate their feelings toward religious groups, from very warm or favorable to very cool or unfavorable. The only groups that elicited highly negative responses were evangelicals and Mormons. “There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice,” Tobin said. In a scathing report in March, many students and faculty members at Missouri State’s School of Social Work “stated a fear of voicing differing opinions,” particularly about spiritual matters. “If you’re an evangelical Christian, you’re going to have to go through classes in which you’re told that much of what you believe religiously is not just wrong, but worthy of mockery,” said David French, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund.
Not true, says William B. Harvey of the University of Virginia. Even if the survey correctly identified a “latent sentiment” among professors, Harvey says, “I don’t know that it is fair to make the leap… that this is manifested in some bias in the classroom.” Well heavens to Betsy – let’s be fair. I’m sure that faculty boards play fair and never assume instructors with “latent sentiments” against homosexuals, for example, will manifest their bias in the classroom. Right? Uh, not quite. “If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry,” Tobin said.
Yet the outcry shouldn’t necessarily be against faculty. Nature abhors a vacuum. When evangelicals vacate public universities, a bias is going to naturally fill in. There is growing evidence that evangelicals are doing just that – becoming sanctuary seekers and escaping from what they perceive is an inhospitable academic world.
One example is the 8 to 10 percent increase in applications at the 238 colleges that belong to the North American Association of Christian Admissions Professionals. Naomi Schaefer Riley notes: “It’s nice for [students] to go to a place where they don’t have to always be defending their beliefs.”2 Yet Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College sees a troubling trend. “[E]vangelical families have figured out they have a choice… to keep their kids on the reservation.” He says it appeals to a segment “on the fringe” aiming to be culturally separate in many ways from society at large.3
Seeking sanctuary from a “heartless world” is actually part of a larger phenomenon called cocooning.4 We’re fortifying our homes as havens with high speed Internet and plasma TVs to ensure never having to venture outside and hobnob with heathen. Yet this contributes to the Balkanization of America. With the collapse of Yugoslavia in the late 20th century, small-scale independence movements fragmented the Balkan region of Europe by elevating individual cultural heritages over national citizenship. This led to the 1992 Bosnian and Serbian ethnic cleansing. When evangelicals opt to send their kids to religious schools, buy books only at religious bookstores or hang out only with friends who share their religious views, we further American isolation and foster antagonism.
This doesn’t necessarily argue against religious colleges. Yet bias is unlikely to be erased until public university faculties include more evangelicals. Schools such as Stanford and Harvard – and Missouri State – typically draw faculty from public universities rather than “Kingdom College” or Bible schools. How about forming local groups that underwrite promising students aiming to become leading academics at elite public universities? No doubt it will take decades. Probably about as much time as it took for us to vacate the public universities and contribute to the current contempt.
1 Alan Cooperman, “Is There Disdain For Evangelicals In the Classroom? Survey, Bias Allegation Spur Debate,” Washington Post, May 5, 2007; Page A03
2 G, Jeffrey MacDonald, “Rising Tide of Applications Lifts Fortunes of Christian Colleges,” Washington Post, March 25, 2006, p.B9. Riley is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are changing America.
3 Ibid, p.B8
4 Cocooning is a term invented by marketing oracle Faith Popcorn and is discussed in The Popcorn Report, Clicking and other publications of Popcorn’s New York-based BrainReserve market research firm.