Religious Discrimination 101

FaithHypeClarity2Religion reporter Alan Cooperman had a very interesting article in Saturday's Washington Post. I enjoy Cooperman's stories. His smooth, clear writing style is easy to read and digest. Anyway, he uses the hook of a Missouri State University instructor requiring students to write letters urging state legislators to support adoptions by same-sex couples. One of the students, Emily Brooker, objected on religious grounds and the school charged her with discriminating against gays. In his defense, instructor Frank Kauffman says the students were merely required to write the letter, not sign it or send it. As if that really changes anything. This may seem like an insane assignment, but I remember the time one of my feminist professors required the class to write a paper on why pornography should be illegal. No matter what you believed, that's what you had to write.

Anyway, Cooperman says the case has fueled accusations by conservative groups that secular university professors despise conservatives, particularly conservative evangelical Christians. Part of that might be true and part of it isn't quite right, Cooperman writes:

Such accusations have been leveled for years at the Ivy League and other elite private universities. But they are gaining new attention from politicians and educators because of the Brooker case, which took place at a public school in the Bible Belt, and because of two recent, nationwide surveys of professors' views on religion.

The first, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that college professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country's 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic, Gross and Simmons found.

The other survey, by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, confirmed those findings but also found what the institute's director and chief pollster, Gary A. Tobin, called an "explosive" statistic: 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have "unfavorable" feelings toward evangelical Christians.

A graph accompanying the story drove the point home. By comparison, only three percent of faculty members had unfavorable feelings toward Jews. What's funny is that the latter survey was designed to gauge anti-Semitism.

The only groups with significantly negative responses were Christians and MuslimsMormons. A full third of faculty had negative views toward Mormons, with 22 percent reporting unfavorable views toward Muslims, 18 percent with negative feelings toward atheists, 13 percent with negative feelings toward Roman Caholics, 10 percent with negative feelings toward the non-religious, nine percent with negative feelings toward non-evangelical Christians and four percent reporting negative views toward Buddhists.

One of the things I liked about Cooperman's story was how he gave the various sides a chance to respond. I wanted the conversation to keep going. He speaks with Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, who says that the poll reflects political and cultural resistance, not religious bias:

Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians probably have two causes: "the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals."

William B. Harvey, vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, said that even if the survey has correctly identified a "latent sentiment" among professors, "I don't know that it is fair to make the leap . . . that this is manifested in some bias in the classroom." . . .

Tobin, the pollster, acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel. But he said the levels of disapproval are high enough to raise questions about how evangelical Christians are treated.

"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. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, 'The reason they feel this way is because they don't like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.' That would be unthinkable," Tobin said.

I'll be curious to see if there is any more discussion of these surveys. Cooperman rounds out the article by looking at a legislative initiative in Missouri to address religious bias. A recent New York Times article suggests that legislation may not be necessary. Alan Finder looked at another survey that may show an increased interest in religion among students:

More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.

A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Finder notes the lack of historical data on the religiosity of students, but it's still an interesting look at religious life on campus. Both stories together show the potential disconnect between students and their faculty -- this is an area that may merit further coverage.

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