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conservative religion on campus

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Fredrick deBoer has a piece up on the defunding of higher education he expects given leftist controversies on campus.  It’s worth reading:

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

There are empirical arguments to be made about this, of course.  Arguments that people like Amy Binder and other do a good job of making.  Yet it’s not crazy to argue that colleges tend to be left-leaning places.  This is often discussed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality but I’ve seen it most in reference to religion. While all of these obviously intersect, it’s worthwhile to pull them apart a bit too. (BTW, it’s kind of funny to me how for some on the right and on the liberal left, the word intersectionality has gained almost a mystical power, which, as I teach Black Feminist Thought in my contemporary theory course, I can assure you is not true at least as far as answers on the final indicate.)

Nobody should deny (even if some do) that conservative Christians still have it pretty good in lots of parts of the country, even more so under the current administration.  Nonetheless, it can be a hard slog to be a conservative Christian on many campuses: there are sexual choices that seem inappropriate to you, classmates and faculty with a blanket suspicion of anything religious, a sense that any restraint you might suggest must be couched or camouflaged in secular language (to fast for Jesus is weird; to fast for swimsuits is fine).  If you are offended by someone’s representation of your sacred icons, you are told to take a joke, or learn to mock yourself, or reminded of the Crusades.  If you feel marginalized, you are told that your doctrines marginalize others.  That might well be true in regards to certain issues related to sexuality (though Christians are a diverse group), but it isn’t necessarily true.  But I’ll get more to this later.

I study Muslims and Evangelicals, and I sometimes joke that I can tell if you’re from a red state or a blue state based on which you’re more afraid of.  Make no mistake: it is harder to be a Muslim in this country than it is to be a conservative Christian, and by virtually any measure.  Much of the conservative Christian angst lately is an increasing recognition that it’s less and less easy (even if still very possible) to take for granted that America is a Christian nation.  It is perhaps because of this, and because of a general leftist commitment to the underdog, that my leftist friends seem more sympathetic to not saying anything disrespectful to Islam, to not mocking Muslim figures or Muslim worship. To be clear, yet again: this is often the reverse in much of the media, and the nation. Islamophobia is alive and well.

Yet I get a lot of feedback from just about everybody when I teach my courses on American Evangelicals and the sociology of religion.  I’m by no means an apologist in either of these classes.  One of my ongoing critiques is that American conservative Christians are too ahistorical and are simply unable to recognize structural critiques. In Smith and Emerson’s words (76),

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).

That argument strikes me as pretty close to a social fact, but I think all of us are reflective enough to know that the way we present facts in class reflects any number of ongoing normative concerns, many of which are related to the kinds of ideas we’d like our students to have and even the kinds of people (scholars? thinkers? citizens?) we’d like them to become.  My students sense within me a desire for them to engage honestly with religion, but they don’t sense a desire to dismiss religion, even conservative religion (at least that is what I’ve heard from some, and I hope it’s true for others).  They can tell pretty easily I’m not a conservative, but my conservative students can tell I take their arguments seriously.

Of course, some of the reason conservatives might not like college might be exactly what Smith and Emerson describe here: talking about structural causes is pretty common on college campuses, and it challenges not just conservatives’ politics, but also their positions in the world.  But I’m too much of a cultural sociologist to think that’s all the story.  Identity is a big piece of this story.  And part of that identity–maybe even most of it–is an old American story about patriarchy and white privilege.  But religion is a piece too. And believe it or not, it’s not just white men who hold to conservative religion, or conservative Christianity.

Look: we secularists still have a long way to go until an atheist (or a Muslim, or even a Jew) becomes president. Nonetheless, there are certain pockets of our country in which a certain kind of secularism has already done quite well, and most universities are within those pockets.  Now there are many kinds of secularism, and some simply separate religion from everything else.  But some are actively hostile to religion, suggesting an alternate metaphysics, an alternate teleology, an alternate explanation of who we are and why we’re here and by what means we can call a life good. That secularism exists on campus. Though the more common version simply never bring up religion at all, and an identity marker (in an age increasingly aware of identity) is simply not acknowledged, or if acknowledged, is brought up only to show the evils it has wrought.

Which isn’t to deny it’s wrought quite a few evils, and that conservative religion continues to cause suffering in particular lives, especially LGBT lives, but also the lives of women who want an abortion, or to use birth-control, or simply to have a one-night stand. So what to do about conservative religion on campus?

Here’s the thing. I think a certain kind of banker is a bad person. And I don’t mind saying that. And I don’t mind if the banker feels uncomfortable, even judged.  I actually want exactly that reaction.  That’s okay for most of my friends because I’m kicking up, as the saying goes. But it’s worth thinking about how moral critique can work on a college campus: are we only limited to criticizing powerful people who do egregiously evil things?  Making laws is one thing, of course, but what about expressing opinions?  These are hard questions.  I think Judith Butler is right that expressions of beliefs are never neutral: they’re performative.  They help to constitute the world. Saying that, say, gay marriage is wrong, even if it’s just an 18-year-old saying it in a late-night residence-hall bullshit session, has real effects on the world, even if they’re much smaller effects than anything a future President Pence might try to do.  So we shouldn’t be naive about speech being purely descriptive. Habermas probably is too naive.

But the data to which deBoer links indicates policing speech this way might ultimately harm more than it helps. There’s a recent move within political theory against a certain kind of communitarianism that wants everyone to feel like an included part of the group.  On one hand, that seems like an obvious thing we would all want: shouldn’t we all want to be included and to include?  Yet scholars like Jacob T. Levy and Teresa Bejan point out how an emphasis on inclusion and civility can stifle dissent and the vital disagreements that move democracy forward.  Now I’m not really a free speech purist, and, actually, nobody is (everyone agrees that certain speech really is destructive: it’s just for some that line is pretty far out there, near continuous strings of curses and racial slurs).

Yet just talking about who we let speak on campus, I think, misses the much broader point of the kind of culture we create on campus.  Do conservative students, especially conservative religious studies, feel like their point of view is respected?  If we disagree with them, do we do so with respect for their identity in a way we would for other kinds of identity categories? When people say something that merits correction (a homophobic comment; an inability to recognize structural causes of poverty), do we correct in a way that invites the student into dialogue?

There’s a lot more to say about this: about the nature of empirical data and the way academics can confuse our data for our identity; about the way in which the underlying moral imaginaries of a secular life are really no more falsifiable than those of a religious life.  But I suppose, in light of the data described above, I’d suggest one way to start thinking about how conservatives think about college is to start thinking about how colleges think about religion.

Written by jeffguhin

July 11, 2017 at 9:26 pm