One more on Christians (of all kinds) in the academy.  From Timothy Larsen, professor at Wheaton College, on the anti-Christian bias among the academy:

A persecution complex is not a healthy thing. A mantra among Christian academics is that if your work is rejected, assume it was because it is not good enough. Like others experiencing discrimination, we expect that we might need to do significantly better than the competition to have a chance and think that we should primarily just get on with trying to do exactly that. We are apt to apply to ourselves the Canadian politician Charlotte Whitton’s observation about gender discrimination: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

So, although we hear these stories frequently, Christian academics are the first ones to respond to them with suspicion. Maybe John got a bad grade because his work was not very good. Maybe my proposal was written in an irritating tone that baited some members of the committee to respond that way.

Nevertheless, scholars ought to be concerned that Christians often report that the academy is a hostile environment. Are academics generally glad that such a perception exists? If not, how might it be dispelled? If it is based on genuine experiences, what can be done about a climate that tolerates religious discrimination? If the two stories presented here are merely assailable, anecdotal evidence, then why not gather information on this issue more systematically? Do academic institutions ever try to discover if their Christian students or scholars experience discrimination?

I am hereby calling for such an effort. This could be done through surveys, or focus group discussions, or even just by inviting people to tell their experiences and following up on them, seeing if certain patterns emerge. If these are not the best methods, just think of what you would do in response to reports that a university or academic society was marked by institutional racism or sexism and then apply those same strategies of listening, investigation, and response. Like John with the department chair, however, I too am tempted to be defeatist about the academy being willing even to investigate the possibility of discrimination against Christians, let alone attempt to eradicate it.

These are precisely the sort of stories that evangelicals love to tell.  Anything that reminds us of our beleaguered status in the world?  Yes, please.  And more of it.

Of course, there’s a tacit craving in these sorts of anxieties that the work isn’t legitimate unless it’s received the stamp of approval from the appropriate authorities.  While I understand that people have to eat, and that professional careers are on the line, there are (I suspect) many other publishers besides Yale that would take a book like Dr. Larsen’s.  Let the work stand on its own merits, or lack thereof.

I don’t want to minimize the problem.  I have a number of friends facing precisely these sorts of institutional and professional challenges.  As someone looking to eventually reenter the hollowed halls of the academic world, I worry some about what my publishing record will do for me.

It might be my belligerent anabaptist streak coming out, but if the institutions won’t have you, set up better one’s.  That’s what the Catholics have attempted, and it seems to be going just fine.

But whatever we do, let’s just quit moaning about the anti-Christian bias.  I suspect it’s simply not helping.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Matt: You may sense that I’m on a mission to get under your skin because, as of late, we’ve agreed to disagree on some issues. I assure you that no such mission exists. I just call ’em as I see ’em. Here again, we seem to view the anti-Christian bias in the academy differently. I welcome Professor Larson’s call to systematically gather information to discover if “Christian students or scholars experience discrimination.” A commitment to justice should drive the research, not belly achin’ victimization. As much as you “don’t want to minimize the problem,” I think you’re vulnerable to trivializing the the real––not just perceived––concerns of Christian students and scholars by calling them “anxieties,” as if there’s not substance behind the cries of institutional discrimination. Can the “persecution complex” develop an exaggerated and manipulative life of its own? Yes. That said, we should raise awareness of the Christian disadvantage in the academy.


  2. “I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.”

    See, that’s why I like you, Christopher. You just see ’em all wrong. : )

    Notice, though, that I didn’t suggest the worries were based on misperceptions. Rather, I said that we ought not be worried about the anti-Christian bias. Let’s just go about our business.

    Studying the problem is a very “academic” thing to do. Will it change anything? No–but I suspect attending more academic conferences, giving more papers, etc. might. At some point, if you’re good enough they’ll have to pay attention, which in academia is the measure of success.



    1. Matt: When Timothy Larsen brings attention to the issue of Christian discrimination in the academy, we should listen up because he’s a distinguished scholar with books published by Baylor UP, Oxford UP, and Cambridge UP. In short, he’s not a belly achin’ lightweight who is moaning needlessly about the anti-Christian bias. His call for systematically gathering information on the issue of Christian and conservative disadvantage in the academy is now available thanks to the following book that will be released in January 2011:

      Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education
      by George Yancey

      Conservative and liberal commentators alike have long argued that social bias exists in American higher education. Yet those arguments have largely lacked much supporting evidence. In this first systematic attempt to substantiate social bias in higher education, George Yancey embarks on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the social biases and attitudes of faculties in American universities—surveying professors in disciplines from political science to experimental biology and then examining the blogs of 42 sociology professors. In so doing, Yancey finds that politically—and, even more so, religiously—conservative academics are at a distinct disadvantage in our institutions of learning, threatening the free exchange of ideas to which our institutions aspire and leaving many scientific inquiries unexplored.

      “Yancey issues a clarion call to those of us in higher education that we must do a better job practicing the political tolerance that we so vigorously preach.”

      −Marie A. Eisenstein, author of Religion and the Politics of Tolerance: How Christianity Builds Democracy

      “Groundbreaking. This research brilliantly unmasks the subtle social, philosophical, and ideological forces behind the exclusion of conservatives and their viewpoints from the academic enterprise.”

      —Louis Bolce, Associate Professor of Political Science at Baruch College, City University of New York

      George Yancey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Texas. His most recent books include Interracial Families: Current Concepts and Controversies and Interracial Contact and Social Change. He lives in Argyle, Texas.


  3. “When Timothy Larsen brings attention to the issue of Christian discrimination in the academy, we should listen up because he’s a distinguished scholar with books published by Baylor UP, Oxford UP, and Cambridge UP.”

    Christopher, I’d point out that nowhere did I question his credentials. They have nothing to do with anything for me. And your characterization of my language is a bit hyperbolic. I didn’t call anyone a “lightweight,” nor would I.

    I’d also point out that I have my own worries about all of this (notice, I wrote that in the original post).

    That’s because I realize there is a bias. All I’m doing is questioning whether it’s actually helpful for conservative Christians to continue to remind everyone about it. The complaint may be completely legitimate–but it doesn’t get made in a vacuum. It has an effect on both secular scholars and conservative Christians looking to go into the academy. And given the proliferation of such stories and pieces, I don’t see how adding one more (even from a well-qualified, distinguished scholar) helps much of anything.

    I mean, isn’t this precisely the sort of essay that JDH critiques in To Change the World?




    1. Matt: You’re being unnecessarily defensive. I know you didn’t question Larsen’s credentials or call him a “lightweight.” I simply wanted the Mere O reader to know that Larsen has distinguished himself as a scholar. He’s not “moaning” (your word, not mine) from the low end of the totem pole in the academy. I think it’s helpful for conservative Christians to remind others about the anti-Christian bias in the academy because injustice should motivate action, whether it’s injustice toward our own tribe or toward others.


  4. “You’re being unnecessarily defensive.”

    Maybe. But you didn’t address those comments to the elusive “Mere-O reader.” They were addressed to me. I only read them as such.

    “I think it’s helpful for conservative Christians to remind others about the anti-Christian bias in the academy because injustice should get our attention, whether it’s injustice toward our own tribe or toward others.”

    Again, I’m really curious to know (given your ardent praise for JDH’s book) what you make of this in light of his analysis of these sorts of pieces.




  5. Also, I should point out that I have had a great deal of fun sparring with you the last few days. I’m sure we’ll find many points of agreement long into the future, but when we do, I will kind of miss the tussle. : )



    1. Matt: I’ve also had “a great deal of fun sparring with you the last few days,” although it’s much easier to agree with someone than disagree, eh? Call me a worrywart, but sparring can produce an anxiety in me about whether the friendship is being strained rather than strengthened, especially when the sparring is conducted long-distance. I much prefer face-to-face dialogue.

      You wrote: “I’m really curious to know (given your ardent praise for JDH’s book) what you make of this in light of his analysis of these sorts of pieces.”

      Christian disadvantage in the academy only reinforces JDH’s sociological point:

      Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production. Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from its various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.


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