University Apocalypse

Are conservative religious academics forced these days to live “deeply closeted” lives? Have elite universities become so hostile to conservative religious thought that openly acknowledging their religion would be career suicide for academics? In the aftermath of the recent debate over gay rights and religious freedom in Indiana, one elite academic shares his worries in the pages of The American Conservative.

We have to ask: Are things really so dire for conservative academics?

Private?  or Closeted?

Private? or Closeted?

First, though, some context. Readers may remember Jonathan Zimmerman’s (liberal) plea to include more conservatives on campus. And leading schools such as Colorado University have adopted programs to bring conservative thinking to liberal colleges. Both conservatives and non-conservatives agree: Good universities need to recruit actively among a wide diversity of intellectual types.

New voices say it’s not happening.

Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher recently shared his conversation on these issues with an anonymous professor at an elite law school. This professor worried that the “overculture” had reacted with frightening intellectual totalitarianism to the recent Indiana case. At leading colleges, “Prof. Kingsfield” warned, religious conservatives are no longer welcome.

“A college professor who is already tenured is probably safe,” Dreher tells us, summing up “Kingsfield’s” story.

Those who aren’t tenured, are in danger. Those who are believed to be religious, or at least religious in ways the legal overculture believes constitutes bigotry, will likely never be hired. For example, the professor said, he was privy to the debate within a faculty hiring meeting in which the candidacy of a liberal Christian was discussed. Though the candidate appeared in every sense to be quite liberal in her views, the fact that she was an open Christian prompted discussion as to whether or not the university would be hiring a “fundamentalist.”

“Kingsfield” also argues that conservative schools will likely face increasing pressure from accrediting bodies. He cites the recent experience of Gordon College. In that case, a re-articulation of a long-standing school policy against sexual activity among students—including homosexual students—created a firestorm of controversy.

Rod Dreher included as a follow-up several emails from academics claiming to have been discriminated against in higher ed.

Do you buy it?

There are a few caveats we need to keep in mind. First, Professor “Kingsfield” seems to be talking about trends at elite colleges. I’ve been told many times by the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) that their experiences in non-elite colleges have been very different. One correspondent, for instance, told me that his colleagues in a large second-tier state school explicitly taught their students to teach in a conservative religious way.

Also, we need to remember that we’re only talking about one conservative tradition here. Generally, non-religious conservatives have had a very easy time fitting into the culture at elite universities. Folks such as the late Milton Friedman, surely, have not faced any sort of career danger for their conservative ideas.

In my experience, my fellow progressive academic folks really do often combine a shocking ignorance of conservative religious culture with a casual contempt for conservative religious ideas. One of the reasons I started this blog, in fact, was due to the fact that so many of my fellow progressives seemed utterly hostile to and uninformed about American conservatism.

On the other hand, my beloved medium-sized public university seems fairly welcoming to religious conservatives. Perhaps because I talk too much about conservatism and fundamentalism, more than one of my faculty colleagues have shared their religious beliefs and background. They don’t trumpet their beliefs, but they don’t hide them either.

My colleagues keep their beliefs private. That’s not the same thing as keeping them “deeply closeted,” though. Are things really so bad for conservative religious academics?

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5 Comments

  1. Do you buy it?

    No, I don’t. It doesn’t seem to be happening in the recruiting committees, and that is where it would have to happen.

    My colleagues keep their beliefs private.

    Yes, that’s what I see. But they are not afraid to speak out for favored causes.

    I don’t recall any particular outcry against the Illinios RFRA when that was passed a number of years ago. I probably would have argued against it if there had been any campus debates.

    But I think there’s a difference. The Illinois RFRA was seen as a guarantee of some degree of religious freedom, which most faculty see as good. The Indiana RFRA was seen as a very explicit and deliberate snub to LGBT folk. Moreover, the outcome of the “Hobby Lobby” case has cast RFRA laws in a new light.

    Reply
  2. In general, I don’t buy it, but the LGBTQ issue is so divisive and hot right now, it’s a special case. It’s hard to see how it would not be an easy black mark against you in a hiring context if you take any kind of conservative religious view. And why would that be wrong? If you’re working in a public university, you need to understand and be able to comply with civil rights policies that religious institutions have been exempted from in their hiring policies.

    Martin Luther said something profound about faith, reason, secularity, and pluralism when he said “It’s better to be ruled by a smart Turk than a stupid Christian.” The same goes for educators — it’s better to have a smart faculty member you disagree with who teaches well rather than a stupid one whose views you share. You might narrow the range of tolerable views if you are running a school for Chinese Medicine, Jungian Parapsychology, Anti-Reductionist New Mysterianist Platonic Mathematics, or a particular religious tradition, but I think this is the pragmatic calculation most people will make, given the same choice. The uniquely odd situation for many conservative Christian schools is that they are barred from ever hiring the smart Turk — or Jew or Catholic or gay person, etc. When a narrow range of beliefs and sexuality is tied to identity — which is the conservative religious particularist’s claim — it is an inherently separatistic, anti-pluralist identity. That is how they see it, and why shouldn’t you?

    Aren’t you going to be skeptical about a state university faculty candidate who grew up or worked in a conservative religious institution that makes a point of protecting fewer civil rights? We’re talking about K-12 and college cultures that cannot hire (but will immediately fire) an openly LGBTQ faculty member while simultaneously being required to protect students and employees from harassment on the basis of orientation/identity attributes. (To top it off, religious conservatives don’t have any basis in their actual beliefs for discriminating against any LGBTQ person just for their status; the traditional objection is simply to any non-marital sexual activity and even that is/was highly constrained and demoted relative to a life of celibacy.)

    Reply
    • Excellent point. More important, though, what would the mascot be for the College of Anti-Reductionist New Mysterianist Platonic Mathematics? Probably the Bulldogs.

      Reply
      • Ha, yes I would like to see their logo. I am actually partial to anti-reductionists of any kind and am fascinated by how even the most secular forms of anti-reductionism tend to be attacked as crypto-religious and crypto-conservative. This is what connects Noam Chomsky to religious conservatives. (Seriously!) Perhaps they have a common core of Judaic insight that gives them a resistance to hard materialism. I do think that if our discourse ever shifted from rights, freedoms, boundaries, hierarchies of control, and dire threats toward conservation of human life and persons in their irreducible complexity, diversity and dignity we’d have better and more soluble problems.

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