Monday, March 23, 2015

So Many Christians, So Few Lions: So Who’s Hostile?

About 12 years ago, I was hired by St. Louis Public Schools to be the director of communications. The district was in the throes of tsunami-like change, daily controversies, and protests. An outside management firm had been hired to do what no district administration could politically do on its own – downsize the district, close schools, outsource contracts, and lay a lot of people off.  

The year before this started, the communications department had 12 employees and a $1 million+ budget. When I was hired, it had one-and-a-half people (I was the “one” of the one-and-a-half) and a $20,000 budget, which had already been spent.  

What went on in my hiring process was a story by itself. I was told what went on sometime after I was hired. 

I was one of 10 candidates interviewed, the only male and the only one with corporate PR experience. I knew that, because all of the candidates were told to show up at the same time on the same day, and we sat together in a conference room until we were called out one by one. I was the last one to be interviewed. 

If that wasn’t unusual enough, it turned out that people outside the district had checked all of us out ahead of time, learning things that might have been illegal for the district to do. 

Like find out what religion we were, and what churches we attended. 

That I was a member of an evangelical Christian church turned out to be a point in my favor. The reason was that it was believed that an evangelical Christian would likely find it easier to talk with and work a school district whose administration and student body was majority African-American. Because religion and faith were very important to many of the teachers, staff and parents, someone thought that I would have an easier communications job. 

Set aside, for a moment, all the things that were wrong with that, and all of the biases and prejudices built into that assumption, not to mention the ice-cold calculation that went into it. As it turned out, the people making that assumption were largely correct.

I didn’t know any of this going into the job. I did the job the only way I knew how to do it, but something about me and what I did must have communicated, or telegraphed, something to the people I worked with. I was almost everything that employees in the district weren’t – I was white, male, and suburban, with experience working for two Fortune 500 companies. And yet we learned we had considerable common ground. 

This came to mind as I was reading So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States by George Yancey and David Williamson. The authors take a fairly in-depth look at the hostility directed toward conservative Christians, where this hostility seems to come from, and who exhibits it.  

One group that doesn’t exhibit Christianophobia is African-Americans. And it is likely because of the importance of faith and the historical role of churches in African-American communities. In fact, the authors say, the more religious faith (and related activities like church attendance) is important to you, the less likely are you to feel hostile toward conservative Christians.  

So who is who does exhibit this hostility?  

Surprisingly, this isn’t a red state / blue state thing, or a coastal-versus-flyover-country thing. This hostility is found in all regions of the United States, and the South (the Bible Belt!) is not much different that the rest of the country. 

Based on various surveys and research studies, the authors found that the people who tend to have and exhibit hostility toward conservative Christians are generally higher income, higher educated, and in positions of social influence. When they looked at what groups tended to find this pattern, they learned that at least one group was very similar in the demographics and degree of hostility – the people the authors called “cultural progressives.” 

The roots of their hostility were, or I should say are, in fears of a “takeover” by Christians, probably meaning a political takeover; the belief that Christians are “crazy” and intolerant, not to mention homophobic; a perception that the Christian Right is well organized and poised to move into government, forcing its way of life on everyone; and other factors.  

Interestingly enough, the hostility was less when those surveyed said they actually knew conservative Christians, even among the people who might be inclined to be hostile. Much like that work colleague I mentioned when I introduced this discussion. She said she was frightened by “those Christians,” but her head nearly exploded when she found out I was one of them. 

There’s a word for this behavior – objectifying. It means turn a person or a group into an object. It’s a form of stereotyping. It’s similar to me saying “all newspaper editorial writers are boneheads,” which I might conclude from reading what they write. But If I know an editorial writer, if one is a friend or neighbor, I’m less inclined to characterize them all as boneheads.  

Objectifying is not a good thing. At best, it prevents real communication. At its worst, well, consider people who’ve experienced it in its more extreme forms – the Jews in Nazi Europe, the Christians in ISIS-occupied lands, the untouchable class in India, African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, the native peoples of America and Australia. Turning people – any people – into objects is a despicable, destructive practice.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

1 comment:

SimplyDarlene said...

From your previous writings, including your "Poetry At Work" book, I'm familiar with this job, but not the story behind the hiring. Amazing. And as you point out in this piece, despite surface differences, there's so much common ground between groups and divisions and classes and ranks, etc. A slowing down, leaning into, and appreciation of one another goes a long way to un-objectify...