Religious Hostility in Academia: A View from 2005

A story in the New York Times this weekend sent me back through the archives of World Magazine, looking for a 2005 article that played an important role in my journey into academia.

The Times story—headlined “His Reasons for Opposing Trump Were Biblical. Now a Top Christian Editor Is Out”—describes how Marvin Olasky, a former University of Texas journalism professor who also played a role in shaping the early domestic agenda of George W. Bush, seems to have lost control of an evangelical Christian newsmagazine that he has edited for more than a quarter of a century.

The cover stories of the April 30, 2005, issue were profiles of Pope Benedict XVI and Senator Rick Santorum

For complicated reasons, what this story dredged up for me is a memory of a specific pair of interviews that World ran under a single headline, sixteen years ago.

The headline of that article, published on April 30, 2005, was “Uncongeniality Contest.” The subhead was “Two views of elite academia from Harvard Law School.” I remember it vividly from my days as a subscriber. Going back to re-read it now, I find the article substantially as I remember it.

At the time, I was in my junior year of college at an evangelical university, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs to study history. I took the article as an attempt to frighten me. (Not me individually, of course, but people like me.) It was one of countless messages I’d seen over the years warning that American secular institutions of higher education were comprehensively hostile to people like me.

But this time, I looked closely at the evidence provided, and what I saw was patently absurd.

The primary focus of the article was an interview with William J. Stuntz, a highly esteemed legal scholar. Stuntz—who tragically would die of cancer just six years later—would be memorialized by a liberal colleague at Harvard Law as “the greatest law professor of his generation.” He was also an evangelical Christian who made no secret of his faith.

Yet World Magazine’s interviewer, whom the byline implies was the editor Marvin Olasky himself, came to the interview apparently determined to get a story about elite academia’s hostility to Christians like Stuntz.

WORLD: Many Christian professors report that deviations from political correctness bring out a professorial lynch mob. What has been your experience with Christophobia?

Stuntz wasn’t going to play along.

STUNTZ: I can honestly say that I’ve never been the target of any professional nastiness because of my faith. Maybe that means I’m not living a Christian life; I’m not sure. I am sure that there have been times when I’ve been cowardly, times when I’ve avoided identifying with my Redeemer for fear that someone would think I was crazy or dumb. But I think that was cowardice, not rational fear.

As for political correctness, I think that’s a problem in all sectors of our culture—very much including churches. One of the great underrated problems of our time is the tendency to talk only with those who share one’s views. That’s a terrible disease, and it goes on everywhere. I think it goes on less in universities than in most places.

Undeterred, World’s interviewer pressed Stuntz on specific ways academia might be “Christophobic.” It asked him to comment on why “most professors oppose the war in Iraq”—as if opposing the war were somehow a vote against Christianity. Stuntz answered that it might be because “the left is in the grip of Bush-hatred,” an answer I found frankly beneath his dignity as a scholar—especially when “the left,” which included an undergraduate yours-truly for the purposes of Bush’s wars, clearly was correct on that issue. But Stuntz did not imply that anti-war sentiment in academia had anything to do with irreligion.

Then World’s interviewer asked Stuntz to speculate that because professors were paid by the government, “either directly at state universities or through governmental grants and programs,” they had “an economic reason to stay with liberalism”—again implying that liberalism was the same thing as hostility to Christianity.

Here, Stuntz dodged with extraordinary tact.

STUNTZ: It’s an interesting observation. A century ago, academics were probably a good deal more conservative than the general population. Today, we’re much more liberal. I suspect the difference has more to do with changes in elite culture than with incentives. And conservatives should recognize that some of the cultural change has been very good: For example, today, voters in rich suburbs are amazingly willing, even eager, to raise their own taxes. That strikes me as evidence of an admirable unselfishness.

The interview went on like this, with World trying to get Stuntz, for example, to say that professors have “a greater-than-average propensity to be atheists” because of their “intellectual pride,” and Stuntz answering that he thought excessive pride actually puts professors at a professional disadvantage.

By the time it was done, I was deeply embarrassed for World Magazine.

The second interview in the same article, though? It was much worse. It featured the Harvard Law School graduate Andrew Peyton Thomas. As it turns out, Thomas would be disbarred by the state of Arizona in 2012 for official misconduct. But that lay in the future. In the interview, Thomas made the apparent claim that Harvard Law was a hostile place for Christian conservatives because a liberal (and probably Jewish) professor got in trouble for making a derogatory reference to “the blacks” once. (That professor, whom Thomas said has his career “crippled” by the incident, is now a named emeritus professor. We should all have our careers so destroyed.)

This article made a significant impression on me in 2005. But not for the reasons it was supposed to.

Instead, it cemented my realization that my community’s dominant religious persecution narrative about academia was based primarily on political rather than religious disagreement, and moreover, that it was essentially self-sustaining. A highly successful evangelical professor could contradict the narrative, point by point, and still World Magazine would package the interview as a story about academia’s “uncongeniality” to Christians and conservatives (who were, of course, the same thing), just as if he had confirmed every claim. The narrative needed no evidence and recognized no complications.

I thought of this when I read the New York Times story about Olasky’s tenure coming to an end. I thought of it in part, I think, because the fundamental problem that World faces today was already glaring then: It was evidently impossible for World’s writers or editors to imagine any daylight between their religious convictions and the policy goals of the U.S. conservative political movement. And it was equally impossible for them to interpret principled political disagreement as anything except religious hostility. Both of those failures, already firm habits by 2005, account for a lot of the present crisis inside American evangelical intellectual institutions in 2021.

Like William Stuntz, I never faced hostility for my religious convictions or background, even when it made me an outsider in academic circles (which was far less often than I had been primed to expect). Indeed, my time in academia has been spent among people from all sorts of conservative religious backgrounds, including white evangelicals, members of historically Black churches, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Mormons.

This does not mean that religious hostility doesn’t exist anywhere in academia. But overall, academia’s attitudes toward Christianity look very little like the simplistic narratives that still circulate in the United States in communities like the ones that produced me. Those narratives derive far more from competing political orthodoxies than from the realities of life for people of faith in American higher education.