Tracking the Anti-Christian Fundamentalist Phenomenon

In the first of two parts, two political science professors examine how otherwise sophisticated observers find it OK to disparage Christian fundamentalists, a prejudice, the writers assert, of the thinking classes.
Publish date:
Social count:
In the first of two parts, two political science professors examine how otherwise sophisticated observers find it OK to disparage Christian fundamentalists, a prejudice, the writers assert, of the thinking classes.

Read part two here


When we first began investigating the anti-Christian fundamentalist phenomenon in contemporary America, it quickly became apparent that there was probably more to the pattern of hostility expressed toward this group than we initially thought. We knew some segments of the public did not think highly of Christian conservatives. After all, we both teach at a university in New York City; read the opinion pages of The New York Times; subscribe to several highbrow periodicals; listen regularly to National Public Radio; catch political news shows on network, cable and public television; are conversant with social science literature on prejudice, intolerance and the antidemocratic personality; and have seen Inherit the Wind and Elmer Gantry, and one of us, on occasion, has even tuned in to "NOW" with Bill Moyers.

Anyone with a college degree or a little exposure to American social science or popular culture would have little difficulty figuring out that many college professors and other assorted illuminati are not all that favorably disposed toward Christian conservatives, particularly if these folks are also conflated in the cosmopolitan mind with rural America. At the very least, one would have picked up the idea that elites have notions that Christian fundamentalists are "rustic ignoramuses," "a menace to Western civilization," "obstacles to science and progress," "merchants of hate," "jihadists" and, according to some, "highjacking the nation's public policy" with the aim "to Christianize America."

What surprised us was discovering that many non-elites also harbor prejudices toward Christian fundamentalists and use this antagonism to orient their political behavior.

Most representations of groups in elite discourse consist willy-nilly of little more than stereotypes, positive and negative, that are packaged into self-contained bundles and embedded in cultural frames of references to provide news consumers context and meaning. Some stereotypes -- "the good ole boy," "welfare queen," "soccer mom," "NASCAR dad," "the Biblethumper," for example -- have become personified as archetypes in American culture.

As John Zaller observes, "the information that reaches the public is never the full record of important events and developments in the world. It is, rather, a highly selective and stereotyped view of what has taken place."

Fundamentalists have carried a lot of cultural baggage since the Scopes "Monkey" trial, some transfiguring into archetypal proportions, but until the Clinton era, having a political identity was not one of them.

Since the first Clinton election, antagonism toward Christian fundamentalists has become a fairly reliable predictor of candidate preference, party evaluations and attitudes toward such myriad policy issues as the separation of church and state. Clearly, significant segments of the populace believe that they have learned enough about fundamentalist Christians to pronounce severely negative verdicts against them and to use this information to draw conclusions about other objects in the political environment.

At present, roughly 18 percent of white nonfundamentalists hold intensely antagonistic feelings toward Christian fundamentalists. This figure has held steady since American National Election Studies (ANES) first included a thermometer item toward this group in its survey. The percentage of antifundamentalists is 15 times larger than the proportion of whites who admitted feeling this antagonistic toward blacks in ANES's 2004 survey.

Their 16-degree mean rating of Christian fundamentalists was 20 degrees colder than average scores that whites gave to illegal immigrants throughout the 1990s.

According to data contained in the 1997 ANES Pilot Study, a survey designed to investigate the impact of threat on prejudices toward Christian fundamentalists, nearly three of 10 white nonevangelicals characterized Christian fundamentalists as having the group trait "intolerant." Four of 10 indicated that fundamentalists were a threat to civic peace. More than one-third held the view that fundamentalists have extremely inegalitarian attitudes regarding women's role in society.

Because people do not intuitively know that Christian fundamentalists are "intolerant," oppose women's equality and are a menace to public civility, respondents holding these views have formed impressions of fundamentalists based either on personal contacts with group members and/or from information in news stories and other media.

Although some individuals might have formed negative impressions as a result of powerfully threatening (or annoying) face-to-face confrontations with pro-lifers at demonstrations outside abortion clinics or when subjected to aggressive proselytizing from individuals also thought to be "acting like fundamentalists," it is highly unlikely that the general cultural phenomenon of antifundamentalism and its concentration in distinct segments of the public (e.g., Jews, secularists, moral relativists, college professors) are the result of multiple individual experiences with actual fundamentalists. Studies on religious activists indicate, for example, that the animus felt by religious liberals toward religious traditionalists is generated less from confrontations with conservatives than from cues picked up from newspapers and other media.

Fortuitously, there is an emerging research on media coverage of fundamentalists using different search methodologies and guided by different theoretical interests that sheds light on what news consumers could have learned about this group during this era of increased religious polarization.

These studies spanned the years that included the televangelist scandals, Pat Robertson's failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination, the disbanding of the Moral Majority, the rise and decline of the Christian Coalition and the religiously polarized elections of the Clinton years and Bush era.

The University of Washington's Peter Kerr and Patricia Moy, based on analyses of random samples of national television and newspaper articles with regional controls for the years 1980-2000, found that "intolerance," "violence-proneness," "racism" and "cultural imperialism" turned up as among the most frequent and dominant frames of Christian fundamentalists.

Our own analysis of coverage of opposing camps in the new religious divide by The New York Times and The Washington Post for years 1987-2004 (and the Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the years 1990-2000) found that despite the mountain of evidence and numerous studies by social scientists documenting the alignment of seculars with the Democratic Party and traditionalists with the Republican Party since the first Clinton election, content analyses of these newspapers indicate that until the 2004 election cycle, the establishment press focused almost exclusively on the political mobilization of religious conservatives and the threat that politicized fundamentalism poses to democratic pluralism.

Moreover, although seminal studies on protagonists in the opposing camps of the culture wars point out that elites and activists on both sides of the religious divide are equally militant in their zeal to impose moral truth claims on the American public and equally culpable in expressing intolerance toward one another, mainstream media since the 1980s framed the bulk of their reporting thematically around the "militancy" and "intolerance" displayed by activists associated with the traditionalist or "religious right" side of this conflict.

This news consensus was evident in the conflation of evangelicals and fundamentalists with spokespersons of organizations labeled "religious" or "Christian right" and by repeated attributions to evangelicals and fundamentalists in news stories as having the group traits of being intolerant, extremist, violence prone and holding antediluvian views about women's role in society.

We are unaware of any systematic analyses of news coverage of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians demonstrating that the establishment press conveyed generally neutral or positive images of these groups during this time span.

The Role of Political Sophistication
If an individual did not personally know Christian fundamentalists but instead was dependent on news accounts and other cultural media to discover what type of people they are, we have a pretty good idea what news consumers were told about fundamentalists during this period under study, but what difference would this information make in how nonfundamentalists judged members of this group?

On one hand, because the politically attentive are likelier to possess large stores of political information and be better equipped to critically evaluate the political messages they encounter, they should be more inclined than others to know that the views expressed by spokespersons for groups (e.g., Al Sharpton, National Council of Churches, Abe Foxman and Pat Robertson) do not always represent rank-and-file viewpoints. Therefore, they would be less apt to mentally conflate the political style and policy concerns of blacks, mainline Protestants, Jews and conservative Protestants with the occasional wacky, paranoid or intemperate pronouncements of "leaders" claiming to speak on these groups' behalf. Sophisticates, moreover, could be expected to be more sensitive to labeling whole groups (e.g., fundamentalists) from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them, much the same way as sophisticates are less apt to internalize anti-black stereotypes (or admit to holding them) despite their prevalence in mass media.

On the other hand, because sophisticates would more likely have filed in memory a repository of Menckenesque-type images of fundamentalists rooted in popular lore readily accessible to contextualize (and reinforce) the incoming negative information stream described above, and are more sensitive to elite attitudes concerning Christian right intolerance and its threat to the norms of democratic civility, we could expect that they would be more receptive to antifundamentalist messages conveyed in popular media and therefore more likely to harbor antagonistic sentiments.

ANES 1988-2004 survey data show that the latter expectation is more consistent with the facts.

Glaringly apparent is how differently the public, particularly the sophisticated portion of it, evaluates three historically significant religious groups - Christian fundamentalists, Catholics and Jews. Politically attentive respondents evaluated fundamentalists negatively every year ANES tested public opinion toward this group (on average they felt 11 degrees to 15 degrees colder than they felt to all other social groups common in these survey years). Furthermore, the thermometer scores of the political attentives were always significantly more negative than the average ratings of fundamentalists by less attentive respondents (by 6 to 9 degrees).

Jews and Catholics, on the other hand, were always rated significantly above the average group score for each year that ANES tested feelings toward them.

As illuminating as the mean relative thermometer evaluations are, they mask the depth of hostility expressed toward Christian fundamentalists by a significant segment of politically sophisticated (or attentive) nonfundamentalists. Throughout this time span, up to one-third of attentive nonfundamentalists could be classified as an antifundamentalist. In 2004, for example, roughly one-third of the politically sophisticated expressed this amount of antipathy toward Christian fundamentalists; 11 percent of them gave this religious group the lowest score permitted, 0 degrees. Attentive nonfundamentalists were more than twice as likely as their less sophisticated counterparts to fit our antifundamentalist criteria. None of the politically sophisticated gave Catholics and Jews a 0-degree score, and only a handful, based on the pattern of their absolute and relative thermometer scores, could be labeled anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic (3.5 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively).

Based on our analysis of 1997 ANES Pilot Study data, political sophistication emerges among the most important predictors of this antifundamentalist prejudice, even after adjusting for the effects of the other predictors. By itself, attentiveness accounted for almost a quarter of the explained variation in the prejudice measure. Given the repeated association of fundamentalists with religious right organizations in mainstream news and the negativity that the press displayed toward these political groups, it is not surprising to find substantial conflation. Hostility toward the Christian right was the most important factor stimulating antifundamentalist prejudice. The premier culture war issue, abortion, turned up significant, with effects in the expected direction.

Examining the tolerance item in the pilot study had the opposite effect to what we hypothesized — that is, we did not expect that holding the view emphasizing the importance of being tolerant to persons having moral values different from one's own would be significantly related to antifundamentalism.

What this suggests is that because cultural liberals are significantly more likely than traditionalists to stress the importance of tolerating people with value systems different from their own, the prejudice these individuals expressed toward fundamentalists indicates either that they are unaware that this specific case (i.e., that the moral values of Christian fundamentalists are different from their own) and the general principle (i.e., "tolerating moral values different from one's own is very important") belong in the same belief system or that they are unwilling to extend this to at least one prominent group with value orientations different from their own.

It could be argued that because fundamentalists are an important Republican constituency and opposed to the cultural agenda of the Democratic Party's left, it is only natural that given the activism of some "fundamentalist" groups, feelings toward fundamentalists would be conflated with politics. Yet, it is not always true that a core constituency of a party, even a group with a clear ideological orientation, will be viewed by its ideological opposites as a political adversary and disliked for these reasons.

There is probably no better example of an ideologically distinct religious group on the American cultural left today than Jews. Since the New Deal, Jews have been a dependable vote for the Democratic Party and have a longer history as supporters of liberal and secularist causes and organizations than any other American religious group.

According to 2000 and 2004 Voter News Service exit poll data, Jews supported Gore and Kerry over Bush by a 4-to-1 margin. In the 2004 ANES survey, more than nine of 10 Jews said that they strongly support abortion rights, and 72 percent identified their ideology as liberal, the same percentage who said they supported gay marriage. There is no question that the partisan and policy preferences favored by Jews are in stark opposition to the values and political views endorsed by most religiously committed Christians, particularly conservative, Republican, pro-life, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

Yet, the latter do not view the former as partisan adversaries in the culture wars and evaluate them accordingly, even though Jews see fundamentalists and evangelicals as threats to their political and cultural values (the average thermometer rating that Jews in the 2004 ANES data set gave to fundamentalists, e.g., was 30 degrees, and according to a 2003 Pew Research Center Survey on Religion and Public Life, 42 percent of Jews in this sample indicated that they felt antagonistic toward evangelical Christians). On the other hand, according to 2004 ANES feeling thermometer data, pro-life conservative Republican evangelical and fundamentalist Christians gave Jews a very warm rating of 82 degrees (comparable to how they rated Catholics at 80 degrees and more than 50 degrees warmer than the 30-degree rating they gave liberals and 55 degrees warmer than the 26-degree score for Democrats), hardly evidence of politicized animus toward this religious out-group.

Thus, even during elections contested over values rooted in religion and culture, it is not necessarily true that groups located at polar ends of the ideological and partisan spectrum will view their opposites as threats or judge them as their political enemies. As Thomas Nelson and Donald Kinder pointed out in 1996, "What seems to be a natural mode of political thinking is in fact neither inevitable nor immutable."

Group-centric political evaluations depend on how groups and policy conflicts are framed in elite discourse. Whether the perceptual differences are due to media framing of fundamentalist (and evangelical) Christians as being integral to the culture wars and Jews (as a group) being peripheral to ideological clashes over values and the role of religion in public life is an interesting empirical question worthy of study.

What is not in question is that politicized animus along religious group lines appears to be decidedly directed toward groups associated with the orthodox side of the religious divide, a result entirely consistent with the information flow pattern characterizing the media environment during this time span.

We suppose a reader or two could quibble over whether the negative coverage of Christian fundamentalists during this time span reflected bias against this group. What cannot be denied are the effects of this coverage. Those most attentive to media within this time frame were more likely than others to feel antagonistic toward fundamentalists, to conflate fundamentalists with the religious right, to attribute to fundamentalists the group trait of being intolerant, to hold exaggerated stereotypes of fundamentalists and to be more inclined to ascribe to them the qualities of being extremist, inegalitarian, and as having values outside the broad mainstream of society — that is, more likely to display the sorts of out-group attitudes and animosities that reflect massive media effects, which indicate to a trained eye that anti-Christian fundamentalism has become a very fashionable prejudice of the sophisticated classes.

This article was adopted from a paper, "A Prejudice for the Thinking Classes," that originally appeared in the March 2008 edition of American Politics Research. The second part will more fully address the media's role.