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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Interview: What Motivates Christian Right Opponents?

  • (Photo: George Yancey)
    George Yancey, professor of sociology, University of North Texas
September 29, 2012|10:41 am

Among the books written about the culture war, many have sought to explain the motivations of one side, the Christian Right, but few have studied, exclusively and in depth, the other side, the cultural progressives. George Yancey, professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, and David A. Williamson, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, have sought to fill that gap with their new book, What Motivates Cultural Progressives? Understanding Opposition to the Political and Christian Right.

The research is based upon surveys sent to members of progressive political advocacy organizations – in other words, activists on the liberal side of the culture war. Yancey and Williamson developed a typology of cultural progressives based upon what they found in the surveys. They label the subgroups "political activist," "sexual progressive," "feminist," "religion is poison," "religion has been corrupted," "Christianity as unevolved," and "Christianity as political oppressors."

In a Thursday interview with The Christian Post, Yancey answered questions about debates on homosexuality, the Christian left and the recent controversy over including the word "God" in the Democratic Party platform.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

CP: What was your main purpose for writing this book?

Yancey: While there is a lot of stuff out there on the culture war and conservatives, there is hardly anything out there on the culture war and progressives. So, to really understand some of the cultural issues and the concepts about them in our society, we need to understand both sides of the issues, we need to understand both of the groups that are fighting. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only book that focuses just on progressives from an academic perspective.

CP: When looking at the demographics of cultural progressives, what do you think readers will find most surprising?

Yancey: That they are a very well connected group of people. They are quite wealthy, quite educated, white, male, and a little bit older than normal. Now, our survey is not a random sample, but some of those findings are so out of its normal range, I have to believe it's true in the general population. I'm pretty certain that cultural progressives tend to be more white, male, educated and wealthier than other individuals in our society. They're very well connected, even if their numbers may or may not be as large as cultural conservatives.

CP: In your typology, you describe seven different categories, and those categories address three main concerns: political concerns, antipathy to Christianity, and concerns about the influence of religion in general. This book was written before the Democratic convention when there was a controversy over the inclusion of the word "God" in the Democratic platform. How do you think those who hold those concerns responded to that controversy?

Yancey: My suspicion is that some of them were disappointed that "God" was put back in, but not all of them. There were some that, even in their responses would say, "I believe, but I don't like what Christian conservatives are doing with my religion" – they probably wouldn't have a problem with it. Those who have problems with religion in general and those who have problems with Christianity in particular, my guess is, that they were disappointed that "God" was placed back into the Democratic platform. I'm certain that many of them were. A lot of them complained about our money having "in God we trust" on it. So, I can't imagine that they would be pleased about a Democratic platform that contained the word "God."

CP: There are some on the religous left who criticize the Christian Right on theological grounds, arguing that a Christian should support more liberal policies. Did your sample include any who hold those views?

Yancey: It did. Although, my suspicion is there's not a lot of those types in the sample. In fact, I believe less than 10 percent identified as Christian. So, they were there and some were upset because they saw Christianity being represented by conservatives.

CP: One of the more interesting questions you asked was whether they would prefer to live next to a non-religious Republican or an apolitical Christian. What was that question able to reveal?

Yancey: In part, we wanted to look at what bothered them most about the Christian Right from a very viceral reaction, not intellectually, but viscerally. Was it that the Christian Right is politically conservative or that it is religious? If I remember correctly, it was about half and half, maybe a little bit more against the religious aspect.

CP: In some of your open-ended responses, some respondents volunteered that they were homosexual and described some fears they have about Christian conservatives. How would you characterize the main concerns about the Christian Right with regards to homosexuality?

Yancey: A lot of them brought up homophobia. We didn't ask about it, but they brought it up on their own. Some of them brought up fears of a theocracy in our society. So, you put those two together, the fear of cultural progressives is that the Christian Right will take over our society and outlaw homosexuality and turn us back to the Dark Ages. And, this is by their own words.

CP: Besides the political agenda, did they voice concerns about how homosexuals are treated by Christian conservatives in society?

Yancey: Yes, some of them talked about homosexuals being mistreated by Christian conservatives in a personal basis and some of them did not like Christian conservatives for that reason. But, it seems to me that the bigger concern they had was what going to happen politically. Some of them talked about a "Christian Taliban" that that would be put in place, and part of that would be a restriction of people's sexuality.

CP: You found that many cultural progressives, particularly some subgroups, do not have much interaction with Christian conservatives, and in some cases will avoid interaction. Is that a problem, do you think, for a Democratic society?

Yancey: I do. I've done research on racial issues and contact, and how contacting can help reduce stereotyping and some of the animosity we have with one another. Although it's not a panacea, it definitely helps.

So, you put that in a political context, you wonder if people do have contact with people of faith as a group politically, and have contact to a sufficient degree that it forces them to humanize them. My suspicion is, for some, Christians are not humanized, in part, because they don't hang around them very much. They don't spend a lot of time with them. So, I do think it is a problem. And, you could talk about it the other way around – conservatives having contact with progressives – but that's not the data I have.

CP: You say that cultural progressives see themselves as rational, and those who do not agree with them are seen as irrational. But, can cultural progressives really be unbiased in the way that they think they are?

Yancey: As a scholar, I would say no. In fact, part of my argument is that this is a social movement like any other social movement. And, like other social movements, it leads to certain needs of the people in the movement who happen to have a good deal of social power. No social movement is totally unbiased. They create identity, they meet the needs of the people they serve, and that's happening here. I don't think they are any worse than other social movements, but I don't see any evidence that they are any better.

And thus, their rationality, even though this is important to them, they can act in irrational ways as long as it justified the movement. An example I use in the book is, although they talk about how racist the Christian Right is because there are so many whites in that group, ironically, if I remember correct, about 95 percent of our respondents were white. So, I suspect cultural progressives are as white or even whiter than the Christian Right.

CP: As you were doing this research, did you find yourself empathizing with cultural progressives at any point?

Yancey: Sometimes I was and sometimes I thought what they said was born out of fear and irrationality and was downright hateful. I understand some of their concerns and they're acting out of some of the fears that they have developed.

CP: Anything else you would like to add?

Yancey: I think it's appropriate to look at this group, especially in an election year like now, and hopefully gain a greater understanding of some of the conflict in our society. And then find ways we can bridge some of this conflict and build some understanding between the two different groups, and other groups as well.

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