An ACU Story: Liberals, Conservatives, and Narratives of Injury

I had an interesting week last week on my campus. For a variety of reasons, both inside and outside the classroom, I spent a lot of time this past week thinking and talking about how liberals and conservatives are interacting with each other on our campus. Unsurprisingly, these interactions often don't go very well. Which is a shame for a Christian campus.

So what's the problem?

Well, the overt struggle concerns the overall tone and orientation of the academic conversation at ACU. Is it balanced? Or is ACU shading more to the liberal side? Conservatives see ACU as "drifting left." Liberals on campus see any "leftward drift" as a necessary corrective for the conservatism of the faculty, student body, and the constituency we serve (a lot of which is driven by our geographic location: Very red distinct in a very red state). In short, what looks like "bias" to one group is seen as "balance" to the other.

And so the predictable fight ensues. The political and culture wars replicate themselves on our Christian campus.

In thinking about all this during the week I came back to the analysis of James Davison Hunter. Hunter's argument is that political discourse is governed by narratives of injury. Each side, the left and the right, feels injured by the other. And it seems to me that those narratives of injury are also at work on my campus.

Here is the narrative of injury from the liberals. Liberals at ACU live in one of the reddest districts of the reddest states. Their votes in an election will never make a difference. So they feel excluded and marginalized from the political process. More, their liberal views are an anathema, socially speaking. Sticking up for Obama is a social death knell--at school, at church, in your neighborhood. Want to be a social pariah in Abilene? Just say you support the President.

So liberals feel that they have to keep a lid on it 24/7. They have to be careful at both work and at play, scouting out new acquaintances to see if expressing a liberal opinion won't ruin the budding relationship. Living as a liberal in Abilene is, I'm guessing, a lot like living "in the closet" as a gay person. You keep quiet and move in a subterranean world.

But the one place where liberals do feel free is in an academic setting. Academia, perversely so for conservatives, tends toward liberalism. And so, here in Abilene, academia is the only place a liberal can breathe freely.

So when conservatives object to the "liberalness" of the ACU conversation liberals can only experience this as an injury, a real poke in the eye. The feeling goes like this, "We swim everyday in an ocean of conservatism. We keep our mouths shut day in and day out. The one place where we can express any hint of a liberal opinion is in our academic conversations. And you want to take that away as well?! What do you want, everything?"

Conservatives on campus see the situation differently. Their narrative of injury looks like this:

Higher Education has a liberal bias, with the goal of liberalizing American college students. This is why conservatives are wary of American universities and the professorial "elite." More, liberals marginalize and stigmatize conservatives. Conservatives are considered to be redneck and ignorant.

But this should be different on a Christian campus. A Christian campus should be sympathetic to the conservative perspective. But ACU doesn't seem very sympathetic. It appears that liberals are driving the conversation, marginalizing the conservative voice on campus. The feeling goes like this, "I came to teach at a Christian campus, hoping that this would be a place where being conservative, while not enshrined, would be a least given a fair hearing. But that's not what I'm seeing or experiencing. I feel shut out and marginalized."

Those are the narratives of injury on campus. As best as I can make them out. Both groups--liberals and conservatives--feel harmed by the other. Liberals feel injured when conservatives try to regulate the one location where they can express a liberal viewpoint. Conservatives, by contrast, object to being marginalized on, of all places, a Christian campus. Both groups think they are trying to restore balance. Liberals are trying to balance out the dominant conservatism of the surrounding culture. Conservatives are trying to balance out the dominant liberalism of Higher Education.

The sad thing about all this is that ACU is simply replicating the poisonous political dialogue we find in the larger culture. When narratives of injury regulate our conversation we end up with the demonizing rhetoric of "the Left versus the Right."

What is depressing about all this is that Christians are doing this to other Christians. Christians have embraced these narratives of injury, on both our campus and in the wider culture. As James Davison Hunter has written:

Christianity [has] embrace[d] certain key characteristics of contemporary political culture, a culture that privileges injury and grievance, valorizes speech-acts of negation, and legitimizes the will to power...To the extent that collective identity rooted in ressentiment has been cultivated and then nurtured through a message of negation toward "the other," many of the most prominent Christian leaders and organizations in America have fashioned an identity and witness for the church that is, to say the least, antithetical to its highest creates a dense fog through which it is difficult to recognize each other as fellow human beings...
I fear this is happening on my campus.

So what is the way forward? I don't know. But I feel very confident that one of the problems is that we are embracing narratives of injury on my campus. And this creates feelings of distrust and hostility. Emotionally, we just aren't ready to talk to each other. Not constructively.

But we need to find a way forward. If the faculty of our university can't talk to each other what hope is there for our students? And if Christians can't talk to each other what hope is there for the Kingdom?

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21 thoughts on “An ACU Story: Liberals, Conservatives, and Narratives of Injury”

  1. The first thing I wonder about the whole "narrative of injury" thing is whether anybody is actually injured. And I think the answer is "yes". The liberals really do feel isolated from the Abilene community, and the conservatives really do feel isolated in academia. But I suspect that in this scenario at least, most of this injury is not done maliciously. Ideas seek to promote themselves and sideline competing ideas, and the marginalization and hurt feelings are just something that happens to people who believe x in environment y.

    But if people really are being injured, and the injury is really a side-effect of /believing/ something, then what's the alternative?

  2. If Christ is only one of many conflicting ideas then a negative stance is to be expected. But if the anointing is good and those in Christ have this Spirit, then there is no need in them for the reward of being seen to be 'in' or 'right' for Christ Jesus is not first an idea but the life of the anointing Spirit. Another blog discussion this morning prompted this thought- why does Paul leave out "and God will reward you" when quoting proverbs 25 in Romans? I thought, because those he is addressing (who may also have been a society in potential conflict) are supposed to be in Christ - therefore what reward for loving enemies is required? It is the given reward of God that produces the response of fruitful behaviour towards others - but of course there is the problem of growth - bringing every idea (thought) into captivity in Christ.

  3. Having attended a Christian University myself, I can identify with this sentiment. However, I do wonder about your final questions.

    When you say, "If the faculty of our university can't talk to each other what hope is there for our students?" Are you suggesting that if the faculty can't talk to each other then there is no hope for your students to talk to each other, or that there is no hope for them at all?

    Your next question, "And if Christians can't talk to each other what hope is there for the Kingdom?" would seem to indicate that you may have been leaning towards the latter. If that is the case, then I really do wonder if it follows from your post.

    I tend to think that the Kingdom moves forward with our without the people who claim to be a part of it. If the staff, faculty and students of a private Christian university somewhere want to spend their time embroiled in extra-kingdomular infighting, I see that as more their own loss than anything else.

  4. This is the problem, Bob. Christians think they are "super-human", or 'supra-human". When it comes to the everyday work-aday world, there is no difference.

    Ideas have power to effect one's behavior, because ideas are seen as "TRUTH". This is why the ideas espoused in Scripture is supposed to "make a difference", as the "Church" was a social institution that was to provide the "needed social controls" to maintain social order. God, is also "useful" for "social control", but can also be a danger to civility, if one thinks their view is "ultimate". The "ideal" is not practical. Practicality is found in the real world of politics. And the Church is not immune to what politics is about; "in-group/out-group" mentalities.

    One has to categorize, otherwise, there is no way to think. The issue, I think, Richard has, is there a way to be civil to one another with these differences? And the concern for civility is a concern for all of our society, presently. It doesn't matter whether one calls themselves "Christian" or not, altho, if one does or doesn't identify with the "majority voice", then it has another affect of prejuidicing "the mind", besides the difference in political opinion.

    Bias is just the way humans live. Bias is a kind of "survival" mentality about one's social group and what one chooses to commit to in their life. And I don't think by dissolving these differences, or distinctions, one comes to a 'higher view". Humans have to judge to make assessments, and commit to courses of action, etc. Otherwise, one is left wandering the planet considering all the options without understanding that ideas are just ideas. But, ideas, have profound consequences, and this is the problem with faith, isn't it, as faith cannot prescribe THE way to "be" in the world...unless one wants to be an idealogue.

  5. qb said, " It hasn't been a problem, though, probably because qb has entered ACU-GST without a political axe to grind there, and he entered with eyes wide open. That's a decent strategy to avoid the trap of seeking political instrumentalities to achieve distinctly religious objectives."

    I Like this! as it affirms liberty of religious conscience and conviction, without imposing political ideology.
    But, I disagree that the "ruling religious narrative" is "social justice". This is why the "Tea Party" has reacted. Their view is that the political/religious narrative should be biblical. So, which religious narrative is "correct"....the Marxist, or the "Bibical"?

    Because our nation was based on liberty of conscience in regards to religious conviction, and we have politicized our religion, then, it is no surprise that America has become a 'hotbed" between two opposing views of "ultimate concern".

  6. I don't comment here very often because, to be honest, I don't often feel qualified to join in the discussion. I say that becasue what I'm wondering may appear to be elementary to most but I'm wondering if it needs to be discussed more.

    I get the "injury" part of this discussion. Its like Richard said, each side feels "harmed" by the other. But what I'm wondering is this: what is the ultimate fear, of either side, in not being heard? What are they afraid will ultimatlely happen if their views are not given equal consideration? What will it mean if the other side's view becomes the governing narrative?

  7. Interesting remarks. Isn't it surprising, though, that Sandel did not even give a moment's attention to one of the more fundamental questions, to wit, "given an enterprise that is an arbitrary creation of humans (i. e., rather than an enterprise or object that originates apart from human agency), who is entitled to decide what is the essence of that enterprise?"

    qb would have preferred that Martin be allowed to ride a cart; after all, his "endurance" had already been tested and found exceptional by his history of overcoming a physical disability. But as the recognized governing body representing the originators of the game of professional golf in the U. S., the PGA should have been given wide latitude and deference to establish what is essential to the game of professional golf.


  8. BTW jw, religious radicals are "hard won" converts. Believe me, one can go then thousand miles, and not gain any ground, because of the way they view themselves! And this is even in a "Christian" context where law is considered a neutral social ordering of society and not some revelational demand from a "just God"!

  9. Angie -

    I think you misunderstand. My point in each post has been that personal friendship can serve as a powerful mechanism for reconciliation between groups (political, religious, secular) which hold ideologically distant viewpoints. I have simply used the Irish peace process as a tangible example of this.

    Nowhere in any post have I suggested we should compromise liberty, as you accuse me of. I also question your assumption that talking to your enemy somehow compromises liberty.

    In the beginning stages of discussion, it is likely there will be little accomplished, and that neither side will be open to change. But beginning discussions can develop a framework for evaluating how serious the other side is about reconciliation. In the example of the Irish peace process, the high level discussions that took place in the 90's were only made possible by the relationships formed in the 70's and 80's. Because of those relationships, a level of trust had formed between key members on both sides that led them to believe the other side was actually serious about ending the conflict, instead of simply dismissing their proposals outright.

    Again, I would like to pose the question of whether you have any constructive proposal for going forward, or if your solution is to wait around and hope the problem fixes itself.

  10. You said, " I also question your assumption that talking to your enemy somehow compromises liberty."

    I said, " In the later post, you seem to be talking about personal relationships. Sure, I have friends, also that would be considered my "enemies" when it comes to their political views, but this is the point. Liberty is the ultimate value for maintaining social discourse that is civil in free societies. Religious claims that demand sub-servience will be run over by those that are surviving in the political realm." In other words, those that are politically connected have the advantage. And when those so politically connected are sure of what "God wants, or wills", then there is a grave disadvantage to those who've not been politically connected! And our laws do not protect favoritism when it comes to opportunities. But, the religious can discriminate with 'ease of conscience'!!!!(the non-religious do so too, but this is why we need the law to protect against such disadvantages to the "enemy"!)

    I don't think that I proposed dismissing my "enemy". But, I do NOT think that religous talk is where the political difficulties will be rectified. Why? Because the emotional attachment to such discourse is too close to personal attack. Whenever one's religion is really believed, then it is personalized and understood by politicization. This is the danger of religion and politics! Our nation-state is NOT a theocracy!

  11. Ultimate reality shouldn't be the focus, but ultimate concern should be. The former is about how we understand all that is, whereas, the later is about what we are presently concerned about practically in the political realm.

    And since we live in the here and now, we must address the practical.

  12. "How can you be a thoroughgoing Burkean conservative and pray the Lord's prayer?"


    Just wow.

    That sound you hear in the background is the chuckling host of conservatives who were lambasted for asking how one could be a Democrat and still be a Christian.

    Symmetry, as they say, is the core of beauty.


  13. Thank you for this post, Richard. As always, your insights penetrate beneath the obvious. I need to spend some time thinking about how these dynamics play out on our campus.

  14. Note to readers:
    I've had some complaints about Angie's behavior on this thread. Regular readers know how to engage or not engage Angie, but new readers might need a warning.

    I've removed a lot of Angie's comments to clean up the thread, but left those where you've engaged in a back and forth with her. We'll see how the discussion goes from here. I appreciate everyone's patience.

  15. Not so, unless you first posit that no person is able to take Burke's foundational ideas and adjust for the extremes to which they could be extrapolated. In other words, your world of economic theory appears to be a world of take-it-or-leave-it. Hardly anyone actually operates like that. It is, simply, a caricature of conservatism.


  16. Richard,

    Thank you for a thought-provoking read. I am hopeful that we will find a way forward by following the Only One who leads us to love one another, even when it is messy and difficult to find common ground.

  17. I'm not sure what you want Burkean conservatism to be, qb. I don't know what kind of foundational ideas you want to be associated with Burke without also including the foundational ideas of racism, classism, nationalism, and deference to one's betters. So, it's not as if falling back on Burke himself will somehow save Burkeanism.

    In all my experience, people in the US today who advocate Burkeanism do so in a very generalized way, stating a core set of abstract ideals, which generally boil down to (1) change things slowly and (2) preserve the _status_quo_ as much as possible. That's what I questioned the disciple adhering to. If you want to make it about Burke himself, I'll double down: disciples cannot claim freedom for themselves but tell the Irish to shove it.

    Finally, if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it. If you're not what I'm calling a Burkean conservative, and you can say the Lord's prayer, then keep on following Jesus.

  18. You seem to be saying that Burkeanism has variants, whereas I would say that Burkeanism is one ingredient in some conservatives' political recipes. Perhaps that's causing us to talk past one another.

    I don't think I know what you mean by "adopt[ing] Burke as a basic, economic world view," apart from the evils I noted above, so you might want to flesh out a discipled Burkeanism.

    Nevertheless, I don't know how to read the gospels without finding a Jesus who says that God is about to bring an abrupt change that will overturn the _status_quo_, and that his disciples *must* choose the new order over the old. I don't find a lick of Burke in that.

    I've offered at least a sketch of
    Jesus' critique of Burke. I'd like reciprocation; without it, I'll take your verdict of "patently absurd" as question-begging.

  19. Angie,
    All the things you mentioned are affirmed, but scholars are human like everyone else. Even if they share the same worldview they can still be petty and jealous like all other sinners. I'm not saying the academy is a bad place, but that it is plagued by certain ills given the very nature of what it is.

  20. Wait a minute, is this the same Abilene Christian University that has a newspaper, called the Optimist, and it endorsed Barack Obama for President... twice? I was a student there in the early 80s and I could see it was heading leftward. I think ACU is only conservative by modern standards.. I agree with DCE's comments that if you are going to spend serious tuition money to go to school, you should go to one that reflects your values or plan on sucking it up. When well over 90 percent of colleges are seriously progressive to Marxist in worldview, why be "miserable" at a place like ACU? Furthermore, why not let it be a place for the country's shrinking conservative population to be a little comfortable.

  21. So you were one of the ones that set that precedent! I liked what you shared and couldn't agree more. There are so few "conservative schools," let those with such a view have this "safe place."

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