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The Culture War is Alive and Well on College Campuses
FIRE data shows which issues lead to a more censored debate
I write a lot about religion and politics. That’s led to some speaking engagements about my research to a wide variety of groups. I wish I could list all the audiences I have spoken to but it’s really run the gamut. I’ve given talks to some of the most liberal Protestants in the United States, but also to Southern Baptist church planters. I’ve also spoken to non-religious groups in a variety of contexts including major corporations and members of Congress.
One thing that I try to do when I’m asked to give a talk is show up before my scheduled engagement and get a sense of the room. I want to see what type of people are gathered, if they have any reading materials handed out to participants and eavesdrop a little on conversations happening among attendees. I need to figure out the political and theological viewpoints of folks before I plow through my material - which can sometimes cause friction.
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I mean, I talk about religion and politics. It may not go over well with every attendee in every room.
I would like to think that we all do things like that in our own lives when we are confronted with a new environment. We need to get a lay of the land before we strategize about how we fit in. That’s certainly the case with the college experience. I think most students want to desperately fit in (it’s something we all do), and one way to make that easier is to make sure your politics aligns with the politics of your local environment.
That’s really the point of the post today - trying to understand the political climate of college campuses right now and how individuals fit in to those larger environments. I am using the terrific FIRE dataset that I’ve been exploring in several posts this month. Like prior sets of analysis, I restricted my sample to just 18-25 year old folks who are attending a college or university in the United States.
Let’s start with a basic, yet important, question: what is the political partisanship of young folks based on their religious affiliation?
Pretty clearly there are two groups with a strong contingent of Republicans. Forty-five percent of Latter-day Saints align with the GOP - that’s the highest of any religious group. They are followed by Protestants at 42%. Several other groups are next: Just Christians (33%), Orthodox (30%), and Catholics (also 30%). For comparison, about 22% of the full sample aligned with the Republicans.
The groups that favor the Democrats the most should come as no surprise. Eighty-one percent of atheists are Democrats, with 42% being Strong Democrats. They are followed closely by agnostics at 80% and Jews at 75%. The other type of none - nothing in particular - is 70% Democrats. I think it’s pretty important to point out that there’s just no group that is anywhere close to as politically unified as atheists on the right side of the political spectrum among college students.
But there’s certainly an interplay between the personal politics of a young person entering college and the type of college that they choose to attend. It doesn’t seem likely that a homeschooled evangelical is going to set their sights on attending Oberlin, while an atheist living in San Francisco is probably not deciding between Liberty and Hillsdale. You can see how that plays out with when looking at the overall religious composition of the twenty campuses that are furthest to the left and the twenty who are furthest to the right.
Among the campuses with the strongest contingent of Republicans, Christianity is clearly the dominant religious tradition. Protestants are 22%, Just Christians are 25% and Catholics are another 15%. Throw in the Orthodox and LDS and that makes up not quite three quarters of all the college students on those campuses. In comparison, the nones constitute just 23%. Basically a 3:1 ratio. In the entire sample the ratio is much closer to 1:1.
How about the most left leaning campuses? Christians are a lot more scarce. Just 7% are Protestant, 14% are Catholic and 9% are Just Christian. That’s 30% compared to 62% among the most Republican campuses. However, the nones are ascendant in the Democratic leaning schools. Atheists are 15%, agnostics are 16% and nothing in particulars are 19%. That’s half of the entire sample in the 20 most Democratic heavy schools. Recall that it was just 23% among students in the most Republican campuses.
But do college students manage to pick a campus that is closer to their own political partisanship? Not really, according to this data. I calculated the mean partisanship score for every college campus in the dataset and then compared that to the personal political partisanship of every respondent at that college. A positive number means that the individual is more to the right than their college campus. A negative number means the opposite.
And the data indicates that the more right leaning religious traditions tend to find college campuses that are to their left and the same is true of those at the other end of the political spectrum. I did want to point out the LDS here, because they buck the trend a little bit. Recall that they are the most Republican religious group in the data, however, they are not as far from the mean on their college campus compared to Protestants and Christians. That’s largely a function of the fact that the LDS attend more conservative schools, like BYU.
Atheists and agnostics tend to be outliers on their campuses as well. The average atheist is .8 more to the left on a scale that runs from 1 to 7. That’s a bigger gap than Protestants feel on their campuses. When it comes to distance from the mainstream, atheists and agnostics are clearly leading on this metric.
However, there was a series of questions in the data that I really wanted to zero in on because I think they give us a pretty clear picture of what types of issues are driving self censorship and uncomfortable conversations. Here’s the setup:
Which of the following issues, if any, would you say are difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on your campus?
They are given a list of 13 topics (I excluded Ukraine because it wasn’t that interesting). These touched on all kinds of issues - social, racial, foreign policy, religion. I plotted the mean political partisanship of each university in the data on the x-axis. (By the way, I excluded Hillsdale and Liberty because they were just such outliers.) Then I calculated the share who said that each issue was hard to talk about on campus on the y-axis. I color coded the school based on region and the size of the circles relate to the sample size of each college. This was a “holy cow” graph for me because it tells such a clear story.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance to see which graphs have the steepest lines - abortion and transgender. And they look nearly identical. Here’s what they tell us - when the overall university is far to the left of the political spectrum, students feel free to say what they think. When the university moves further toward the middle of the political spectrum, self censorship rises exponentially. For instance, on the most left-leaning campuses, just 20% of students say that it’s hard to talk about abortion. Among the most right leaning (which are still in the middle of the partisan spectrum), about 80% of respondents said that it was hard to have open debate on abortion.
That shows up on a variety of other topics, as well. It’s certainly the case for gun control, immigration, police misconduct, racial inequality, and religion. In every case, the more politically moderate - the harder it is to discuss these issues openly. I think that the only real explanation is this: it’s easy to talk about controversial topics in a politically homogeneous environment. It’s much harder when the environment is more mixed politically.
By the way, I have to note that there’s only one issue area which bucks this trend: discussing the conflict between Israel and Palestine. There is significantly more self censoring on the most left leaning campuses than those in the middle of the spectrum. One has to wonder what’s going on there. There could be a variety of explanations.
Let’s cut this data one more way - the personal partisanship of the respondent. The y-axis and x-axis stay the same here - mean partisanship of the college campus and the share agreeing it was difficult to have honest conversation about each issue.
I am first drawn to the conversation about abortion and transgender rights, again. On the most left-leaning campuses, it’s pretty clear that Democrats have no problem talking about abortion, while lots of Republicans express some discomfort. However, as the campus moves toward the middle of the partisan spectrum, Democrats quickly begin to hold their tongue when discussing abortion and transgender issues. Republicans do the same, but the slope of the line is much less dramatic.
I think this is really convincing evidence that a mixed political environment is what is stifling honest debate - and it’s not really that related to the personal partisanship of the respondent. Consider this - on politically mixed campuses, about 75% of Republicans hesitate to talk about abortion, it’s 85% of Democrats. Nearly everyone is afraid to speak up on controversial issues in politically mixed company.
Affirmative action is an interesting result. It’s harder to talk about it on the most Democratic campuses compared to the more moderate ones. But that’s an outlier. The clear result among Democrats, on most issues, is that the more moderate the campus the more likely they are to clam up. That’s true on gun control, police misconduct, religion, and racial inequality. Republicans really don’t work like that in this data. In most cases, the lines are fairly flat. That means that they don’t feel any more (or less) reluctant to discuss issues in a left leaning campus compared to one that is more middle of the road.
I wanted to test this one more way before I leave it alone. Here’s what I did - I calculated the mean partisanship of the campus each respondent was attending. Then, I subtracted the mean campus partisanship from their own personal partisanship. Then I calculated the total number of issues that they said that they couldn’t talk about openly on campus. I wanted to see if folks who felt way out of step with the political environment of their college would be more likely to self censor on these topics.
The results are interesting and worth some reflection. Obviously the thing that jumps out first is the far left bar. Those are people who are way to the left of the mean college student at their university. They said that, on average, they had to not talk honestly about 6.7 issues out of 13. That’s easily the highest of any of these groups. But here’s the huge caveat. This group consisted of 217 people out of a total sample of 34,064. That’s about one half of one percent. It just doesn’t represent the vast majority of students.
The result from the rest of the students is much less dramatic. Among people who scored within one point of their campus, which was 41% of the sample, they expressed hesitation on about four total issues. That’s basically the same number as the group to their immediate left and their immediate right. As one moves to the furthest right side of the graph (these are folks who are way more Republican than their campus), the hesitation to speak freely increases somewhat. Among the most Republican (6.6% of the full sample), they say that they can’t speak freely on five issues.
It’s readily apparent that the folks who express the most reluctance to actually speak on controversial issues are those who feel further out of step from their university. I’m not entirely convinced that this problem is more acute on the right or the left. People who feel like their politics don’t fit their environment are the most likely to express hesitation around discussing these issues.
Can I be honest here? That makes total sense to me. When I was a younger man, I used to love to debate. I sought out conflict. I engaged in stupid debates. Oftentimes I would take up a position that I didn’t even believe in, just for the intellectual sport of it all. I was an idiot. I shy away from debate now as much as I can. My entire career is talking about religion and politics. I cannot recollect a single instance in the last several years when I got into a real heated debate with anyone about either topic.
A few months ago I wrote a post about how the public perceives atheists:
I went on the Genetically Modified Skeptic’s podcast to talk about the results. One thing I noted is that maybe it might be wise for atheists to not talk about that part of their identity in certain crowds. I got some pushback for that comment. Some folks argued that you should be able to be the most authentic part of yourself in every aspect of your life.
I just don’t see it that way. I have some liberal opinions. I am not morally obligated to share those with my conservative friends. I also hold some opinions that would not be welcomed among my more left-leaning colleagues. I just don’t share them. I’ve been friends with some people for decades that don’t know I’m a pastor and I don’t volunteer that information.
But the other part of me struggles with this approach to the classroom. If there’s any environment on earth where one should be able to lob out a crazy opinion and have it really debated with open minds and clear thoughts - it’s a college campus. The data says that this is just not happening on some of the key issues facing the United States in the future. I don’t know the answer to this. I’m not sure that any honest debate will change minds on these topics. I don’t even fully understand how one changes their mind anymore.
There are no easy answers here. But I hope that we won’t stop talking about issues that make us uncomfortable. I just have no idea how to do that anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.
Code for this post can be found here.
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