Book Review: Hostile Environment by George Yancey

In Hostile Environment: Understanding and Responding to Anti-Christian Bias George Yancey leverages his background in sociology and research into the phenomena of “Christianophobia” to help Christians understand the causes of anti-Christian hatred, the nature of opposition in the United States, and the methods for dealing with anti-Christian bias when it arises.

I must begin by stating that I do not believe I have ever experienced any material loss because of my Christianity. I think this is partly due to the fact that I am quite insulated in West Michigan. That said, I have seen all the stereotypes of Christians that are outlined in this book: ignorant, bigoted, evil, pushy, etc. In other words, while I have not often been the direct recipient of what Yancey calls “Christianophobia” I have witness the phenomena in action on plenty of occasions.

Hostile Environment is not sensationalist. It does not claim that Christians in America are being persecuted. In fact, Yancey goes out of his way to say that Christians are not being persecuted. I tend to agree with him, especially when you compare how Christians are treated in America with how they are treated throughout the world and throughout history.

As a sociologist he does not go beyond where the data guides him. He warns us not to see persecution or anti-Christian bias behind every struggle we face in life. But the data does demonstrate that, especially in certain sectors of our society, there is a verifiable anti-Christian bias. For instance, “evangelicals and fundamentalists are the groups most likely to face negative bias by academics… almost half of all academics were less willing to hire a candidate for an academic job if they learned that the person was a conservative protestant” (p 13). What was perhaps more startling was that after Yancey published this data, the data was not refuted, but many academics actually defended this blatant discrimination.

Throughout the book Yancey uses the term “Christianophobia” to describe the “irrational animosity towards or hatred of Christians, or Christianity in general” (p 14). He admits that this term is controversial since sociologists rarely concern themselves with bias or hatred of such a large group. But he adequately defends the use of the term and, after sharing quotes from respondents to the survey that forms the basis of this book, it is hard to think of a better one.

I also appreciated Yancey’s perspective as an African American. Because he is sensitive of issues of racism and started his career in that field of study, he frequently compares and contrasts racism with Christianophobia. The two share some similarities but they are not identical. While racism is often played out in physical violence, Christianophobia rarely does. Christians in America do not need to fear bodily harm because of their faith. Instead, Yancey found that those with an anti-Christian bias tended to be well-educated, white, and male, and therefore more likely to hold influential positions. The nature of anti-Christian bias, then, is more likely to be subtle and masked by declarations of religious neutrality or separation of church and state, even though the measures or policies are specifically designed to have a greater impact on Christian groups or to silence Christians in the public sphere.

Yancey is also realistic about the sources of Christianophobia. Christians are, indeed, partially to blame for many negative stereotypes. Christians are wise to improve the way we communicate, treat one another, and interact in the public sphere. But Yancey also acknowledges that much of the Christianophobia in the world is unwarranted. Often it is based on stereotypes that are simply not true, or on beliefs about Christians that find no basis in the real world (like that Christians are secretly attempting to set up a theocracy!) or sometimes simply out of the hatred. We can and should do things to properly represent Christ to the world but we shouldn’t be surprised that even if we could be perfect (which we can’t) we will never be able to eliminate false stereotypes about Christians.

So what can Christians do about an anti-Christian bias? Yancey offers several suggestions. First, he says, we must be willing to confront bigotry toward Christians. Yancey does not believe that silence or a wooden understanding of “turning the other cheek” is the right answer. Here, once again, he draws on his perspective on racism. Racism was pushed back, at least in part, because people were willing to confront it. In fact we still need to be willing to confront racism. Yancey exhorts us to confront anti-Christian bias, but to do it in a way that loves our neighbor, watching our own motivations, not doing it out of self-interest, but doing it because injustice in any form should be confronted.

Second, he says that we need to understand those with Christianophobia. Those with Christianophobia do not want to throw Christians in prison or stop them from worshipping in their homes or churches. But they do want to eliminate the distinctive Christian voice from the public square. It’s important that Christians understand their aims and understand their fears.

Third, Yancey argues that we need to be more unified as the body of Christ. Yancey notes that conservative Christians are far more likely to face anti-Christian bias that progressive Christians and so he makes several appeals throughout the book to progressive Christians to find some amount of solidarity with conservative Christians. “Standing for religious freedom in situations where one is not currently directly threatened may save a person from having to stand for his or her own religious freedom in the future.”

Fourth, Yancey argues that we need to be wise in our arguments. This is, to some degree, an extension of his second point above. Once we understand the aims of those with anti-Christian bias we must know how to argue our point. Against those who say that Christians should be limited from speaking in the public sphere we can show that “it is hypocritical to limit Christians, under the guise of separate of church and state, in ways one would not limit other advocates” (p 150). Christians should be able to participate in public discussions in order to contribute to the common good.

Fifth, we need to love our enemies. This does not mean we surrender to those with irrational beliefs about Christians. It does mean to try to honestly understand their position, to show grace in our discussions, and to act in ways that benefit them when given the opportunity.

Finally, Yancey in several places encourages Christians to demonstrate friendship towards those with anti-Christian bias. His research demonstrated that many with Christianophobia had very little contact with Christians. Their only experience of Christians was through social media, blogs, newspapers, or television. People whose exposure to a group is so limited can more easily believe false stereotypes about that group, even when they are blatantly false. Sometimes (and Yancey stresses that this is not a guarantee) a personal connection will help that individual “humanize” Christians in their own mind and the harshness of their hatred can be reduced.

At some points Hostile Environment was stressful to read. The comments from the survey respondents were often harsh (“The only good Christian is a dead Christian”) and certainly no one likes to think about hatred being directed their way. But ultimately Hostile Environment is not a discouraging book. Christians are wise to view this with perspective. From a global perspective Christians in America have an extremely cushy life. From the perspective of eternity, these minor anti-Christian biases are but a spec. As I argued in my last post Christians are on a journey. We are sojourners, foreigners, and exiles and as such we should expect a certain level of discomfort. But we are not without hope. We press on and, like Christ, must be willing to “suffer outside the gate”, knowing that ahead of us lies a greater reward.