Strong research often yields fascinating results that resonate well beyond the parameters of the initial study or hypothesis. For Marie Eisenstein, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest, the surprise data came from members of the four focus groups that she had assembled as part of her study on the relationship between political tolerance and Christianity.
Each focus group was comprised of congregants from one of four Lake County, Ind. churches. The study, the results of which form the basis of Eisenstein’s first book, “Religion and the Politics of Tolerance: How Christianity Builds Democracy” (Baylor University Press, 2008), was aimed at determining whether Christianity in general, or specific, religiously informed viewpoints in particular, bear any relationship to political tolerance or a lack thereof.
Participants were asked a variety of questions about their views on social issues such as abortion, homosexual marriage and stem-cell research. They were also asked to discuss their views about the function of democracy and the openness of the “marketplace of ideas.”
These focus groups, along with other, quantitative study methods employed by Eisenstein, clearly indicated that political tolerance or intolerance, at least as they were defined by Eisenstein for purposes of her research, are not more prevalent among Christian groups, or among those who hold specific views on social-moral issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage, than they are among those who hold secular viewpoints.
In other words, despite the common perception about supposed political intolerance among conservative evangelical Christians, in particular, Eisenstein’s research revealed that they are not more or less likely than anyone else to hold politically intolerant attitudes.
“Empirically speaking, there is nothing about holding particular issue attitudes that translates into tolerance or intolerance,” she said. “There was just no effect on it. Intolerance – nobody has a market on it. On both sides, there is always somebody who is going to be intolerant, somebody that does not want to allow somebody else’s freedom of speech because they don’t agree with what they’re saying.”
But Eisenstein’s focus groups gave her some additional insights into what other issues concern a broad cross-section of America’s Christian citizenry. Chief among them, Eisenstein said, was illegal immigration.
“I brought them in because I was trying to steer them toward issues of religion and politics and political tolerance, and when they had their free time to bring up anything they wanted, they went right to illegal immigration,” Eisenstein said. “And it took me by surprise. I thought for sure it would be these other hot-button social-moral issues.”
Eisenstein’s focus groups, which met in early 2006, represented four segments of American Christianity: mainline Protestants; black Protestants; evangelical Protestants; and Catholics. All four, she said, professed strong concern about illegal immigration.
The black Protestant group, she said, expressed anger over the oft-quoted bit of conventional wisdom that says illegal immigrants take the jobs that “other Americans don’t want.”
“They were hopping mad,” Eisenstein said. “They made it quite clear that nobody came to their community and asked them about the jobs they ‘don’t want.’ They said this was nonsense, and that they want jobs and need jobs. Their community is looking for jobs. So they were very upset.”
The Catholic group expressed concern about the added strain that illegal immigration places upon the Catholic charitable system, Eisenstein said. Mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants voiced concerns similar to those brought up by the other groups. The intensity, and general agreement, of these opinions went against Eisenstein’s expectations.
“That blew me away more than anything else,” she said. “And it had nothing to do with political tolerance. But there was such agreement among four diverse religious groups, and then between the whites and the blacks, that they were all mad about illegal immigration.”
As to the original question of political tolerance, Eisenstein explained that a narrow, quantifiable definition was needed to make an empirical assessment possible. For her book, Eisenstein used the definition that is most common to political-science research.
“It’s all in how the word ‘tolerance’ is defined,” she said. “Because this is an academic book, obviously, it had to be well-defined so it could be measured. From a political scientist’s point of view, when we’re studying political tolerance, we do not define it by issue-attitude position, which is ‘Do you agree or disagree with abortion?’ or ‘Do you agree or disagree with stem-cell research?’ Political tolerance is about willingness to extend civil liberties to those with whom you disagree. And the big three are speech, petition and assembly.
“So, it’s not so much whether or not the Christian right or the evangelical Christians disagree with abortion,” Eisenstein explained. “It’s whether or not they’re willing to allow the pro-choice group their rights to speech, petition or assembly. Of course, for some individuals, that’s too narrow of a definition in terms of political tolerance.”
What Eisenstein discovered through her research was that respect for the democratic ideal and belief in the notion of free access to the marketplace of ideas is just as strong among Christian citizens in America as it is among secularist citizens. In other words, while a conservative Christian might not believe in the right to choose an abortion, the odds are good that he or she does support the pro-choice activist’s right to speak out and demonstrate on behalf of abortion rights.
“Across all four of those groups, none of them thought of the political marketplace as something that they want to hold and stop others from coming into,” Eisenstein said. “They were very conscious of the fact that not all of their religiously informed issue-attitude positions were commonplace or accepted by the mainstream. They truly believe that this is a democracy and they should be able to participate in it and advocate for their views, and they fully accepted and understood that they were going to meet resistance.
“They really are socialized just like everybody else to accept a certain set of American values about the free exchange of ideas in the political marketplace,” she said. “It was very enlightening to hear those dynamics across all four of those focus groups.”
Eisenstein noted that all of her focus groups expressed some dissatisfaction with how Christianity is portrayed in the news media and in popular culture. Many of the people she spoke to felt like they were the ones at risk of being marginalized in the public arena because of their religious viewpoints.
“They are absolutely concerned about that,” she said. “It wasn’t just the evangelical Christians who had this concern. The Catholics had this concern. They felt as if they were unfairly targeted sometimes in the news. The evangelicals very much had the concern that they were being labeled as ‘haters.’ The mainline Protestants … felt as if they weren’t portrayed as having real faith. They’re often portrayed in mainstream media as being this ‘church in decline.’ The people in the focus group took this to mean that they’re not offering any sort of real faith or portraying God in a real way, and they were very upset about it.
“Each group had some particular instance they were able to cite in which they felt they were being attacked at large within the mainstream media,” Eisenstein said.
Eisenstein didn’t rely solely on focus groups to support her research. She also conducted a phone survey of 600 respondents in which she gauged the relationship between their religious affiliation and issue attitudes and their political tolerance. She also conducted a survey of IU Northwest students.
When it came to identifying the study participants’ religious affiliation and commitment, Eisenstein was adamant that, in order to qualify as practicing Christians for purposes of the research, respondents had to attend church at least once per week. That’s why, in putting together her focus groups, Eisenstein called on local congregations.
Out of 10 churches contacted, she found four that were willing to participate, one each from the four segments of Christianity that she had identified. Eisenstein said it’s not uncommon for groups or individuals to decline to participate in such research surveys; to secure 600 respondents for the phone survey, for example, it was necessary to begin with a call list of approximately 2,200 names.
“No one was mean about it,” Eisenstein said of the churches that declined to participate in the focus groups. “Some just thought it was something they weren’t interested in doing, or that it wasn’t right for their congregation. And that’s their call to make.”
Whatever the media’s portrayal of the state of religious belief in America today may be, Eisenstein said, her research convinced her that religious faith itself is not waning but instead remains a powerful force in people’s lives and in the political landscape.
“Belief is still alive and well, and it contributes to the influence of politics in religion,” she said.