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IU Northwest SPEA professor examines religion and political tolerance

Marie Eisenstein, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest, sought to examine whether either general Christian beliefs or more specific, religiously informed viewpoints bear any relationship to political tolerance -- or lack of tolerance. What Eisenstein discovered was that respect for the democratic ideal and belief in free access to the marketplace of ideas is just as strong among Christian citizens in America as it is among secularist citizens.

Marie Eisenstein

Marie Eisenstein

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Eisenstein found little difference in levels of political intolerance or tolerance between Christians or those who hold conservative views on social-moral issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage and secular citizens or those with more liberal social viewpoints. The results of her work form the basis of Eisenstein's first book, Religion and the Politics of Tolerance: How Christianity Builds Democracy (Baylor University Press, 2008).

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 others to hold politically intolerant attitudes.

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 with felt as if they were the ones at risk of being marginalized in the public arena because of their religious views. "Each focus group had some particular instance they were able to cite in which they felt they were being attacked at large within the mainstream media," she said.

Religion and the Politics of Tolerance

Her academic definition of political tolerance is "the willingness to permit the expression of ideas or interests one opposes." This is different from many common arguments of intolerance, which seek to stifle an opinion which the individual believes to be "intolerant." While many conservative Christians have strong moral positions that influence how they vote, her research found no effort to stifle or undermine the arguments of those with whom they disagreed. This willingness to extend civil liberties and freely accept argument from those with opposing interests demonstrates the continuing strength of the American democratic system, she said.

"Empirically speaking, there is nothing about holding particular issue attitudes that translates into tolerance or intolerance," Eisenstein says. "There was just no effect on it. On both sides, there is always somebody who is going to be intolerant, somebody who does not want to allow somebody else's freedom of speech because they don't agree with what that person is saying. Nobody has a market on intolerance."

Eisenstein described how her work is particularly relevant with respect to the recent California Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. While the issue was one of contention, both sides were, for the most part, tolerant of the right of those with opposing viewpoints to articulate their ideas and beliefs. Additionally, the high turnout of religiously conservative African Americans for Barack Obama and Proposition 8 demonstrated a healthy ability to separate political and social beliefs.

In undertaking the survey, she examined four groups of congregants from Lake County, Ind., churches, representing four segments of American Christianity: mainline Protestants; black Protestants; evangelical Protestants; and Catholics. 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 and conducted a survey of IU Northwest students.

"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.

While conducting her research, Eisenstein discovered additional insights into what 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. "It took me by surprise. I thought for sure it would be these other hot-button social-moral issues."

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."

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."

Eisenstein's 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.