Ask Professor Burge 22: Skin Tone, Racialism, and ‘Bible Banning’

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about the skin tone, racialism, and religious freedom issues in a religiously diversifying country.

*Interview conducted October 12, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When talking to biologists or reading of them, they’ll talk about species. They will not talk about race. But if you look at sociological conversations, they’ll talk about ethnicities. So, this is a folk, psychological, sociological reasoning coming out to the public in terms of how they’re identifying white, black, Hispanic, etc. So, when individuals in America are thinking of the category “white,” category “black,” etc., how are they identifying this? Is it just skin tone, then the assumption follows? How is this being reasoned through for most Americans?

Professor Ryan Burge: I would think it is the skin tone. I think Americans are blunt instruments. So, when they see someone, we go, “They look like me.” But also, I think, unfortunately, it goes down to like how they dress, how they talk, how they carry themselves. All those things tie into identifying racial identity. But I also think it is just, there’s this thing in American politics, especially Republicans. There’s a lot they talk about a real America, fake America, and rural America. But rural America, like small towns and villages across the middle part of the country, that don’t get a lot of play on the media, and fake America is like New York City and Philadelphia and Chicago and Los Angeles, California. There is a special divide in America.

And I think when you think of white, what they mean by “white” is “real America,” which means small-town values, Second Amendment rights, religion. It is about racial identity. It is about how they see the world. A lot of Americans just want to be around people who share their world, which makes sense to me. I believe that has to do, by the way, with how you see a lot of people who are comfortable with a more diverse climate moving to a more and more diverse climate, moving to a big city with racial diversity. People who are just comfortable and what they’re comfortable with, staying in small towns across America. And that’s what they’re comfortable with, right or wrong. So, I think it is more about “people like me.” People are good at figuring out who “people like me” are, who “share my values.” So, they just want to be around people who share their own values.

Jacobsen: So, 22% of Americans believe that a Democrat, presumably president, would ban the Bible. And 3, approximately, out of 10 Christians in America or 3 out of 10 believe that Christians’ religious freedoms are under a similar or the same circumstance. Why is this showing up in the data?

Burge: I think it is a totem pole more than anything else. It represents something. In that, I think it represents something that is not actual. I don’t think that many Republicans believe that Democrats are going to come in their House and scoop up their Bibles or put barricades on the church door. I think what they mean is that if a Democrat gets elected, they feel like they’re going to have less religious freedom and they’re going to be able to not do everything they’re used to doing. Okay, I think that’s what it is about. It is about a battle over ideas for the actuality and the idea that the Republican Party is the party of white Christians and the Democratic Party is the party of the Nones, the others, and, oftentimes, the non-white Christians.

And so, Republican politicians have been good about saying, “If you elect a Democrat, you’re going to have less religious freedom. You’re not going to read a Bible in public school, for instance, or have prayer in public school all the time. I think it is more about a symbol than it is about reality. I don’t think many Christians believe that Democrats are going to lock them up or whatever. I think what they believe is they’re going to have less freedom to practice their religion. And religious freedom is a big, big area of conflict in American politics today, things like in a Catholic school via a teacher coming out as LGBT or “do I have to make a cake for an LGBT couple if I don’t approve of that lifestyle?” These actually are really, difficult things to pass through. A difficult debate to have in a country with a lot of religious diversity.

And so, I think that the Bible thing is part of that bigger constellation of issues around religious liberty, where white Christians would have a lot of religious liberty to basically discriminate against whoever they want discriminated against. While most Americans are saying, “Yes, we believe in religious freedom, but you can’t treat other people poorly because of that.” And where those two things rub up against each other is where the conflict exists, I think those questions just happen at this larger idea about religious freedom versus pluralism and diversity.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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