Self-Disclosing Religious Identity: A Qualitative Study of Evangelical Christian Faculty

Open Access
King, Kristin F. Chaudoin
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 09, 2005
Committee Members:
  • Dennis Stephen Gouran, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Jon F Nussbaum, Committee Member
  • Michelle E Day, Committee Member
  • Carol L Colbeck, Committee Member
  • religious identity
  • self-disclosure
  • higher education
  • evangelical Christian
  • marginalized
  • stigmatized
Concerns for free speech, academic freedom and the value of diverse perspectives to the enterprise of higher education provide the background for this study which purposed to contribute to a better understanding of religious identity in the workplace. The specific purpose was to describe 1) evangelical Christian faculty members’ perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, 2) the circumstances under which they are more likely to self-disclose their religious identity at work, and 3) the tensions and constraints they experience when communicating it in the secular institutions of higher education in which they work. The qualitative methods used involved soliciting participant narratives which were transcribed and analyzed according to the Constant-Comparison Method in order to produce openly coded thematic units. Analysis produced four themes describing what it means to be a Christian, and these findings suggest a possible extension of the Communication Theory of Identity to include the existence of “primary identity actions” within the personal frame of identity. Also, this study provided support for the theoretical supposition of a hierarchy of identities by establishing that the participants had a topmost identity. The findings extend what is known about stigmatized identities by providing a case in which a usually accepted identity becomes stigmatized within a specific context. This study provides support for several aspects of the Communication Privacy Management Theory including the use of motivational, contextual, and risk-to-benefit ratio decision making criteria. However, the two most important revelations of the study with regard to self-disclosure suggest a critique of current self-disclosure theories. First, self-disclosure appears more complicated than presumed previously. Current theory characterizes the bases of disclosure decisions as mostly self-focused motivations, but the findings herein indicate communicators often use criteria for disclosing that are based on mutual concerns and even other-focused (i.e. altruistic) motivations. Second, the findings revealed a phenomenological gap between self-disclosure as conceptualized by scholars and self-disclosure as experienced in people’s day-to-day lives. Participants extensively reported nonverbal behaviors and superficial disclosures as important ways they communicate their religious identity in the workplace. The importance of this study will be reinforced if subsequent research uncovers similar findings.