Saturday, December 11, 2004

Against "Tolerance"

The Left's rhetoric of "tolerance" alienates Christians of all stripes and must be abandoned in favor of a more precise articulation of progressive values.

The Southern Baptist Convention resolved this summer:

"The cultural drift in our nation toward secularism obscures moral absolutes under the guise of tolerance."

Similarly, but more elaborately, Yale Law School Professor and moderate evangelical Stephen Carter writes in Christianity Today:


When I became a Christian, I learned a happy truth that I previously had not quite believed: Morality is a matter of fact, not opinion. Correct moral rules are established by God, not by man. They are not human constructs, but facts that God has revealed about himself and his order for the world.

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America is more and more a nation that hates rules. The dominant American culture looks at life as a seamless web of choices, and the only form of wrongdoing the culture is willing to acknowledge is the wrong of interfering with somebody else's freedom to choose.

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One thing for which America has traditionally stood...is that moral obligation flows from a source greater than the self. [We must resist] the already overwhelming cultural message that our moral obligations (other than tolerance, of course) are only those we choose for ourselves.


Christians are alienated by the rhetoric of tolerance because it implies that we must "tolerate" each individual's own resolution of moral choices. To the Liberal, this sounds reasonable enough at first blush, but it is spectacularly overinclusive because all choices are "moral choices." And it is this overinclusiveness that drives many religious people nuts.

Must we "tolerate" those who believe that taking illegal drugs leads them to a higher state of being and abuse them? Must we "tolerate" those who believe that polygamy is permissible and practice it? Must we "tolerate" those who ethically disagree with the income tax and thereby refuse to pay it? Must we "tolerate" those who cite examples in the Bible for the proposition that having sex with children is permissible and then do it? Must we "tolerate" those who believe in human sacrifice and practice it? Must we "tolerate" those who support Islamic terrorism and fund it?

The problem with the rhetoric of tolerance is that it implies, to the distress of all but the most extreme, that there are no moral absolutes. The slippery slope cited above may seem ridiculous, but the Left often fails to qualify the phrase "tolerance" and explain why tolerance is required as to one issue (e.g., gay marriage) but not another (e.g., support of terrorism).

And I think there's a reason for this: it is difficult to defend these differing results while remaining within the value of "tolerance." Indeed, I don't think it is really "tolerance" that most on the Left truly value. Tolerance is a messy, short-hand place-holder for a number of important values that can be more concretely defined and that can be defended in a way that is less alienating to Christians.

When the Left says tolerance it often means "equal justice." Bigotry against women and racial minorities is often deemed "intolerant." But what is problematic about such bigotry is not that it refuses "tolerance" but that it refuses to acknowledge our basic equality as human beings: it denies that we are all children of God in our own right regardless of race or sex. Such a proposition, far from being relativistic, reflects the judgment that a denial of equal justice is profoundly immoral.

When the Left says tolerance it often means "liberty." Liberty is a founding principle of this country. Liberty means that people, as a general rule, should be entitled to pursue their own good insofar as it doesn't materially harm others. Thus, I choose my own spouse; I pick the books I read; I choose what to watch on television. I'm entitled to determine my own destiny so long as it doesn't interfere with the well-being of others. Further, the liberty principle does not depend upon the proposition that all actions which don't harm others are morally permissible. Rather, it reflects the much more limited idea that government coercion against immoral behavior should be limited to immoral behavior that has effects beyond the individual committing the action.

When the Left says tolerance it often means "religious freedom." A founding principle of the United States, enshrined in the first amendment, is that the government may not "ordain or establish" a state religion and that people must have the freedom to exercise their own religion. Such values do not depend on the idea that all religions are correct. Rather, in addition to being a subset of the liberty principle, "religious freedom" reflects the idea that an individual's relationship to her Creator, to the Higher Power, is just that -- an individual relationship. In order to have a true relationship with God, we must develop that relationship on our own: without coercion.

"Tolerance" is an ineffective and misleading short-hand for more concrete and less alienating values. The Left must abandon the overinclusive rhetoric of tolerance and defend equality, liberty, and religious freedom.

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