by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-In July 2012 the mayors of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco proclaimed that the Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant chain would not be welcome in their cities.


What provoked this reaction from the mayors? Had some customers of the chain been infected with salmonella or E. coli bacteria? Had rat hair been found in batter used to coat the chicken? Or had the restaurants treated some employees or customers unfairly?


No, none of these things had occurred. Indeed, the mayors were not responding to anything that Chick-fil-A had done. Instead, they were opposed to something that Dan T. Cathy, the chain's Chief Operating Officer, had said. In interviews Cathy had voiced his support for the traditional definition of marriage. For this offense, Cathy drew condemnation from government officials in several major cities. In a typical example, reported by Fox News on July 29, 2012, one Philadelphia City Councilman wrote to Cathy, telling him to "take a hike and take your intolerance with you."


Readers will note a glaring inconsistency in the Councilman's statement. Surely it was the city officials who were being intolerant. After Cathy expressed some personal views on morality-in a country that protects free speech-the officials said that his chain's presence in their cities would not be tolerated.


The Strange New Definition of Tolerance

Incidents like the Chick-fil-A controversy are quite common these days, with adherents of certain points of view condemned for their supposed "intolerance." A similar event occurred in 2005, when the Co-operative Bank of Manchester, England, asked an organization called Christian Voice to close its accounts. Christian Voice had publicly opposed plans to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera on BBC television, calling the production blasphemous. The bank, deeming Christian Voice to be guilty of verbal discrimination, took action to discriminate against Christian Voice.


The Christian Voice example is one of many discussed by Donald A. Carson in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance (Eerdmans, 2012). Dr. Carson, who is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is known for his biblical commentaries on the gospels of Matthew and John. In addition, he is an astute commentator on contemporary society. The Intolerance of Tolerance is a sequel to Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans, 2008), a book about church-state issues and the ways in which Christianity relates to the cultures of this world.


In The Intolerance of Tolerance, Carson contrasts the traditional definition of tolerance with the one used by the Philadelphia City Councilman. The traditional view of tolerance means "allowing the free expression of contrary opinions." Behind this view is the idea that objective truth exists, and the open exchange of ideas gives us the best chance of finding it.


On the other hand, the "new tolerance" requires acceptance of all beliefs and claims as equally valid. In this view there is no absolute truth (except for the dogma that no absolute truth exists). All beliefs are accepted-except for claims to absolute truth, which are condemned and censored as "intolerant."


Carson characterizes the new tolerance as "intellectually debilitating." Appeals to tolerance are used to avoid serious discussion of controversial issues, with "intolerant" positions excluded from consideration regardless of the strength of the arguments in their favor.


Carson also describes the new tolerance as "socially dangerous" as well as "morally bankrupt." In particular, this mindset has led to persecution of Christian individuals and groups. Well known, for example, is the case of Swedish pastor Ake Green, who was prosecuted in 2004 for preaching about the biblical teaching on homosexuality. In one highly publicized California case, Hastings College of Law in 2004 denied the Christian Legal Society's application to become a "recognized student organization" because the CLS required its leaders to affirm and follow Christian teachings.


The new tolerance is largely about political correctness, and it is applied inconsistently. Islam, like Christianity, makes absolute truth claims but is largely ignored by the "tolerance police." For instance, the Co-operative Bank did not close the accounts of Muslim depositors, even though they would have shared in Christian Voice's disapproval of Jerry Springer: The Opera.


A Historical Overview

How did our society arrive at such a strange, logically inconsistent way of dealing with competing worldviews and differences in belief? Carson summarizes the history of the concept of tolerance in the third chapter of The Intolerance of Tolerance. On March 26, 2011, about a year before the publication of the book, he presented the material in this chapter in a lecture at Miami University.


Early in his lecture, Dr. Carson observed that all societies exhibit some mixture of tolerance and intolerance. The ancient Roman Empire, for example, protected the various religions in its territories by imposing capital punishment for desecration of a temple. In return, however, Rome required these territories to accept some Roman gods. Jews were exempt from this requirement, but Rome persecuted Christians once the distinction between Jews and Christians became clear. Roman pagans saw Christians as intolerant because of Christianity's claim to be the only true religion, and, Carson noted, "intolerance toward Christians was widely perceived as a virtue."


Defending their faith in a hostile environment, ante-Nicene church fathers wrote in favor of religious freedom. Writing in the early third century A.D., Tertullian of Carthage stated that "it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man" (Ad Scapulam, Chapter 2). About a century later, Lactantius wrote against religious persecution in The Divine Institutes. "There is no occasion for violence and injury," he argued in Book 5, Chapter 20, "for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected."


Things changed after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now the tables were turned, and Christianity faced the temptation to use imperial authority for the suppression of paganism and heresy. Some began to find scriptural arguments for enforcing orthodoxy. For example, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) pointed to Luke 14:23 as a rationale for forcing unbelievers and heretics to conform.1 Augustine "remained implacably opposed to torture and physical coercion," Carson said, but his views and actions were influential, establishing a foundation for later persecution carried out by the church.


Dr. Carson noted that for six centuries after Augustine, "there is no record of execution on religious grounds" in Europe. During the High and Late Middle Ages, however, there were "many examples of more violent intolerance." In particular, Carson mentioned the suppression of the Albigensian heresy in southern France in the thirteenth century, and the Spanish Inquisition of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.


The Protestant Reformation divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant states, with each side experiencing persecution in territories ruled by the other. Carson explained that both sides inherited the medieval assumption that "some degree of intolerance bathed in coercion was necessary to defend the truth." But after the horrors of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), more and more people concluded that there had to be a better way. There were a variety of religious groups in Europe, and all the bloodshed had not changed that. Religious minorities were not going away.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was increasing support for religious toleration in Great Britain and its American colonies. Religious uniformity was still held as an ideal to be sought, but a policy of toleration was seen as best in the meantime. For example, in Areopagetica (1644), John Milton argued that the right of free speech and expression would (1) enhance the wellbeing of individuals and society; (2) promote virtues like attentive listening to others and self-criticism; (3) aid in the search for truth. Philosopher John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) maintained that toleration was necessary for civil order, pointing to the wars that had resulted from religious intolerance. By the same criterion of promoting civil order, Locke's tolerance did not extend to Catholics, because of their allegiance to the Pope; or to atheists, since "those who do not believe in divine rewards and punishments have insufficient motives for faithfulness." But in principle, Carson said, Locke "was advocating the separation of church and state."


Carson emphasized that these discussions of tolerance all were conducted "in the framework of larger issues about the common good, about the nature of truth and authority, about the relationship between church and state." During the last two hundred years, however, tolerance has come to be viewed as a virtue in itself, leading to today's confused thinking on the subject. A shift in this direction is evident in the work of utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who viewed diversity as a positive thing to be appreciated rather than a reality to be endured for now. This set him apart from previous thinkers.


Church-State Issues

After his historical survey, Dr. Carson observed that discussion of tolerance increasingly has focused on the proper relationship between church and state. This is an issue with which Christianity has wrestled for almost two thousand years, and about which it has much wisdom to offer. This wisdom includes Jesus' teaching to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mark 12:17). The church tries to maintain a balance between submitting to the God-ordained power of the state (Rom 13:1-7) and choosing to "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). It teaches that Christians should seek the peace and prosperity of the cities in which they sojourn (Jer 29:7) and also knows that they will face persecution (John 15:18-16:4; Rev 13:7). It defends human rights, since humans bear God's image. And at its best, Carson said, Christianity rejects state-imposed sanctions, which can't produce true conversion (see the quote from Lactantius above).


Even with all this hard-earned wisdom, Carson continued, the issues are complicated. In the United States there are different interpretations of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, in part, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Here the founders may have had in mind that some states already had "established" churches, and Congress was to leave such things to the states. Carson observed that there are a number of countries with state churches in which there is still great religious freedom.


However, the Constitution often has been interpreted as setting up a "wall of separation" between church and state, an idea that arose later. Such an interpretation has led to pressure to restrict religion to private domains, a trend that serves to greatly restrict the "free exercise" of religion.


Carson went on to say that religious freedom issues become much more difficult in an Islamic context, where the idea of a "separation of church and state" is foreign, and the concept of "freedom of religion" does not mean the same thing as it does in the West. He suggested that two questions be posed to test the clam that Islam is a "religion of peace and tolerance": (a) Are Muslims free to convert to some other religion without fear of sanctions? (b) May members of any religion propagate their beliefs as openly as Muslims do? In most Muslim countries, the answer to both these questions is "no." In particular, Christians in these countries often face severe restrictions and Muslim converts to Christianity have to fear for their lives.


Concluding Points

In concluding his lecture, Carson made several additional points. First, he noted that the trend of secularization in society has changed the discussion of tolerance. Today this discussion is no longer conducted under the assumption of the existence of God, as it was in the past. Another byproduct of this trend is the fact that the twentieth century "was the bloodiest in human history." With no fear of God to hold them in check, totalitarian regimes under Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot slaughtered millions of people. Those who claim that religion is the main source of the world's intolerance do not have the facts on their side.


Carson also highlighted the role of postmodernism in today's views on tolerance. For those who doubt the existence of objective moral truth, tolerance becomes the highest virtue, and a very intolerant moral relativism is the main absolute. In such a way of thinking, he stated, the new tolerance "becomes an absolute good that gains the power to erode other cultural distinctives, including moral and religious distinctives." As the West exports the new tolerance, he added, other cultures see it as a great threat to their own cultural distinctives.


After reading the third chapter of The Intolerance of Tolerance, Dr. Carson, who is renowned for his preaching, transitioned to more of a pastoral role. He spoke to a largely Christian audience, a group that included a number of university faculty members. Carson exhorted this audience to stand up for truth and keep challenging the new tolerance. He urged his listeners not to become discouraged with today's university climate, which can often be hostile to Christianity. Here he pointed out the example of the apostles, who after proclaiming the gospel were arrested, flogged, and ordered to cease their evangelizing activity (Acts 5:40). Their response was to rejoice "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (v. 41). The challenge of responding to the new tolerance ultimately could make the church stronger, he said.


1In this verse, from the parable of the great supper, the host tells his servant, "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled." Carson calls this application of Luke 14:23 "a formidable display of ripping a text out of its context."

Issue 29


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