THE ROAD TO THE "NEW TOLERANCE"
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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."
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