Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fighting for Tolerance

Wars linked to religious motives are part of history. But lost in the details are clear causal connections between one or more religious motives and the atrocities common in warfare. In contemporary western cultures wars are conducted at the ballot box, in the courts, and in the media.

Cultural war dead are counted in terms of lost pride, lost causes, lost traditions, lost influence, and even lost money. Cultural injuries can be measured by assessment of anger, resentment, plans for revenge, and money spent on causes limiting the rights of various subcultures.

In the United States and western democracies, Christian traditions that informed cultural norms codified in law have been overturned at an incredible pace leaving Christians wondering about the limits of religious freedom.

At this point we can only guess that in the future, people will look back on the 2015 Supreme Court decision to affirm same-sex marriage rights as indicative of the decline in the degree to which Christians could influence U.S. culture.

Meanwhile, moral battles rage. Sexual minorities seek protection from discrimination, the right to adopt children, and the right to live their lives free from microaggressions—too many to name here. They have won the right to marry and access the many benefits linked to marriage.

Christians actively seek freedom to live according to their religiously informed conscience. It’s no secret that same-sex marriage is a double blow to Christians — violating teaching against same-sex sex and heterosexual marriage. Add to the same-sex marriage ruling concerns about abortion, birth control, and pornography—and soon we see that something related to sex dominates the news.

And media post stories over selling pizza and baking cakes for gay couples, and photographing gay weddings. Christians are anxious about the sex of those they may meet in locker rooms, toilets, and the residence halls of Christian colleges. Conservative Christian mental health workers wonder if they must support gay marriage and clergy wonder how to respond to gay couples seeking marriage or attending their church.

Of course, Christians themselves are divided on several issues as I wrote about in A House Divided. Some are willing to throw out all traditions and affirm the brave new world. Others, young and old, are deeply concerned about the kind of world they and their children will inhabit. Is nothing sacred anymore?


1. Religious freedom is an important value that should not be swept aside so easily.

I am mindful that seemingly frivolous concerns have been used to make life difficult when laws and institutional policies, informed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, interfered with the joy of life afforded by enjoying harmless or relatively harmless activities. Nevertheless, the wisdom of the founders of liberty in the western democracies that enshrined freedom of religion along with the lessons of centuries ought not to be discarded in favor of religious intolerance or religious restrictions without compelling, evidenced-based reasons. Tolerance is meaningless if Christian beliefs and practices are restricted to the closet.

2. Christians concerned about values and religious freedom need wisdom.

There are Christian scholars— wise persons able to think deeply and broadly about the implications of Christian moral pronouncements. Too often Christian troops have been rallied on the basis of fear and hate by arrogant hucksters lacking an understanding of Scripture, moral reasoning, and human nature.

Too many Christian speakers are woefully uninformed about science and history (American history in particular). Winning a skirmish based on ill-conceived and flimsy emotion-laden trivialities will not produce lasting and meaningful social change. Some Christians will continue to divide the Christian community creating a subgroup known by their resentment and vengeance, which will dwindle in numbers and at best become a marginalized group.

3. Christians need to present a principled moral stance.

For Christians to have influence in moral and political discourse, scholars need to articulate a cogent understanding of moral principles derived from a humble and honest approach to Scripture, clear thinking, and critical analysis of moral facts.

Christian colleges and universities would do well to include integrated courses in moral theology, philosophy, and psychology. There are reasoned approaches to grounding the importance of morality in respect for conscience when Christians exist in secular societies.

When Christian leaders present impoverished and hateful moral arguments in public, Christians ought to be the first to replace foolishness with wisdom.

4. Religiously motivated laws untempered by limitations produce harmful extremism.

The narrow-minded religious moral rules of decades ago served only to limit human freedom and link Christianity to mindless prohibitions. Such rules did more to promote hypocrisy and resistance than decency.  
 Jesus was keenly aware of the harm suffered by those on the margins of his society when religious rules were rigidly applied. Christians ought to heed his example.

Contemporary Christian thinkers would do well to understand the arguments informing public morality and the importance of justice found in the works of John Stuart Mill, Bernard Williams, Frederick Schauer, John Rawls, Brian Leiter, Joshua Greene, and Jonathan Haidt.

5. Christians might have more influence living rather than thumping Scripture.

The Bible offers a groundwork for the ethical treatment of others sourced in love and manifest in compassion, forgiveness, and mercy without setting aside the importance of justice.

Every Christian community provides evidence about how well these values work. Unfortunately, many Christian communities have failed to offer supporting evidence that faith transforms people in a virtuous manner. Perfection is not required but integrity is vital. The key question for a moral community can be found in the gospels: How well do you lovingly care for your congregants, neighbors, and those on the margins of society?

Oddly, as the film Spotlight illustrates, Christians tolerated harmful behavior as if loyalty to an institution or clergy were more important that love of God and people.

6. Tolerance ought not to be confused with an anything goes morality.

Tolerance implies that others have strongly held beliefs that are different for at least two groups. And even more, tolerance demands that behaviors associated with those different beliefs ought to be permitted within reasonable boundaries set by an analysis of actual or likely harm. 

Virtues of equality, loyalty, respect, and liberty deserve consideration but these virtues are weighed in the common scale of care versus harm. Clear thinking and moral facts are requisite to avoid deceit in claims of harm as is known to any one observing the antics of those who would extort ransoms in courts from deep pockets on the basis of a minor injury.

Secularists pushing back against conscience-driven Christian practices and Christians promoting laws that restrict basic rights leave themselves at the mercy of imperfect government parties attempting to set the boundaries of tolerance so multiple parties have a safe space in which to play by their rules without harming the other group. Unfortunately, that’s difficult when both groups want access to the same market place. 

In large multicultural societies, tolerance is not just a two-edged sword.

Tolerance is a collection of double-edged swords cutting groups into exempt communities.

Tolerance can be painful.

7. The economic power of large corporations will continue to influence publicly morality.

The economic pressure focused on the U.S. states of Indiana and Georgia provided strong evidence that American corporations have significant clout and they will use that clout to advance their causes. Groups attempting to use the power of government to coerce others to play by a set of moral rules must now contend with the power of big business. The rich have always had access to the halls of power around the world. Power brokers used to work in private. Now we see corporate power exerted in the public arena.

Christians who wish to compete with the morals of big business will need to count the cost. This counting should sharpen a groups’ focus when it comes to investing time and treasure in the Kingdom of God.

Read more about Christianity, Sexuality, and Morality in A House Divided

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Facebook Page:   Geoff W. Sutton

Twitter   @GeoffWSutton

Website: Geoff W. Sutton

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