We live in a world that is burdened by injustice, discrimination and inequality — the “chapped lips” of our culture. Many people insist that the best solution is a greater degree of tolerance. But the question that we must ask ourselves: Is tolerance the lip balm for our culture, or are we just licking our lips? Are we mistaking the immediate solution for the correct solution?
Before I begin on this particular subject . . . Please allow me to share the definition to get us on the same page, so we will not be confused by the meaning of the word “tolerance.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines tolerance as “the capacity for or practice of recognizing and respectfully the options, practices, or behavior of others.” First, tolerance demands recognition, which is a legal imperative. Our Constitution recognizes and protects the diversity of religious beliefs and practices. Second, it calls for respect, which is a social imperative. The Declaration of Independence declares that we are created equal, indication that we need to respect all men, even when there are differences of opinion. However, in our culture today, tolerance is not being discussed as a legal or social imperative, but a moral one.
A case in point: In a survey concerning beliefs about God, a 16-year-old girl responded, “In my mind, the only people who are wrong are the people who will not accept different beliefs as being acceptable.” In this girl’s mind, the only real sin is to not accept or tolerate other people’s beliefs. You can see that openness or uncritical tolerance has become our society’s moral standard. This, however, brings up the question: Are people who seem intolerant wrong? My question to you: Is tolerance virtue?
By definition, the function of tolerance is relegated to the legal and social arena to protect moral issues, not enforce them. If you are intolerant of someone who is intolerant, then you have violated your own principle. But if you tolerate those who are intolerant, you keep your principle, but you sacrifice your responsibility to the principle. This means that a person who is wholly committed to tolerance must resort to total apathy. When we say apathy, we are talking about the lack of feelings, emotions or concerns.Yet putting more than 10 bumper stickers on a car is hardly apathetic, and thus anything but tolerant.
Here are a couple of trends I want to bring to your attention. The first is political correctness. S.D. Gaede notes that the goal of political correctness “is to enforce a universal standard of tolerance, regardless of race, gender, cultural background or sexual orientation.” The Golden Rule for a politically correct person is to not to say or even imply anything that any other individual or group might find offensive.
A second tolerance trend is multiculturalism. Whereas political correctness is more legalistic, the goal of multiculturalism is greater inclusiveness. Schools and universities are not just teaching history from the traditional “dead white male” perspective, but including the experiences of African-Americans, Native Americans, women and other groups what have been marginalized. Businesses are supporting this movement as well. Multicultural workshops are being created to help workers get along in a more culturally diverse business environment. There is much to be praised about these movements.
Christians have more reason than anyone to abhor discrimination and prejudice. God hates injustice and loves to liberate the oppressed, and so should we. Therefore, a Christian perspective should transcend cultural, racial or class distinctions. So if our goal is just more tolerance, then discrimination isn’t wrong, in a moral sense, it’s only offensive. Tolerance alone can never eliminate prejudice any more than licking our lips can cure chapped lips.
This brings me to the case of Kimberly Jean Bailey Davis, the county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky, who gained national media attention after defying a federal court order requiring that she issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that there is a right to same-sex marriage guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
In August, Davis began turning away gay couples from her office who sought marriage licenses. She began refusing to issue any licenses, either to same-sex or heterosexual couples. Now let me say that I do not believe in same-sex marriage because of what the Bible has already laid out for us. The Bible is our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (BIBLE).
However, if Kim Davis were to ultimately “win” her case, this would give every other government official the right to do the same thing, which is to use the power of their political positions to eliminate access to rights simply because it would violate the beliefs of the official.
Davis has a right to refuse to violate her conscience, but she was offered a reasonable accommodation by the judge when he said her deputies could sign the licenses and she would not have to do so. Davis refused to allow others to sign the licenses, and as such, the court had no option but to find her in contempt and either jail her or place U.S. Marshalls at the doors of her office to prevent her from entering.
Davis could have just left the position that is her right, but to refuse others their rights brings us again to the word “intolerance.” There are many religious beliefs that public officers may hold personally but do not attempt to impose on the public, for instance, Seventh-Day Adventists and Orthodox Jews don’t attempt to enforce laws requiring abstinence from work between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday. They will seek accommodation if they are asked to work during that time, but they don’t ask that their governments shut down in honor of their observance.
The Constitution (and its precursor, the Declaration of Independence) provides an odd-sounding but palpable “right to be wrong.” It recognizes that there are things that are between the individual and God and with which the state has no right to interfere.
Before the formation of the United States, churches and government were not separate. The churches found that not everybody who lived in their nations wanted to follow their religious codes. So churches asked governments to punish people who dissented from the religious laws or didn’t obey them properly.
Please do not get me wrong. I am sure Davis is a well-meaning Christian, but to force others to believe the way she does is taking us back to the Middle Ages, and also this is a type of local politics that allowed Jim Crow laws to exist for decades in the South.
America is protected by the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment, passed through to the states by virtue of the 14th Amendment, but these are precisely the legal texts that are under the most focused attack by well-meaning Christians who feel that their beliefs place them above the law and give them the right to dictate the actions of others. They believe that laws must be made to accommodate their right to impose their beliefs on others.
This is in the truest sense “intolerance.”
P.S. By the way, if you did not get it . . . I am a Christian.