D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and author of The Intolerance of Tolerance.

In this post, he looks at several recent examples of “intolerant tolerance” in American society. (Note: a revised version of this article will appear in the next edition of the digital journal Themelios.)

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Since The Intolerance of Tolerance was published, readers have been sending me new examples they have spotted — examples of egregious intolerance masquerading in the name of tolerance. Sometimes these examples have been accompanied with a plea to incorporate them in any revised edition that might be called for. Of course, I too have spotted a handful of examples myself. In this blogpost I’d like to comment briefly on three of them, probing a little to uncover what we should learn from them.

The first is the drama that unfolded around Chick-fil-A. By now, the bare narrative is well known. When Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, a man known for his Christian commitments, declared that he supported traditional heterosexual marriage, he was soon attacked in the press, in blogposts, and in some talk shows as homophobic, a hate monger, and worse — despite the fact that he himself had never used the word “homosexual,” and despite the fact that no one seemed able to tell of a credible instance when Chick-fil-A staff at any of their outlets had ever treated any class of customers with less than the courtesy in which the staff were trained. Protests by the LGBT crowd followed at some sites, while supporters bought countless tens of thousands of meals in a show of support. More interesting, perhaps, was the announcement by several big-city mayors — Washington D.C.’s Vincent Gray, Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, and San Francisco’s Edwin Lee — that they would prevent Chick-fil-A outlets from opening in their cities, since they did not want to encourage any business characterized by such intolerance. They were soon joined by the mayor of Boston and the mayor of Philadelphia. By contrast, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, declared that however repellent he found Dan Cathy’s views to be, government should stay clear of such pronouncements and interference with businesses that were not in any sense breaking the law.

The Intolerance of Tolerance

The Intolerance of Tolerance

How should we think about this little drama?

That some conservatives like Dan Cathy articulate their beliefs, while some liberals respond with their own voice, is not intrinsically problematic so far as issues of tolerance and intolerance are concerned. That the debate grabbed media attention and escalated into demonstrations against Chick-fil-A and counter movements that voiced approval for the organization by flooding the outlets with orders is part of the give-and-take of any society that cherishes free speech, no matter how much each side thinks the other is morally wrong. Somewhat troubling is the way several big-city mayors hopped on the band-wagon and declared that they would use their powers to keep Chick-fil-A out of their cities. By definition, that is a form of intolerance of the older kind, i.e., use of the coercive powers of the state to punish those who step outside the norms the state approves. Of course, these mayors could argue that Dan Cathy and those he influences or represents are trying to maintain or promote laws against those who practice homosexuality — for example, laws that refuse to assign the category of “marriage” to homosexual unions. In other words, conservatives no less than liberals want to use the powers of the state to exclude behavior of which they do not approve.

There is, however, one fundamental difference. By and large the conservatives defend their position and try to advance it by arguing the merits of the case in the public arena. It must be said that in recent years, they have not made much headway, but that is what they try to do. On the other hand, the LGBT voices barely address the merits of their case or engage the substance of their opponents’ arguments; rather, by and large they defend their position and try to advance it by dismissing their opponents as intolerant bigots, religious fanatics. That is one of the signs of the new tolerance. While the old tolerance was in some ways a parasitic virtue — that is, it depended for its life on decisions as to how much leeway might be allowed to a person who wished to advocate or take up a position outside the accepted norms and laws of a society, before state sanctions were imposed, and thus depended on the existence of a larger structure of accepted values and morals — the new tolerance is not parasitic on a larger structure. Rather, the new tolerance is itself the highest good, the ultimate virtue, trumping everything else, and therefore able to shunt to one side any serious moral discussion of important matters once the label “intolerant” has been attached to it.

The second example revolves around the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta. A coalition of (currently) six historically African-American seminaries from diverse denominations, ITC earned its charter in 1958. From the beginning it pursued an ecumenical focus, but in recent years it has prided itself in its gay theology, womanist theology, post-colonial theology, and liberation theology. Most of its students are African-American, so a good percentage of them enter ITC with rather more conservative theology, reflecting the churches from which they spring. In 2008 ITC hired Dr. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins in its New Testament department. Administrators could happily point to Dr Hopkins as the only African-American New Testament scholar with expertise in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In early 2008 he was promoted to Associate Professor. In February he invited Dr. Alice Brown-Collins, director of IVCF’s Black Campus Ministries in the New England Region, to speak to some of the conservative students at ITC. After her presentation, Dr. Brown-Collins gave one of the students a copy of Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, perhaps the best known exegetical treatment of the relevant biblical texts, a book that reaches traditional, orthodox conclusions.

The next day Dr. Hopkins was closely questioned by the department chair, Rev. Margaret Aymer. Hopkins was accused of violating ITC’s code of ethics, which upholds various diversities, including sexual orientation. Three months later, he was fired. According to Hopkins, during the interval ITC persistently sought to undermine his reputation. Moreover, he discovered that the administration had commonly changed the grades he had assigned his students. Hopkins filed a complained against ITC. At the time of this writing, no one knows how the dispute will end.

What shall we make of this episode? From ITC’s perspective, the Center is defending tolerance, in particular the tolerance of a variety of sexual lifestyles. ITC does not seem to be aware how terribly intolerant it has become toward one of its employees, otherwise approved as a competent teacher and scholar, on the ground that he invited an evangelical scholar to the campus who passed out a book that disagrees with ITC’s position. The stance of Robert Gagnon is in line with the overwhelming majority of Christians in the entire history of the church, but obviously that stance is too great a threat to ITC’s “tolerance” to be tolerated.

Cover for the forthcoming paperback edition.

Cover for the forthcoming paperback edition.
(Click to preorder.)

My final example turns on regulations issued under the U.S. federal government’s “Affordable Care Act” of 2010. The regulations in question force thousands of religious organizations to violate some of their deepest religious beliefs under penalty of ruinous fines. In particular, the government has issued an administrative mandate forcing religious organizations to provide health insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs and related education and counseling, even if those organizations, on religious grounds, hold that such[1] drugs conflict with their religiously grounded beliefs that abortion is wrong. Moreover, the government’s mandate requires that the religious organizations facilitate government-dictated speech about such matters, speech that is incompatible with its own convictions and teachings. Equally shocking, the government is happy to issue accommodations and exemptions from the Affordable Care Act for many non-religious reasons, even to large corporations, but is unwilling to issue an accommodation in this case.

The positively dangerous element in these developments needs unpacking. How does the government think its stance can withstand a First Amendment challenge, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of religion? As far as I can see, the government believes it can win by redefining what is included under the category of “religion.” Corporate worship may be religion, but ethical stances about abortion are not, and are therefore exempt from the protection of the First Amendment. In other words, the government is making an unprecedented move to define religion more narrowly so that it can impose by the use of coercive force its own agenda, and those who refuse on grounds which in the past would certainly have been considered religious will simply have to be crushed. In historical terms, that is called intolerance.

Three separate examples, each with its peculiar lessons to teach, but each is a troubling index of the directions being taken by our culture, and the third is frankly dangerous.


[1]Note that some (notably Catholics) commonly hold that using any contraceptive drug is wrong, while others hold that only abortifacients are immoral. The best treatment of the topic from a theological and medical perspective is now that of Megan Best, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: Ethics and the Beginning of Human Life (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2012). This distinction is one of the reasons why the current lawsuits brought against the federal government by Wheaton College and Catholic University of America, though linked, are nevertheless distinct.

Click to order the hardcover edition of D. A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance, or preorder the paperback edition (due out in early 2013).