The meaning of intolerance

Posted: Jul 21, 2004 12:00 AM
I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. Is the headline in The New York Times letters section an example of dangerously Orwellian doublespeak or an amusing form of self-parody: "Religious Intolerance Among Americans"? Beneath the headline, Americans are judging religions they disagree with. For readers of The New York Times, that means Christian fundamentalists.

Where else can the contemporary reader get that satisfying smash-thine-enemies jolt while simultaneously enjoying the serene pleasure of knowing oneself among the good (read: peaceful, tolerant) folk? Haloes up, please!

Robert Reich, a former Cabinet secretary, implies in this month's issue of the American Prospect that Christian fundamentalists are even more dangerous than people who blow up skyscrapers. And he defines fundamentalism awfully broadly: "Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority ... between those who believe in science, reason and logic, and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face."

The greatest danger we face may be from illiberals like Reich who seek ways to de-legitimize and disenfranchise (rather than engage) ideas with which they disagree. For Reich, public arguments can be divided into two categories: "public morality," which consists of all the moral views he finds attractive and important, and "private morality," which consists of all the moral views he'd like to drive out of political life. "For religious zealots, there is no distinction between the two realms."

The fusion of all the people one dislikes into one great massive threat to our democratic way of life may be satisfying to the passions, but a man who wrote a book called "Reason" should know better. Whatever their defects, Christian fundamentalists have lived peacefully among us in America for several hundred years. To equate these religious beliefs, however repugnant or illogical you may find them, with terrorism is morally despicable and intellectually absurd. And, frankly, dangerous. Because the people who increasingly espouse this religious intolerance are, unlike Christian fundamentalists themselves, powerfully enfranchised elites.

In his recent pronouncements, Sen. John Kerry, for example, has tiptoed perilously close to endorsing the political philosophy of Reich. At a Fourth of July barbecue in Iowa, Kerry explained why, despite his expressed personal opposition to abortion, he has a 100 percent voting record with NARAL Pro-Choice America:

On abortion, he said, "I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist who doesn't share it. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America."

Let us think through for a minute what Kerry is saying. Catholics such as him are obligated to support legalized abortion. To do anything else would be illegitimate and undemocratic, a violation of fundamental constitutional principles of America. Our shared democratic faith obliges Catholics to vote against their consciences. Separation of church and state turns out to mean the state can bully or silence religious people.

Is Kerry similarly obliged to vote for the death penalty, because to fail to do so would be to impose his Catholic views on the non-Catholic majority?

To imply that religious believers have no right to engage moral questions in the public square or at the ballot is simply to establish a Reichian secularism as our state faith. I don't think that's what the First Amendment is all about. Our Constitution does not promise separation of church and state (a phrase that appears nowhere in the text); it does promise each and every one of us religious liberty, whatever our faiths may be.

Americans of all political and religious persuasions should stand shoulder to shoulder for that.