Reporting on (In)tolerance

Sunday's New York Times article on schools' efforts to end bullying seemed an “aw shucks” case-study of the law of unintended consequences. School districts, eager to stop the kind of harassment that led to a recent spate of gay teen suicides, are teaching tolerance. Sounds good, right?

But portraying homosexual relations as normal rubs religious conservatives the wrong way.

“Of course we're all against bullying,” one Montana minister told the Times. “But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don't want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values.”

That statement begs for deeper reporting, but like most mainstream news outlets, when it comes to probing conservative religion and religious belief, the Times seldom wants to go there. For example, some of the biblical passages condemning homosexual acts–most notably Leviticus 20:13–prescribe death for the persons committing the acts. How does the minister in the Times article reconcile what the Bible “clearly says” with the imperative to protect all children, both gay and straight, from violence? And how do the First Amendment's clauses respecting religion figure into the mix?

Teaching tolerance is not a simple matter if the takeaway is that all people deserve dignity and respect regardless of religious, racial, ethnic or sexual differences. For Times readers–most of whom, it's safe to say, believe that pluralism and open-mindedness go hand in hand–it's a particularly hard lesson. But tolerating difference is not the same as condoning it, which is why the Montana minister and many others want to stop schools that “promote acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle” maybe even more than they want to stop bullies.

Ultimately the problem for religious conservatives isn't just about homosexuality; it's about tolerating any state-sanctioned deviation from what they consider the norm. From this perspective, any constraints on religious speech in the public sphere, especially when it comes to sexual mores, is a violation of the First Amendment's clause respecting the free exercise of religion.

But that's not a dilemma that Times readers associate with the America of their day-to-day experience. Rather intolerance of others is someone else's problem – it's the French who don't want schoolchildren wearing religious garb, it's Saudis who won't let Christians build churches in their country, it's Iranians who believe in a worldwide Jewish cabal. They don't realize that beyond their bubble of blue lies a vast sea of red where an increasing number of conservative voters see the promotion of the liberal values of “tolerance” as an effort to establish secularism as the official American civil religion.

If the absolute conflict of religious absolutes seems to increasingly define global politics, it's also starting to define our own political culture. Americans, especially self-styled secularists, seem unaware of the religious values to which they are absolutely bound: civility, self-determination and individualism. Despite some glaring historic exceptions (indigenous Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, South Asians), our credo has been live and live—and in the twentieth century the circle seemed to grow. But times are changing and what happens when tolerance is no longer tolerated? The Times raises the question, but we need a lot more reporting on possible answers to it.

Diane Winston

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