Sunday, August 10, 2014

Drawing the Line: Notes on Persecution and Tolerance

Jean-Léon Gérôme / The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
I've been thinking about tolerance a lot recently (see last post), and I'm planning to do a post that really grapples with the idea of the limits of tolerance. We all agree that some things, like murder and theft, shouldn't be tolerated, so how can we find the line between what should be tolerated and what shouldn't? But doing that topic justice is going to take some serious background reading and head-scratching, so today I'm going to write about something easier.

I'm guessing that if many conservative Christians read my last post, which celebrated tolerance, some of them will be thinking something like, "Yeah, well, you certainly spend a lot of time attacking conservative Christian ideas like creationism and support for traditional marriage. Just how tolerant are you, buster?"

It's a reasonable question, and one that deserves an answer. It seems to me that one of the biggest drivers of this country's current political divisiveness is misunderstanding. People don't understand what those on the other side really think. They see their opponents as more extreme, and less well-meaning, than they actually are. Some conservatives seem to think liberal democrats are really Leninists, and some liberals seem think conservatives are really fascists. I'm pretty sure they're both wrong. So, I think it would help if people on each side took the time to explain what they actually DO think. Maybe it would ease the other side's mind?

This is especially true when it comes to religion. Religious conservatives and secular liberals like me have a terrible time understanding each other, because we really do have strikingly different views of...well...reality. Why are we here; where did the universe come from and how old is it, why do good and bad things happen, what happens after we die, what are the foundations of morality--we don't just have different answers to these questions; we may even have entirely different ways of conceptualizing them.

I think this misunderstanding is part of the reason some Christians think secular liberals are out to get them.You often hear Christian conservatives in this country claim they're being persecuted. People like me, admittedly, find this laughable. After all, Christian conservatives are still one of the most powerful groups in this country. Self-proclaimed evangelical, born-again Christians regularly become governors, senators, and presidents. Self-proclaimed atheists and secular humanists do not. If you want to see real persecution of Christians, look at what ISIS is doing right now to Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. That's the real deal, and it's horrifying. Telling Christian teachers they can't lead their public school classrooms in prayer is not in the same ballpark. It's not even persecution at all.

Still, the secular side occasionally goes too far. A while back, a college professor caused a furor by telling students to write Jesus' name on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. If that's what really happened (and accounts differ) then yes, that professor would have been totally out of line. Recently, the CEO of Mozilla, the company that makes Firefox, resigned after it came out that he was against gay marriage. I haven't looked into exactly what happened, but he does seem to have been the victim of a bit of a witchhunt. After all, it's still perfectly legal to be against gay marriage in this country, and I hope it always will be--even though I'm a vocal supporter of gay marriage.

Despite these lapses in tolerance from the liberal side, it's clear that some Christians have an exaggerated view of how far liberals would (or could) go in opposing them. For example, a movie just came out called--you guessed it--Persecuted. It played here, and I thought about going just to see how the other side thinks, but I couldn't quite force myself to give them my ten bucks. The premise is that Congress tries to pass a law called the Faith and Fairness act, which forces religious broadcasters to give other religious views equal time. A minister refuses to support it, and the next thing you know, he's been framed for murder and is on the run. Former presidential candidate Fred Thompson is in the movie, as is Fox news anchor Greta Van Susteren, so this is not a fringe effort. Apparently many conservative Christians really think such a bill could pass in this country.

This tells me they think secular liberals like me are a touch more militant, and a whole lot more powerful, than we really are. That's why I think we should explain what we really do think and want, because we're apparently not making our intentions clear. I can't speak for others, but I can say explain my own views.

So here goes. First, I would never support a measure forcing religious people to support religions besides their own. I wouldn't support a law requiring ministers who object to gay marriage to marry gay people. But I do support laws that prevent businesses from discriminating against gays, for the same reason I support laws preventing discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, etc. Yes, I know there are difficult lines to be drawn between not forcing clergy to marry gay couples and disallowing discrimination in businesses, but that's where I think the line should go.

The point is, I do think there's a line, and we shouldn't go past it. What most people in this country don't realize about their opponents in the culture wars is that they do have lines beyond which they won't go. At least, I hope they do. That's one of my lines, and I would love to hear my conservative Christian friends tell me where their lines lie over on the other side.

As for things like public prayer, I think school kids should be allowed to pray if they want to as long as it's not disruptive. That's what they law says they can do. People who say kids aren't allowed to pray in schools are misinformed at best and lying at worst. I think teachers should be allowed to pray on their own time, but not lead students in prayer. Public schools shouldn't support any religion in any official capacity. There should be no prayers at graduation or football games, because you can't assume all the kids in that school are Christians, or even religious at all. Government entities like public schools should be officially neutral when it comes to religion, because it's everybody's government--not just the Christians'.

Finally, I don't think telling public school employees they can't promote religion while they are at school or acting in an official capacity amounts to persecution. If we started telling them they couldn't promote religion on their own time, or attend a certain church, or write editorials supporting conservative values, then THAT would be persecution.

Some of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have declared that parents who tell children they were born sinners, deserve to go to hell, and will in fact go there if they don't believe certain things, are basically engaging in psychological abuse. They've even questioned whether society should allow it. While I dislike the idea that parents tell their kids these things, I would never support laws telling them they can't. That would be going much too far, and besides, people would rise up with guns blazing if the law ever passed. It's not going to happen, and it shouldn't happen. I still stand by my right to question parents telling their young children their Jewish or Hindu friends are going to hell. But I'll also (force myself to) stand by their right to do so. As the saying commonly attributed to Voltaire (but really said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) goes: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I could go on, but this post is long enough, and it's not like my personal views are important, anyway. It's just that, once again, I think the misunderstandings in this country would be alleviated a little if people would explain what they really do think. That's all I'm trying to do here. To return to the question at the beginning of this post, am I intolerant of conservative Christianity and fundamentalism in other religions? It depends on what you mean by "intolerant." If speaking out against things like young earth creationism and official school prayer is intolerance, then I guess I'm intolerant. But that's an acceptable level of intolerance in a free and pluralistic society, just as it's acceptable for Christians to speak out against my beliefs.

It's also an acceptable level of intolerance to tell teachers they can't proselytize in the classroom. But here's the thing: this doesn't just go for Christian teachers. Atheist teachers shouldn't be allowed to promote atheism, and Muslim teachers shouldn't be allowed to promote Islam. Not in the classroom. If they want to do it on their own time, that's their business.

It's really all about fairness, and deciding where we should draw the line between what should and shouldn't be tolerated. My point here is that most people on both sides of this country's cultural/political divide do think there should be lines. I don't ever want to tell Christians, or members of any other religion, that they can't think, act, and worship according to their conscience (as long as they're not imposing on the rights of others). I hope most conservative Christians don't ever want to tell me I can't think and act according to my own conscience, or tell me that, as a secular agnostic, I'm not as much an American citizen as they are. I think they have lines of their own. Despite my fears when I hear people like Rick Santorum and James Dobson speak, I don't think most conservative Christians really want to turn this country into a Christian theocracy.

Well, I hope they don't. But it would ease my mind if they came out and said so, just as I hope some of the things I've said ease their minds. So how about it, friends on the other side: where are do you draw your lines?