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Excellent insights and, unfortunately, prescient words from David S. Crawford writing in Humanum in 2012 on same-sex unions and two versions of tolerance:

This last point concerning the legal value of moral disapproval of a majority suggests another theme in the courts’ reasoning–the sharp distinction between public reason and private morality. The claim of the traditional arguments’ irrationality is of course made in a civil and legal context. The courts emphasize repeatedly that they are only addressing “civil marriage,” that is to say, marriage insofar as it is a juridical creature of state legislation. This limitation allows them to say that they are not mandating a moral position, but only making a judgment about what the law requires. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code” is a claim piously repeated by the courts. The Goodridge court appears at least to acknowledge the legitimacy of citizens’ deeply help convictions on both sides of the “gay marriage” issue. The implication would seem to be, then, that the issue of “gay marriage” transects two distinct domains–the public and the private–and that, if the traditional arguments are not civilly or legally rational, they may be rational — and therefore morally sustainable — in contexts other than civil or legal one, where broader religious and moral starting points are relevant and may be decisive.

The courts seem, therefore, to offer a kind of settlement of the issue, by means of the distinction between the public and the private. But this “settlement” trades on an ambiguity in the idea of “tolerance.” The ostensibly non-moral notion of tolerance proffered by the courts would treat the concept as merely legal one. It would have us suppose that tolerance means government neutrality to two positions, a neutrality that would leave in place a kind of modus vivendi between irreconcilable worldviews. The question then is whether tolerance can really be thought of in this way, or whether it does not slide into another sense of tolerance, one which is thoroughly moral. This latter would see tolerance not as an agreement to disagree for practical and political reasons, but as signifying an imperative for the acceptance of diverse views and ways as equally valid.

This second version of tolerance, then, offers a standard for judgement concerning the proper disposition one has toward all others within society. Anyone who does not accept this moral standard sets himself beyond the pale of legitimate public discourse. Where this happens, a given private position might be politically and legally “tolerated” on a conditional basis due to prudential considerations, such as preserving countervailing principles of autonomy (e.g. “religious freedom”) or the undesirability of intruding too overtly in domestic or ecclesial matters. This second version would nevertheless seek gradually to instill tolerance as a personal and public virtue, one that would dictate a moral and finally anthropological position regarding questions such as that of “gay marriage.” It would seek to inculcate not only a begrudging acceptance of the de facto presence of an opposing worldview, but the actual embrace of the new idea of marriage–that “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” marriage are essentially and morally equivalent and should be accepted as such.

If the courts at times speak as though they have the “merely” legal notion of tolerance in mind, in reality of course they have the second, and necessarily so. This is because tolerance in the first sense can only be an illusion in issues that involve beliefs about vital human matters. These matters that necessarily involve our deepest convictions about what humanity is. Disagreement on such points cannot help but touch on the foundations of culture and society. In a moment we will see that an anthropological shift is underway. But, for now, if the arguments against “gay marriage” are publically irrational, that must necessarily mean that they are also publically bigoted. But bigoted public arguments are in fact immoral public arguments, and this means that the private position will always be at least publically immoral. But can there be a position that is publically immoral and yet privately moral? If issues such as “gay marriage” necessarily imply a certain conception of society, then rejection of the conception will appear to be antisocial, uncivil. And so it turns out that the concept of “tolerance” is in fact a demand of conformity in moral and anthropological belief.

In short, the tolerance that really is proffered is provisional and contingent, tailored to accommodate what is conceived as a significant but shrinking segment of society that holds a publically unacceptable private bigotry. Where over time it emerges that this bigotry has not in fact disappeared, more aggressive measures will be needed, which will include more explicit legal and educational components, as well as simple ostracism.

The reason many corporations, members of the media, and ten thousands angry tweeters do not feel the need to examine the arguments for religious freedom is because they don’t think any rational arguments can be made in this instance. Traditional views about marriage are so 1990’s and so obviously immoral that anyone holding such views today does not deserve our respect, let alone any whiff of legal protection. We should not expect our ideas to be debated fairly when it has already been concluded that there are no ideas to consider, only bigotry to suppress. As I’ve said before, why argue about dogma when stigma will do?


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11 thoughts on “A Fleeting Tolerance”

  1. Curt Day says:

    What this blogpost is saying is that this society is not big enough for Christianity and same-sex marriage. Perhaps, that is why, in the past, some felt the need to be intolerant of homosexuality as demonstrated in when it was criminalized to making it grounds for a legal from a job which can still happen in many locations to putting a rider on the legalization of same-sex marriage that allows various levels of Jim Crow laws and kind of treatment of homosexuals. And lest I forget, how many of us wanted society to stigmatize homosexuals gave license to those in society who were self-controlled impaired to physically and/or emotionally abuse homosexuals.

    That was the demonstrable past. What DeYoung is asserting here is that the allowance of same-sex marriage in society will cause a returning of at least some of the favors many Christians gave homosexuals. But we should note that that is deductively concluded, not observed. And perhaps that could perhaps occur to some degree, but we should note the context in which it occurs. That context consists of many conservative Christians pleading for the continued right to show at least some intolerance of homosexuals.

    Because of that desire to show intolerance, we have a logical slight of hand trick going on. While some fellow Christians, like DeYoung, will want to blame any intolerance shown to Christians on society’s acceptance of that kind of marriage, we will never ask if any intolerance shown to us will be due to our intolerance of them.

  2. Cedric Berger says:

    “We should not expect our ideas to be debated fairly when it has already been concluded that there are no ideas to consider, only bigotry to suppress”.

    Yes, unfortunately, this is true.

    As Ronald J. Sider said in his remarkable post on that subject last year (CT, Nov 18):

    If the devil had designed a strategy to discredit the historic Christian position on sexuality, he could not have done much better than what the evangelical community has actually done in the last several decades.

  3. WhiskeyBucks says:

    The problem is, obviously, that you have two sides that don’t trust each other, and not with symmetry of that distrust.

    The Church in the West has been in a cultural firestorm for half a century over public sexual norms. We fought against the normalization of pornography, no-fault divorce, premarital sex, abortion laws and in some cases contraceptives, and now gay marriage. We’ve lost on all fronts, and by and large society is not the better for it. When Playboy hit the shelves, no one, not even the most extravagant libertine, imagined the scope, volume and nightmarish character of the pornography that would be pumped into homes all over the country where any unsupervised child could view easier than sneaking a cookie. And people are shocked, SHOCKED, that young college males who were raised on this stuff are, after being assisted by their university to get black out drunk, sexually assaulting and degrading women. Throw in the AIDS epidemic, 40 million aborted pregnancies, tens of millions of other STD cases, a preposterous divorce rate and on and on, and I’m looking for the material upswing of the sexual revolution.

    All this against the backdrop of treating gay people like garbage. So while the Church tries to croak out SOMETHING of communicative relevance, we whored off our only shot at something approaching credibility by trading the deep theology of sin for the cheap social narcotic of taboo. And the “bigot” label is now permanently attached in the eyes of those who scorned us for our morality, no matter how much a repentant Church affirms the moral worth of the personhood of anyone, including, and perhaps especially gay persons.

  4. JohnM says:

    @WhiskeyBucks – Hard to decipher if you’re for or if you’re against.

  5. WhiskeyBucks says:

    For or against what? I affirm the traditional Christian sexual ethic on philosophical and exegetical means. But I have no illusions about my credibility to the secular liberal public. On one hand, we speak different languages according to totally different moral paradigms, and on the other, even if I put together any kind of reasonable argument defending my beliefs, it’s dismissed out of hand as that of a bigot, because there WERE bigoted people saying similar things. Being a bigot and believing in a Christian sexual ethic are not mutually exclusive, but they are not axiomatic to one another, and it’s the latter point that’s nigh on impossible to communicate to people who refuse to recognize it.

  6. Ron says:

    Or as Larry Norman once put it, “Your karma ran over my dogma.”

  7. Dan says:

    Curt, would you also be tolerant of an incestuous marriage? Between a brother and sister, or a brother and brother?

  8. anaquaduck says:

    One of the downsides of democracy is that the majority are not always right & the ruling elite hold great sway, humanly speaking. The meaning of tolerance definately has two faces.

    Interesting quote about the karma regarding dogma, but as the new (old really) belief is adopted what will its consequences & outcomes be…not laying down in an alleged bed of roses, more like waking up on a bed of nails.

    God’s good gifts are not to be squandered or twisted but its hard to point that out in a post modern world where tolerenace, equality & self get mixed into a blur of self righteousness.

  9. Curt Day says:

    Dan,
    In the Church, no. But what if it is legal? And how would one show intolerance?

    And, btw, one of the reasons it is not legal is because of the harm such unions do to offspring.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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