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Tired of Being Called a Morality Cop (and Other Bad Names)?

  • One day over coffee with your friend Vanessa, the topic turns to religion and you naturally mention that you’re Catholic. She replies, “I’m not religious, but if I were, I think I’d investigate the Eastern religions.” “Why those?” you ask. “Because at least they teach that there are many roads to God. Christianity is so cramped and narrow-minded.”
  • During a break at work, your colleague Jason expresses satisfaction that the company’s new health insurance policy covers abortion. “But I don’t think it should,” you say. “Why not?” he asks, surprised. “Because abortion is wrong,” you reply. He rolls his eyes in disapproval. “Who made you the morality cop for everyone else?”
  • The doorbell rings. It’s your neighbor Ted, asking you to sign a petition in support of same-sex marriage. “I’ll have to pass on this one,” you answer. He presses, “I’m not asking for a contribution, just your signature, to show that you agree.” “But that’s what I’m trying to tell you: I don’t agree. Marriage is between a man and a woman.” “Oh,” he replies, shocked. “I didn’t know you were a homophobe. What do you have against love?”

What all three of these scenarios have in common is the charge of intolerance. You’re narrow-minded—intolerant of other people’s religion. You’re a morality cop—intolerant of other people’s lifestyle choices. You’re homophobic—intolerant of other people’s loves.

Even our Protestant brothers and sisters, who fight side by side with us when “tolerationists” charge Christianity with narrow-mindedness, sometimes borrow the slogans of tolerationists when it comes to Catholicism.

  • It’s Saturday and you’re at a family gathering. Your fundamentalist brother-in-law, Sam, takes the opportunity to broach an issue you know has been bothering him for a long time. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he says, “why is it so all-fired important for you and Melissa to be Catholic?” You answer, “We simply believe Catholicism is true.” He replies, “What gives you the right to judge? Do you Catholics really believe you have a monopoly on truth?”

So now you’re a judgmentalist—intolerant of other people’s interpretations of Christianity.

Classical apologetics is not much help in answering accusations like these. Its methods were developed for people who were willing to argue about whether their moral or religious views were true. Today, though, people avoid that kind of conversation at all costs. For the most part, the people we run into in daily life don’t want to argue about whether beliefs are true but only about whether they are tolerant. Even raising the question of truth may seem intolerant to them; as soon as you ask, “But is that view true? ” you lose your place in the discussion.

Why They Avoid the T Word

Human beings have a natural desire to know truth, so the curious reluctance to talk about truth requires explanation. There must be strong counter-motives quietly at work, deep down, competing with the longing for truth.

I count at least four such motives. Two are good at root but confused. The other two, I am sorry to say, are simply bad. Of course, confused or bad motives don’t prove that tolerationism is in error, but they do help explain why tolerationists so often argue irrationally. If we understand such motives, this irrationality won’t catch us by surprise.

The two good-but-confused motives for avoiding truth go together: Fear of violence and fear of persecution. Because history has contained so many religious wars and violations of conscience, many people leap to the conclusion that religious belief itself is a cause of wars and persecutions. It may not occur to them that if you want to know whether someone is prone to violence or persecution, the important question is not whether he ardently believes something but what it is that he ardently believes. Now, in this part of the world, the main religion—and so, to their way of thinking, the main thing to be feared—is Christianity. Over time, they come to view not only Christian beliefs about God but also Christian morality with alarm. This alarm comes to color even their view of natural law principles like the Ten Commandments.

What about the simply bad motives for tolerationist avoidance? The first bad motive develops if I am leading a way of life that cannot bear examination. It is difficult to concoct a convincing excuse for glaring sin, especially a sin that corrupts or takes advantage of others. Instead I talk about tolerance, being non-judgmental, and how there are many ways to God. It gets me off that embarrassing hook, at least for a while. Not only does it change the subject, but it also seems to shift the burden of proof. I don’t have to justify my behavior; you have to justify your right to have an opinion about the matter. Neat trick.

The second bad motive for tolerationist avoidance is what might be called disguised dictatorship. A dictator forces unpopular rules on others without having to justify them. Now, the easiest way I know to force unpopular moral rules on others without having to justify them is to deny that they are moral rules—to disguise them. Consider, for example, the (false) moral rule that abortion isn’t wrong but that preventing it is. You would think that proponents would offer a moral justification for their moral rule, but few even try to do so. Instead, they pretend that it isn’t a moral rule. They take their stand on tolerance, saying, “I’m not making a moral judgment. I’m for choice.” Of course, children who are aborted have no choice, and people who want to protect them have no choice either. The only choice protected by “choice” is the choice to kill. What this seemingly tolerant slogan accomplishes is the power to legislate the abortionist morality in the name of not legislating morality. This is disguised dictatorship.

Not everyone who preaches false views of tolerance shares all of these motives. Moreover, the mere fact that a person has a bad motive for preaching something doesn’t prove that the view he is preaching is false. But that is not the end of the story. The false tolerationists all share a set of deep errors about the nature of tolerance itself.

Tolerance: The Real Deal

Tolerance isn’t a new idea, nor is it a vice. The problem is that tolerationists today understand it so poorly. Rightly understood, tolerance is a virtue. Not that Christians have always practiced it—let’s not forget that some of those religious wars and persecutions were carried on among Christians. But the foundations of a sound understanding of tolerance go back to the most ancient defenders of the Church, so I’ll call the view that I defend “classical” tolerance.

The contemporary understanding of tolerance is that it means suspending moral judgment. This is a dead end, because it is impossible to suspend moral judgment. After all, even the idea that we ought to be tolerant reflects a moral judgment. A person who denies that preferring tolerance is a moral judgment is left without a coherent explanation for why he tolerates some things (say, abortion) but does not tolerate others (say, rape).

The classical view of tolerance, on the other hand, doesn’t mean suspending moral judgment. It actually requires moral judgment.

Here is the classical view in a nutshell: To tolerate something is to put up with it even though we believe it to be bad or false. But the virtue of tolerance doesn’t mean tolerating everything bad or false in every way; it means knowing which bad and false things to put up with, in what ways, to what degrees, and on which occasions. The paradox of tolerance is that when we rightly tolerate something bad or false, we do so not because we don’t love truth and goodness enough to defend them but because we love them too much to defend them in the wrong way.

Some ways of resisting evil are injurious to the good, and certain ways of resisting error are injurious to truth. For example, we should not use violence to convert heretics. Their views are unquestionably harmful and false, yet to use violence against them would not promote truth and good; it would promote further harm and falsehood because by its very nature, faith is voluntary, and whatever is not voluntary is not faith.

Help from the Fathers

One of the best early explanations of classical tolerance is in the Divine Institutes of the fourth century Christian writer Lactantius, who explains why the use of violence by the persecutors of Christianity is wrong. He explains that to understand the right way to defend true religion, you have to understand what religion is:

Oh with what an honorable inclination the wretched men go astray! For they are aware that there is nothing among men more excellent than religion and that this ought to be defended with the whole of our power; but as they are deceived in the matter of religion itself, so also are they in the manner of its defense.

Where, then, do the persecutors go wrong? The corrected text: The first part of his answer is that violence against conscience in defense of Christian truth is contrary to Christian truth:

Religion is to be defended not by putting to death but by dying, not by cruelty but by patient endurance, not by guilt but by good faith: for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods, and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion and not that which is evil. If you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended but will be polluted and profaned.

But if you are defending truth, why can’t you use violence in its defense? The answer is that whatever you accomplished by violence, it wouldn’t be genuine faith.

For nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion, in which, if the mind of the worshiper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away and ceases to exist. There is no occasion for violence and injury, for imposed by force.

Then what is the right way to defend true religion? Although it is futile to use violence to persuade, errors should be vigorously resisted by other means, especially persuasion and example.

The matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Let [the pagans] unsheath the weapon of their intellect; if their system is true, let it be asserted. . . . Let them imitate us in setting forth the system of the whole matter: For we do not entice, as they say, but we teach, we prove, we show.

I must make only one more point to head off a possible misunderstanding. The same understanding of truth and good that tells us why we should practice tolerance also shows us the limits of what may be tolerated. It is one thing to provide legal toleration for the false opinion that infanticide is good; compulsion cannot convert. It is quite another thing to provide legal toleration for infanticide; compulsion can save babies. The duty of the state to restrain wrongdoing is not destroyed by the possibility that the wrongdoers may consider their acts right!

How to Get Out of the Trap

When you find yourself in a tolerationist conversational trap like those described at the beginning of this article, you should seek to do two things: First, get out of the trap. Then lead the conversation in a more constructive direction. The way to get out of the trap is to turn the tables on your conversational partner—to show that he is the one in a trap. You can always do this, because his view of tolerance demands an impossibility: It forces him to deny the moral judgments that he is making all the time. The way to lead the conversation in a more constructive direction is to direct it away from contemporary tolerationism—which tries to suspend judgments about morality and truth—and toward classical tolerance—which tries to make humane and prudent judgments about morality and truth.

It helps to do all this with humor, so loosen up. After all, the truth is on your side.

  • Remember Sam? He’s the fundamentalist brother-in-law who griped about Catholics claiming to have a monopoly on truth. This seems to be the most difficult case because he’s family. Actually it’s the easiest, because if he is serious about his Christian faith, then in a certain sense he’s on your side already because he believes in objective truth. Stay friendly, but put him on the hook. Say to him, “Forget about Catholicism for a moment. Let’s talk about Christianity in general. Do you think that Jesus is our Savior?” If he is a typical fundamentalist, he will answer from Scripture: “Yes, I believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Then you can say, “I agree! But what if I were a non-believer, and I answered, ‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life? What gives you the right to judge? You Christians think you have a monopoly on truth’?” If he does hold a Christian view of truth, your question will bring him back to his Christian senses. Seize the opportunity. Say, “I knew you didn’t really think that it’s wrong to believe in the truth. No Christian does. The important question is what the truth is. Why don’t we discuss that instead?”
  • Remember Vanessa? She’s the friend who said Christianity is cramped and narrow-minded because it won’t say that there are many roads to God. You might give a smile as you reply, “Why, Vanessa, that’s the most intolerant thing I’ve ever heard you say.” Naturally your response surprises her. She answers, “Me, intolerant? How do you figure that?” You reply, “Well, let me ask you a question: Is it more tolerant to say, ‘I’m open to investigating what roads might lead to God’ or to say, ‘I refuse to investigate the matter, and if you don’t agree with me ahead of time that every road is as good as every other, I’ll call you names’?” Vanessa may wriggle for a while, but you’ve turned the tables. Now she is in the trap. The only way for her to demonstrate her tolerance is to show her willingness to investigate what she refused to investigate before!
  • Remember Jason? He’s the co-worker who called you a morality cop because you didn’t think the company’s health insurance policy should cover abortion. “It seems to me that you’re the morality cop,” you say, chuckling. “You want to police where my money goes.” He answers, “But you’re being moralistic. I’m just being pro-choice.” “I hear you,” you answer. “You’re pro-having-the-choice-to-make-me-pay-for-things-I-don’t-choose-to-do.” Jason may be annoyed with you, but you’ve turned the tables. Now he is in the trap. The only way for him to demonstrate his tolerance is to show his willingness to discuss which choices should be made!
  • Remember Ted? He’s the neighbor who called you a homophobe for refusing to sign a petition in support of so-called gay marriage. His case is more difficult. It’s unlikely that you’ll change his mind, or even turn his anger, right there at the front door. For him, the legal issue might be entangled with personal issues. But you can open the door to a calmer conversation that he may be willing to have in the future. Start by turning the tables—but gently. This time the conversation may pass through several stages. It might go something like this:

You: “I know you don’t mean to be rude, but isn’t that an intolerant question? Would you have been persuaded if I’d said, ‘I didn’t know you were a heterophobe’?”

Ted: “That’s not the same. You’re discriminating, but I’m not. I’m not against different-sex love, but you are against same-sex love.”

You: “I’m not against same-sex love. I love my Dad, and he’s the same sex.”

Ted: “That’s not the same thing. You don’t have sex with him.”

You: “No, but I don’t get it—are you suggesting that I should?”

Ted: “Of course not! That’s disgusting.”

You: “Then you discriminate too, don’t you? You’re against incest.”

Ted is now trapped. He can’t admit that he opposes incest without denying his principle that tolerance is about suspending moral judgment. Probably, he will simply say that it’s a waste of time to talk with you, then walk away. So long as you remain courteous and cordial, that’s not necessarily bad. He will remember that he was trapped, and it may get under his skin and make him think. Perhaps he will be willing to continue the conversation another time.

If Ted does concede your point that he “discriminates” too, then take the next step. Turn the conversation in a more constructive direction by saying something like this: “I’m glad we agree! Logically, then, we also agree that we can’t settle the question of whether same-sex unions should be called marriages just by saying that we’re against discrimination. Maybe we could make more progress toward an answer by asking why the law defines ‘marriage’ in the first place.” He answers, “What do you say is the reason? “You reply, “I think it’s that the union of a man and a woman leads to children. The law has to define the relationship so that every kid has a fighting chance of being raised by a mom and a dad.”

Who knows where that point might lead? What I like about it is that it’s not a conversation stopper. It’s a conversation starter. And that’s just what you want.

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