“The only true spirit of tolerance consists in our conscientious toleration of each other’s intolerance.”

—S.T. Coleridge

Consider the unfortunate case of Prof. Thomas Klocek, whose story is one of many examples of intolerance recounted in D.A. Carson’s most recent book.  Klocek engaged in a brief debate with a group of Palestinian student activists at DePaul University in 2004.  He explained to the students that the word Palestinian was a term that properly referred to not one but several ethnic groups, and Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who resided in a common geographical area.  In addition, he objected to the students’ claim that the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinian Muslims was no different from Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.  For his trouble, he was suspended from teaching duties.  After he sued the university for defamation, Klocek’s case was dismissed by the Cook County Circuit Court in 2009.

Once upon a time American colleges and universities prided themselves on their tolerance.  Today, though the word is often mouthed by academics, they seem to mean something rather different by tolerance than did their colleagues in decades past, something that increasingly resembles a new intolerance.  A professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Carson effectively argues that the “new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant.  It is blind to its own moral shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral high ground.”  It is intolerant because it tolerates everything but any counterclaim that appears to question its foundational assumption that all moral (and, of course, religious) truth is relative, or that all cultures are intrinsically equal.  Borrowing a term from sociologist Peter Berger, Carson insists that the new tolerance has now become so deeply entrenched (not merely in academe) that it is today a part of the West’s “plausibility structure”—a belief unquestioned and profoundly reflexive.  Whereas the old tolerance was a strong-minded disposition to allow the expression of views and cultural attitudes fundamentally opposed to one’s own, while yet insisting on one’s right to insist that one’s own views were superior (possessing a greater degree of objective truth), the new tolerance insists that one must accept the truths of others as having a validity equal to one’s own.  Whatever underlying political or psychological motivation may be driving this shift in the meaning of tolerance, it is clear that the new tolerance is becoming increasingly repressive in the enforcement of its aims.

How we arrived at the new tolerance is a fascinating chapter in intellectual history, and Carson devotes substantial space to tracing that development.  When the modern idea of tolerance emerged in the 17th century in the wake of the wars of religion, it did so within the context of a civilization in which a shared vision of the common good still outweighed the value of the autonomous individual.  Yet even then—first, in John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and later, in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859)—we find that pleas for greater toleration were already premised on a dualistic distinction between private and public (political) realms, one in which moral and religious claims were increasingly relegated to the private, subjective sphere.  At the same time, in Mill and other 19th-century thinkers, we witness a growing enthusiasm for diversity as possessing an intrinsic value of its own—arguments “not simply for enduring diversity as conducive to peace or progress, but also for celebrating, approving and affirming it.”  Today, of course, the new tolerance and the celebration of diversity are the substance of the First and Second Commandments of our new Decalogue, but this transvaluation of our traditional perspective took some time to develop.  In the United States, at least, the seeds planted in the 19th century did not become deeply rooted until the 1960’s.  Carson does not, unfortunately, attempt to account for this delay, though one reason for it is self-evident: Adherence to traditional moral absolutes does not die easily.  Nonetheless, the Judeo-Christian moral order has been gradually eroded from within, and a number of factors could be cited here.  One of those, to which Carson might have paid greater attention, is the rise of a therapeutic culture that has its ultimate roots in the Transcendentalist spiritualism of New England sages such as Emerson and Thoreau.  However, Carson does point to the “domestication of religion . . . to the service of the self—or, more precisely, to the service of the self’s most narcissistic instincts.”  What has emerged out of the therapeutic culture is a new kind of self, a free-floating, feel-good self which is deeply offended by any suggestion that one set of moral or cultural “goods” may be superior to another.

Alongside the emergence of the new tolerance and its devotees, garbed in their multicultural rainbow robes, has arisen in America a quite fanatical movement to purge the public square of any taint of religiosity—or, at least, of any expression of religion that does not pay homage to the emperor’s naked splendor.  Two decades ago, in the University of Chicago Law Review, Kathleen Sullivan argued that the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment implied the “free exercise of non-religion.”  But for this to become a reality, she continued, “the banishment of religion from the public square” is necessary.  Working out the dualistic logic of J.S. Mill’s reflections on liberty, she magnanimously granted that religious “subcultures” might be allowed to “withdraw from regulation insofar as compatible with peaceful . . . coexistence.”  According to this view, which is now widely held by our intellectual, political, media, and even some religious elites, religious liberty should be encouraged (or tolerated) only where it does not impinge upon a secular moral order.  The underlying assumption here is that such a secular order is in fact superior because it is a neutral order—neutral with respect to the various and competing moral orders underwritten by religion.  Such claims of neutrality are specious, to say the least.  By the very logic of the moral relativism embraced by our elites, how can there be neutral moral claims, or any moral high ground from which all other claims can be judged to be flawed or “superstitious”?  The claim of neutrality is subject to the same suspicion as any other, if not an even deeper suspicion.  A secular moral order is nothing more than a militant grab for power on the part of a zealously antireligious elite whose ultimate aim is to neutralize and eviscerate all traditional moral hierarchies.  The new tolerance is their battering ram.  Much to his credit, Carson is willing to state, “I fail to see how such authority assigned to the ‘secular, moral order’ has any more limits on its gargantuan pretensions than the authority of, say, a Nazi regime or a totalitarian communist regime.”

Some Christian groups, it is true, have managed to thrive in the new privatized religious realm.  Many of these are evangelicals, especially those associated with the megachurch movement.  But Carson is a rigorous evangelical of a different stripe.  He notes insistently that a purely privatized Christianity is an impossibility.  Any authentic practice of one’s Christian moral convictions would inevitably place one at risk of public condemnation and even prosecution.  The reach of the courts is ever more intrusive and coercive.  In some U.S. jurisdictions, Carson notes, “you cannot be a pharmacist . . . and not sell abortifacients,” or practice gynecology “and not perform abortions, even if you are willing to recommend another physician.”  And, of course, as the legal status of homosexual “marriage” becomes increasingly accepted, it will be just a matter of time before Christian churches will find themselves facing lawsuits over refusing to rent their facilities to homosexual couples, or to provide insurance to the “spouses” of homosexual employees.  Yet if Christians fail to resist such incursions upon their consciences, retreating further and further into privatized realms of piety, what will remain of the historic Faith?  Carson reminds us that tyranny may just as well emerge from a democratic, morally relativistic regime as from a more overtly authoritarian one, especially as power is shifted out of the hands of legislative bodies and into the courts and a variety of agencies, both national and international, administered by elites unaccountable to the people.  But neither should the “will of the people,” so easily manipulated by propaganda in an age of weak social cohesion, be mistaken for a biblically ordained moral order:

When citizens and government officials alike distance themselves . . . from questions of truth and morality, then what the state will and will not tolerate becomes hijacked by current agendas that may easily become coercive.

I applaud and admire Carson’s efforts to expose the new tolerance for what it really is, and to exhort us to seek a return to the old tolerance.  But I am far less sanguine about that possibility than is he.  As Carson writes, the old tolerance (really a secularized version of Christian charity) assumed the existence of a substantial degree of consensus on moral questions.  It upheld dialogue as a viable path toward establishing or discovering the truth, even while it was realistic enough to recognize that complete agreement on the truth would never be realized.  Today, however, the sort of broad moral consensus that would allow a genuine dialogue to occur no longer exists.  What passes for dialogue in the public square is little more than a blind and centrifugal cacophony of ill-informed opinions and self-centered tweeting.  Carson’s book is addressed primarily to Christians, and he is certainly correct in concluding that those of us who are concerned about religious liberty in the era of the new tolerance have no choice but to seek every opportunity to insist publicly upon the reality of moral and religious truths that transcend the quagmire of relativism.  But we should at the same time redouble our efforts to prepare for the worst, to build communities of charity and moral rigor that will withstand the persecutions to come.


[The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing) 186 pp. $16.00]