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The Intolerance of Christian Conservatives


In a story titled “Survey Finds Church-Going Americans Less Tolerant” (Reuters, 1/22/05), Michael Conlon writes:

Church-going Americans have grown increasingly intolerant in the past four years of politicians making compromises on such hot issues as abortion and gay rights, according to a survey released on Saturday. At the same time, those polled said they were growing bolder about pushing their beliefs on others — even at the risk of offending someone.

The trends could indicate that religion has become “more prominent in American discourse … more salient,” according to Ruth Wooden, president of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization which released the survey.

It could also indicate “more polarized political thinking. There do not seem to be very many voices arguing for compromise today,” she said in an interview. “It could be that more religious voices feel under siege, pinned against the wall by cultural developments. They may feel more emboldened as a result.”

This analysis is correct in terms of the results of intolerance-the refusal to compromise, pushing one’s beliefs on others, an emboldened willingness to offend-but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter: what causes today’s conservative Christian to be so intolerant.

I’ve noticed that liberal and moderate writers make the same mistaken assumption about what’s causing rightwing Christians to become more actively intolerant towards people who are different from themselves: that intolerance and persecution fly in the face of Christian teachings, hence represent hypocrisy. And if that’s all it is, then we need only alert them to this fact and they, being Christians, will be horrified to realize that they’ve been led astray, repent, and change their ways.

My friend, the truth hurts: Intolerance has become a standard “Christian” teaching in conservative circles and is now a badge of honor. When Antonio Scalia exhorted conservative Christians to “Be a fool for Christ!”, he was speaking in the longstanding tradition of sacrificing one’s pride and risking ridicule with gratitude for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us (even semi-atheistic Mark Twain once wrote, “I’m God’s fool”). But Scalia was also alluding to the proud-to-be-intolerant theme.

Scalia was urging his listeners to hold onto their intolerance even when others (liberal Christians included) accused them of being persecutory, hostile, or bigoted. They must remain intolerant because intolerance has been given a makeover: It’s now the most readily observable hallmark of the virtuous and courageous conservative Christian. While intolerance was considered a grave sin back when America was marching towards civil rights instead of away from them, today that vice has become-presto!-a virtue. This means that conservative Christians must become increasingly intolerant in order to demonstrate their faith, and the more in-your-face the intolerance is, the better.

No room here for wishy-washy-“Well I don’t like gay marriage but I guess it doesn’t bother me; I don’t even know any gay people”-if you want to win God’s approval and that of your conservative Christian friends, by golly you’d better start letting gay people know you mean business:

Change the Constitution, boycott business that market to gay people. Keep gays out of public schools, or ban books about them at the library. For Pete’s sake, just do something! Don’t let your worldly desire to be liked or your ungodly desire for peace keep you from working in the Lord’s service! Didn’t Christ die for your sins? Didn’t he say he was coming to earth with a sword? Onward Christian soldiers! The fight is not for the weary, nor the lazy! You must die to your “self”, your sinful pride, and sacrifice all for the moral betterment of our great nation! Now get out there and put those gays back in the closet where they belong-tell them they’re an abomination, and show them whose nation this is!

Paradiastole: Making Tolerance a Sin and Intolerance a Virtue

This is how the thinking-and the preaching-goes, I’m sad to say. So what’s to be done about it? Some progressive Christians are trying to win the hearts and minds of conservative Christians, believing that with just the right words and scripture they can be won back from this new antagonistic, highly political version of Christianity. I hope they succeed, and perhaps they will-but there are no guarantees.

Because intolerance is now a virtue to be acquired rather than a vice to be cast away, there is nothing that you or I can say to awaken the conscience of conservative Christians. They’re too far gone, for their beliefs have changed radically over the last few years. They worship a different God than the one we grew up with; perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they worship the Old Testament God, without the moderating influence of Jesus, who’s considered symbolic and sweet and nice-but nobody whose teachings must be obeyed.

Ask a conservative Christian about Jesus’ teachings, and you’ll be told that they’re wonderful spiritual teachings-for the inner life, not the outer.

Conservative Christians have adopted the warrior mentality of Onward Christian Soldiers, and intolerance is nothing to be hidden under a white robe and pointed white hood: it’s to be waved proudly as a flag demonstrating Christian rigor and personal rightness. Indeed, their conscience, their moral values, and their spiritual priorities have been altered, but not by hypocrisy. They’ve been reversed.

What was wrong is now right. What was down is now up. What was evil is now good. As one writer has pointed out, rhetoricians of Hobbes’ day called this reversal of values “paradiastole”: the method of rhetorical redescription by which what had been defined as vices could be redescribed as virtues, and vice versa. The radical right has turned paradiastole into an art form.

And in case you think this situation is all George W. Bush’s doing, think again. Christians, even conservative ones, can’t be swayed by politicians unless preachers pave the way first. Being more authoritarian than liberal Christians, conservatives are all the pickier about learning only from those who are considered respectable church authorities by other conservative Christians.

This is not to say that they won’t learn from a Rush Limbaugh or an Ann Coulter-they certainly do, and with uncritical enthusiasm-it just means that they must hear those same views endorsed, specifically or generally, by a proper member of the clergy. That’s why you can watch Fox News or listen to the rightwing kingdom of talk radio, then watch the TV preachers (all conservative, of course) on Sunday morning, without hearing a single contradictory word.

The Intolerance Code: Priming Christians for Action

Do you consider intolerance a bad thing? A sin or a hostile trait, perhaps? Something that sounds like the opposite of Jesus’ loving, thoughtful attitudes and behaviors as he talked, feasted and prayed with prostitutes and shady characters? Did you take from the parable of the Good Samaritan the lesson that you should be tolerant and accepting of, even go out of your way to help, those who don’t believe as you do?

If you answered yes to these questions, you’re in for a rude awakening. Conservative Christianity has morphed into Old Testament rigidity and eternally enforced morality, not guided nor even tempered by the interpersonal acceptance, tolerance of social outcasts, and deeper spiritual understanding that Jesus taught and modeled.

Rather than throw up our hands at this ominous glorification of intolerance in conservative churches, sometimes preached on a spiritual level but nearly always enacted at the physical/political level, we’d better discover and understand how their leaders are persuading people to promote curbs on freedom and perpetual “culture war”. Only then can we appeal to the moderates within those churches who’ve gotten swept up into a tide of political antagonism with which they’re not really comfortable.

There’s a new code for intolerance, and it’s not always in-your-face the way James Dobson so often is. Here’s an example from the promo for a book by his son Ryan (whom I always pitied after reading about the terrible whippings he endured at the hands of his father, who whipped their tiny dachshund with a belt, as well): Featuring an angry-looking white man on the cover, it’s titled simply, Be Intolerant:

Are there times when Christians shouldn’t be tolerant? Dobson says yes—if “tolerance” means “willing to accept any version of right and wrong because there is no absolute truth.” Find out why this impassioned youth speaker believes Christianity and moral absolutes go hand-in-hand—and why the church must communicate this to the up-and-coming generation.

But Christians can be taught to flip tolerance into a sin and intolerance into virtue through words far more subtle than these. There’s no need to spell out what’s to be not-tolerated; one can simply prime the pump, readying the troops for action when the time is right.

Here’s a good example from a highly persuasive and widely revered authority figure. This piece never names a target group to oppose or a political action to take, but effectively reverses the way we think about the words “tolerance” and “intolerance”, leaving us more negatively disposed towards the former and more approving of the latter:

“The word ‘tolerant’ means ‘liberal,’ ‘broad-minded,’ ‘willing to put up with beliefs opposed to one’s convictions’ and ‘the allowance of something not wholly approved.’ Tolerance, in one sense, implies the compromise of one’s convictions, a yielding of ground upon important issues. Hence, our tolerance in moral issues has made us soft, flabby and devoid of convictions. We have become tolerant about divorce; we have become tolerant about the use of alcohol; we have become tolerant about delinquency; we have become tolerant about wickedness in high places; we have become tolerant about immorality; we have become tolerant about crime and we have become tolerant about godlessness.”

From The Sin of Tolerance by Rev. Billy Graham

To be continued Why Conservative Christians Fear Tolerance, Part II: Those Liberal Southern Baptists

Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist and writer. Her most recent book describes the nonviolent guidance of children, Jesus on Parenting, Baker Books, 9/2004.

You can contact her at

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