1st Amendment
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution etched on the doors going into the Mass Media building at Western Kentucky University. (photo: Alan Hudson/Flickr)

Sunday’s New York Times article on schools’ efforts to end bullying seemed an “aw shucks” case-study of the law of unintended consequences. School districts, eager to stop the kind of harassment that led to a recent spate of gay teen suicides, are teaching tolerance. Sounds good, right? But portraying homosexual relations as normal rubs religious conservatives the wrong way. “Of course we’re all against bullying,” one Montana minister told the Times. “But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don’t want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values.”

That statement begs for deeper reporting, but like most mainstream news outlets, when it comes to probing conservative religion and religious belief, the Times seldom wants to go there. For example, some of the biblical passages condemning homosexual acts — most notably Leviticus 20:13 — prescribe death for the persons committing the acts. How does the minister in the Times article reconcile what the Bible “clearly says” with the imperative to protect all children, both gay and straight, from violence? And how do the First Amendment’s clauses respecting religion figure into the mix?

Teaching tolerance is not a simple matter if the takeaway is that all people deserve dignity and respect regardless of religious, racial, ethnic or sexual differences. For Times readers — most of whom, it’s safe to say, believe that pluralism and open-mindedness go hand in hand — it’s a particularly hard lesson. But tolerating difference is not the same as condoning it, which is why the Montana minister and many others want to stop schools that “promote acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle” maybe even more than they want to stop bullies.

Ultimately the problem for religious conservatives isn’t just about homosexuality; it’s about tolerating any state-sanctioned deviation from what they consider the norm. From this perspective, any constraints on religious speech in the public sphere, especially when it comes to sexual mores, is a violation of the First Amendment’s clause respecting the free exercise of religion.

But that’s not a dilemma that Times readers associate with the America of their day-to-day experience. Rather intolerance of others is someone else’s problem — it’s the French who don’t want schoolchildren wearing religious garb, it’s Saudis who won’t let Christians build churches in their country, it’s Iranians who believe in a worldwide Jewish cabal. They don’t realize that beyond their bubble of blue lies a vast sea of red where an increasing number of conservative voters see the promotion of the liberal values of “tolerance” as an effort to establish secularism as the official American civil religion.

If the absolute conflict of religious absolutes seems to increasingly define global politics, it’s also starting to define our own political culture. Americans, especially self-styled secularists, seem unaware of the religious values to which they are absolutely bound: civility, self-determination, and individualism. Despite some glaring historic exceptions (indigenous Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, South Asians), our credo has been live and live — and in the twentieth century the circle seemed to grow. But times are changing and what happens when tolerance is no longer tolerated? The Times raises the question, but we need a lot more reporting on possible answers to it.


Diane WinstonDiane Winston holds the the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics, and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She writes a smart blog called the SCOOP and tweets too.

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This article was reprinted with permission from the author.


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7Reflections

Reflections

"...our credo has been live and live..." Is this correct? Or is there something left out? Is this supposed to read: "...our credo has been to live and let live..."? I'm confused.

Despite some glaring historic exceptions?! It's the rule. No Irish need apply, no Dutch need apply, or bohunks, polacks, spics, dagos, wops and on and on and on. The worst thing is that the not so newly arrived are more than willing to discriminate against and denigrate the more recent arrivals.

"what happens when tolerance is no longer tolerated?"

repressive theocratic fascism happens

This piece may be well intentioned, but it doesn't seem to get where it seems to be trying to go. If the idea is that liberals need a deeper recognition and understanding of conservative opposition to what liberals intend as the promotion of tolerance, what actually seems to come through instead is that conservatives live out in some vast wilderness beyond the New York Times, have apparently contradictory religious views, aren't open-minded (unlike Times readers!), reject things because they're different (rather than because they have some good reason to), may not care so much about bullying despite what they say, and won't tolerate tolerance. In short, it appears to reinforce superficial liberal stereotypes about conservatives instead of challenging them with something deeper.

In a pluralistic society the government can't require that everyone agree about what's right and "normal." That wouldn't be pluralism or tolerance. Ms. Winston is right if she means that the government teaching controversial moral views may violate pluralistic principles, maybe even constitutional ones. She's right if she means tolerating something (not merely "difference") doesn't imply condoning it. It seems to follow that conservatives may have a point in opposing efforts to teach that homosexuality is OK in the name of teaching tolerance. If that's her point, then it's a good one, and yes, deeper reporting about it would be helpful.

To define the issue as I see it a little more clearly, the government is probably right to rely on (supposedly) neutral and objective sources such as the APA to teach that homosexuality isn't properly considered an illness or abnormal from that point of view. That's a different question than whether it's morally or spiritually right or normal. It should be made clear that even if one thinks someone else is wrong or abnormal in some sense, that's no reason to bully them, etc. Instead of calling into question the commitment of religious conservatives to oppose bullying, taking them at their word and inviting them to participate in the process of fighting it would make more sense.

There is a long, long list of scripture we all politely ignore (i.e. the ones that condone slavery). I think it's way past time that we add the scriptures condemning homosexual acts to that list.

I was taught that tolerance isn't enough because tolerance means only putting up with people and ideas that are different from us.

A better choice is respectful acceptance...which requires that we seek to understand others, include them in our lives and find ways to work and live together. Acceptance doesn't mean that we have to change ourselves, our culture or our beliefs. I means we allow others to be themselves and to have their cultures and beliefs.

It's not easy, but it's worth it.

I'm sorry, but teaching tolerance IS A SIMPLE MATTER if the takeaway is that all people deserve dignity and respect.