In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
With God on Our Side--Bob Dylan
Need we tolerate the intolerant? Do individuals have a First Amendment religious right to discriminate or be bigots? These questions are really at the heart of much current political debate in the United States, most recently with the decision of Indiana to enact legislation purportedly giving individuals a religious right to refuse to serve individuals in their businesses.
Indiana’s new law is only the most recent manifestation of how the religious right drives a political cleavage through contentious issues. Gay marriage, abortion, and matters of discrimination seem to pit the moral views of some against the personal liberty of others. They raise questions about the limits of toleration in a free society.
It was not simply Indiana’s new law that made me think about toleration. A couple of weeks ago I gave my students an assignment where they had to do some analysis with public opinion data. I did not care what numbers they crunched– simply play around. In class one student talked of her perplexity. She decided to see what relationship there was between religious attitudes and support for reproductive rights for women. She was perplexed to find overwhelming support among self-identified Jews for abortion rights. She did not understand why until one of my Jewish students told her that within her faith an unborn fetus is not a person until born. My student was surprised–she did not understand that not all faiths agree with the Christian idea that the fetus is a person.
Similarly, last week I received an e-mail from some individual who had read an article of mine. He urged me to support a constitutional amendment to declare the fetus a person. I wrote back and told him that what a woman does with her uterus is none of his, mine, or society’s business. He wrote back and accused me as being under the delusion of radical feminism.
Both stories speak of the issue of toleration and respect for the choices others make. They are about why in a free society there are limits to enacting your personal morality or theology into public policy.
Many forget that the concept of toleration is a modern Western European invention, born out of the exhaustion of the religious civil wars and the split between the Catholic Church and Protestants in the sixteenth century. A theological government that does not respect the separation of church and state is free to define orthodoxy, foisting upon dissenters, critics, and non-believers their view of truth in the name of God. The 1598 French Edict of Nantes recognized the right of Protestants to believe what they wish. British King James II and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were about the religious toleration. America’s founding with the Pilgrims and Puritans too were about religious toleration. All of these historical events speak to a gradual recognition in the West that the church should be separate from the state, individuals should be free regarding what they believe, and that there were limits to orthodoxy and what a majority can compel a minority to believe or do.
The hallmark of a modern free society is balancing majority rule with minority rights. James Madison declares that to be the case in his Federalist Paper number 10. Alexis DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America fears the tyranny of the majority, James Bruce’s American Commonwealth decries the fatalism many face in the fear of majority pressures, and Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann’s The Spiral of Silence describes the power of public opinion to silence and persecute. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty captures it well when declaring that individuals ought to be free from the opinions of others and that there are limits on what society can compel people to do.
The point here is that there are limits to what political majorities can or should be allowed to do to others. You can believe what you want but you cannot use the force of law to enact your prejudices into law. We have a right to be bigots, we just do not have a right to enforce and impose the bigotry upon others, regardless of the reasons or motives. This is especially the case in using religion as a shield, sword, or excuse to discriminate.
Long ago Bob Dylan wrote a song called “With God on our Side.” He recounted how too often religion was used as a justification for all types of evils. He made a good point. Among the numerous problems in the current debates over gay marriage and rights, or abortion, or even birth control under the Affordable Care Act, is how religion is used to mask or further political ends. It is first over how some individuals first think that there religious views are correct and how they have a right to impose them on others who disagree. It is essentially saying that my views should be counted twice–they dictate how I live and with that, how you should live. It is preempting some who disagree from being able to make their own choices. “Freedom for me but not for thee” seems to be the stance.
This legislating of morality also seems to accept the legitimacy of imposing my religious views on others, even upon those who do not accept my faith. I thought we had moved beyond the Middle Ages and the Spanish Inquisition. Such a position also seems to believe that they have found the truth, the orthodoxy, and not are free to dissent or disagree. The last I knew no one had a monopoly on the truth.
Accepting that people have a right to their own opinion does not mean they have a right for your to accept it. You can believe what you want–ethically and religiously–so long as it does not impact others in a discriminatory way. That is the limit of your rights.
How does all this connect to Indiana? Individuals are entitled to think what they want religious–they can be as bigoted as they want and not like gays and lesbians. However they have no right to let that bigotry become a discriminatory law or policy. Whether sincerely held or not, no one except for a racist perhaps accepts the idea that there should be a religious exemption to the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it comes to racial discrimination. Imagine George Wallace claiming a First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion argument to fight integration and voting rights. There is no difference between that and what Mike Pence of Indiana just signed into law. While we may need to tolerate the intolerant when it comes to their private views–because the First Amendment protects that–there is no need to be tolerate or endorse those who wish to impose their views on others.