review by Brian Collins
What explains a bank’s unwillingness to retain the bank account of a Christian organization that adheres to traditional Christian views on human sexuality? How do universities justify requiring Christian student organizations to admit officers who hold views contrary to Christian doctrine and practice? Why are doctors in some regions required to perform abortions and pharmacists required to carry and distribute abortion inducing drugs—despite their conscientious objections?
In The Intolerance of Tolerance D. A. Carson argues that these incidents follow from a new definition of tolerance, a tolerance that is remarkably intolerant. The old tolerance permitted a wide variety of views—each strongly held. Diversity existed, and so did debate. The old tolerance also functioned within a moral framework. People might disagree about aspects of the framework, but all believed that the “common good” included moral norms.
The new tolerance rejects all dogmatism as intolerant. According to the new tolerance, all views must be accepted as true (or, at least, potentially true). The moral framework that the old tolerance functioned within is rejected by the new tolerance as intolerant. In the end, significant moral discussion becomes impossible. Instead of discussing the rights and wrongs of various theories of poverty and crime, conceptions of marriage, or the origins, nature, and value of human life, “the public discourse focuses on what sanctions should be imposed on those who do not ‘tolerate’ (definitely the new sense!) the abolition of what were once the moral standards” (133-34).
Intolerance becomes the only vice when the new tolerance is dominant. Yet, ironically, those who function under the old view of tolerance must not be tolerated. This, Carson says, is “worse than inconsistency.” The new tolerance views secularism as a neutral arbiter when it fact, as Carson takes the time to demonstrate, it has all the marks of a religious view in its own right. So ironically the free exercise of other religions must give way to the establishment of secularism.
The demand that religion retreat into its own private sphere is bad enough for Christianity and other religions for whom privatization contradicts core beliefs. But worse, even a privatized religion will not suit the secularism of the new tolerance. Even the internal affairs of religious groups are censured under the new tolerance. For instance, the Catholic Church is denounced as intolerant for denying the Eucharist to members who publically oppose its abortion policies, and evangelical Anglicans are castigated for not permitted heretical bishops to preach from their pulpits. Doctors in some areas are told they must perform abortions despite personal religious objections. When a government sanctions those who seek to uphold morality (rather than those who seek to undermine it), not even a privatized religion or a personal conscience offers protection. Democracies too, Carson warns, can be tyrannical.
At this point Carson’s book could grow dark and discouraging or angry and shrill. But Carson avoids this. He concludes with ten “ways ahead.” Several of these suggestions center on ways of thinking and speaking which undermine the pretentious but hollow claims of the new tolerance. The last three ways forward deserve special mention: “evangelize,” “be prepared to suffer,” and “delight in God, and trust him.” Though making the United States (or wherever) “a better place” is not the motive for evangelism, Carson notes “when the gospel truly does take hold in any culture, changes in that culture are inevitable” (174). But if suffering and persecution rather than cultural change awaits Western believers, it will be nothing more than the New Testament tells Christians they should expect–and nothing more than what many Christians around the world experience (175). Therefore: “Delight in God, and trust him. God remains sovereign, wise, and good. Our ultimate confidence is not in any government or party, still less in our ability to mold the culture in which we live.” Our hope is in God.