28th Jun 2013

Tolerance in an Age of Intolerance

by Christopher White 

When Dr. Ben Carson, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, withdrew as commencement speaker for its medical school last month, he did so after criticism for public remarks he had made against same-sex marriage. Carson, who is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, quickly entered into the national spotlight after giving a bold keynote speech at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast where he criticized the President’s policies on healthcare and employment.

Yet after the controversy over his being named a commencement speaker, Carson received some support from an unlikely ally: the editor of the liberal magazine The New Republic. In an editorial criticizing both the Carson withdrawal and the lack of support from the institution, Michael Kinsley wrote: “My analysis is that, at a crucial moment, the dean failed to defend a real core value of the university: tolerance.”

Similarly, in a popular April article at The Atlantic titled “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University,” a young homosexual man recounts his experience at Liberty University and his encounters with faculty members who, while not embracing his homosexuality, still embraced him as a person. This led him to lament the unfair stereotypes forced onto defenders of traditional marriage. “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance,” he noted.

While the authors of the articles in The New Republic and The Atlantic doubtlessly reject support for traditional marriage, they at least affirm the idea that in a pluralistic society the “right to disagree” is a shared value that should be maintained regardless of one’s belief on the matter. Indeed, the freedom to express differing opinions has long been held as central to the American project. Part of the role of citizens, therefore, is to make a case for what type of society we ought to build and what types of activities contribute to the best environment for the flourishing of the human person. For Catholics then, we have the special task — and privilege — to make the case for the rightness of our arguments.

The question of same-sex marriage strikes at the heart of this effort. Most proponents of traditional marriage make arguments for marriage between a man and woman based not on religious convictions, but rather on the good that such a union produces, namely children. This is why the state and society have a duty and obligation to protect the institution as well as to promote it. Yet for their critics, such a definition is viewed as an affront to those in same-sex relationships who in their view are equally worthy of being granted the same status.

Regrettably, it seems that such disagreements result in name-calling and the labeling of traditional-marriage defenders as bigots or close-minded individuals without recognizing the fundamental debate that is really taking place: The question of which goods actually contribute to the common good and therefore should be prioritized. As an advocate for traditional marriage who lives in a city with few allies on this issue, I’m not surprised to often find myself in the minority opinion. I am, however, surprised and disappointed to simply find myself and my opinions written off as judgmental or prejudiced, with little consideration of the arguments at stake. While I welcome fair minded disagreement and challenges to my positions, I reject the attempts of others who adversely judge mine — or anyone else’s — motivations and my right to hold to such convictions. Such actions are dishonest and can never lead to fruitful exchanges or eventual understanding.

In an age with increased polarization and political gridlock, the virtues required to listen and understand one’s opponents require a spirit of charity that is seldom practiced by either side. Yet this unwillingness is dividing friendships, families, and communities at alarming levels. What this will mean for the future of this nation and our political process remains uncertain, but what it means for our souls is something that should give us serious pause. While tolerance does not command uniformity in belief or practice, it does require shared respect in the pursuit of truth.

It’s unfortunate that the example of Kinsley at the New Republic is the rare exception. Changing hearts and minds is, of course, an end goal of any political or religious enterprise. As Christians, we have a particular call to live out the Golden Rule in a way that makes our message and our beliefs more attractive on the other side. If we do this well and effectively, we’ll be doing so in a way that shows that we’re committed to not only talking about human flourishing, but to providing lived examples of it as well.

And perhaps when others are willing to listen—and practice that oft-cited ideal of tolerance—we might just find that we’ve won a few converts along the way.

Christopher White writes from New York.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)