The New Tolerance Must Crumble, Says Don Carson

The new tolerance eliminates all possibility of declaring something as wrong or sinful.

Along with a loss of moral consensus, our culture is challenged to wrestle with complex moral dilemmas in a reasonable and clearheaded way. Instead, “we increasingly argue by shibboleth and anger, and if you try to argue a certain case regarding, let’s say, homosexual marriage, then you are easily and quickly dismissed as a bigot.”

 

Have we already forgotten Kim Davis? “It shows how quickly the news cycles spin things out and leave them in a dust heap in the rearview mirror,” said theologian Don Carson. “A bare six months ago the nation was full of talk about ‘the woman from Kentucky.’”

Davis, 50, that “woman from Kentucky,” as some may remember, is county clerk for Rowan County. Her story, said Carson, is worth pulling from the heap and revisiting as an opportunity for believers to think through complex issues of Christian faithfulness in a declining culture.

Here’s a brief dust-off.

In its historic ruling on Obergefell this summer, in a hotly contested 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court pronounced the right to legal “marriage” is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the U.S. Constitution. Out of conscience, Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even to her gay friends. “I can’t put my name on a license that doesn’t represent what God ordained marriage to be,” she said at the time. Such so-called “marriage” is not marriage.

Davis, a Pentecostal, eventually decided not to grant any marriage licenses under her name, then was ordered by a judge to resume. When she defied, she spent five days in prison. In the process, commentators zeroed in on Davis and hit her from every side, demanding she resign, or comply, or keep resisting, or learn somehow to accommodate to the pressure. She eventually allowed assistants to grant licenses and later a form was issued that removed Davis’s name altogether.

To some, Davis became an icon of personal sacrifice in the protection of civil rights. To others, Davis became an iconic villain who was trampling the civil rights of the gay community. To ACLU attorneys, Davis’s activities were “a stamp of animus against gay people.” Yet to some conservatives, Davis’s actions were equated with Rosa Parks.

To some Christians, she quickly became an icon for religious liberty, meeting with prominent politicians in public and even Pope Francis in private.

Overnight, Davis became so iconic in America that she is now simply “the Woman from Kentucky,” the title of Carson’s message this week at the Bethlehem 2016 Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders. Carson stepped back into the froth of the controversy, and into an inescapably tangled mess of civil complexities and biblical paradigms, in order to draw out essential lessons for Christians in America. He focused on three lessons in particular: the loss of moral consensus, the expression of a “new tolerance,” and the rise of a “new authenticity.”

1. The Loss of Moral Consensus

One major lesson Carson takes from the Davis controversy is that America is clearly a nation that has “progressively moved away from whatever Judeo-Christian-Deist roots that it once had.” We are increasingly “a nation of millions who vote at once without any distinctive Christian contributions or commitments, voting for things that we will find abominable. We are not there yet, but that is the direction in which things are going.”

Democracy is no failsafe from this moral decline. “We must stop thinking about democracy as a guarantor of godliness. We must stop thinking about democracy as an intrinsic good. Democracy is in some ways the best way of changing governments without bloodshed.”

But it’s not perfect. “We are sinners. And if you have a lot of sinners voting, then you have a lot of sinners voting. That is what you have.” Sinners voting without a certain moral consensus.

“It is not for nothing,” Carson stressed, “that the founders of the nation were convinced that if you lost a broad sweeping moral consensus, then you would inevitably have more and more laws. You can be a nation of fewer laws, as long as there is moral consensus. But once you lose the moral consensus, you must have more laws to keep people from tearing out each other’s throats.”

This loss of moral consensus, this rise in new laws, brings along another important cultural turn.

2. The Rise of “New Tolerance”

Along with a loss of moral consensus, our culture is challenged to wrestle with complex moral dilemmas in a reasonable and clearheaded way. Instead, “we increasingly argue by shibboleth and anger, and if you try to argue a certain case regarding, let’s say, homosexual marriage, then you are easily and quickly dismissed as a bigot.”

Carson cited one Seattle Times headline: “Religious liberty looks a lot like intolerance from here.” Then cited one editorial that insisted: “In a homophobic political stunt, poorly veiled as religious beliefs, Davis denied marriage licenses to LGBT couples.” The statement was made without engaging her governing principle, and offered nothing about her First Amendment rights. “The whole thing was dismissed as a hate-filled political stunt — ‘a homophobic political stunt.’ It is so difficult to engage.”

This line, attributed to Voltaire, can be used to measure tolerance: “I may hate what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though Carson doubts the origin of the statement, he stands on its value.

The “old tolerance” agreed with Voltaire. “It was helpful to allow people to dissent from the accepted norms of society, partly because the free discussion meant that there was more likelihood of coming to consensus and truth rather than by way of squelching alternative points of view. Therefore, let the disagreement roll on.”

Here is where the loss of moral consensus comes into play. The old tolerance worked, because the old tolerance was “parasitic.” In other words, “It fed on a broader ethical, moral schema. That is to say: Whether you are talking about tolerance in the Roman government or in the Hittite Empire or in the High Middle Ages, there is already a schema that is largely accepted in society for what is right and wrong.”

Thus, the old tolerance was merely a matter of how much you can allow deviation, of “how much politically or judicially or even socially you can allow deviation from that accepted norm.” The old tolerance was possible because the norms were in place. “That this why tolerance of the old sort was a parasitic virtue. It was parasitic on the givenness of whatever the norms were in that particular culture.”

The “new tolerance” finds Voltaire’s statement intolerant. The new tolerance eliminates all possibility of declaring something as wrong or sinful. To hate what someone believes is now manifest bigotry. “The only thing that you are allowed to hate is intolerance as they define it, which shows that the whole system is, in some way or other, logically self-defeating.” On top of that, Carson stresses, “it becomes intellectually bankrupting, because it becomes impossible to talk about ideas. They are automatically black-listed under the rubric intolerant.”

The result is that, instead of encouraging differing opinions and discussion and engagement, the new tolerance, “flattens out and squashes and hammers away anything that is outside the ‘plausibility structure’ (Berger) of what is currently going on in society. Then worse, that form of tolerance gets elevated to the supreme virtue. Instead of being parasitic on a whole lot of other givens, it becomes the supreme virtue in itself. And then the whole thing falls apart for want of consistency. It becomes really quite ridiculous.”

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