Saturday, January 08, 2011

Religiosity and Levels of Tolerance

Earlier I noted that the authors of American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, had suggested that religious people are more generous and more likely to volunteer, not just for religious causes, but secular ones as well.   That's the good news, religious people tend to be more neighborly, but on darker side of things, they tend to be more intolerant of dissent and the civil liberties of others than are their secular neighbors.  The possible reason for this is that religious people tend to be more concerned about obedience than seculars, who are more likely to embrace self-reliance (which may explain why they are less engaged civically).  They suggest that "one reason that religious people are readier to suppress dissent seems to be that they are particularly concerned to safeguard authority" (American Grace, p. 489).   

But, that said, even the most religious Americans have become more tolerant of dissent than they were forty years ago -- despite all the recent intolerant rhetoric we've been hearing.   Still, the more you go to church, the more intolerant you seem to be. 

The authors write:

Something about American history over the last century led younger religious cohorts to adopt a "live and let live" attitude to cultural differences.  So the dark side of religion's civic impact has become slightly less dark in recent decades, but the shadow remains.  A substantial gap persists between religious American and secular Americans in their support for civil liberties, even among the youngest cohort.  (p. 487). 
As noted before, the reason for this is greater respect for authority, which is one of the reasons why I continue to say that if we're going to deal with social questions like homosexuality, we have to wrestle with those authorities that guide religious life.   

That said, we in the church need to be aware that one central reasons why younger adults are leaving the church or reject religion is that they perceive it to be intolerant, especially of especially of gays and lesbians.  So, the question then is this:  how do we remain true to our faith traditions and not be intolerant?  Or maybe the better question is this -- is at least  a degree of intolerance of other ideas and beliefs inherent in religion?  I'm not sure that it is, but it would appear that even the most broadminded of religious people express a degree of intolerance of certain ideas and practices.  So, what shall we do? 


Brian said...

In the scriptures I see commands for followers of Christ to be both tolerant and intolerant. Two examples are Luke 6:37 (don't judge folks) and Proverbs 38:8-9 (judge righteously for the poor and voiceless). Of course, there are many other examples.

The ways in which we understand God and faith will dictate how we understand who/what to tolerate &/or not tolerate.

For example, Gary joins us at the table with an understanding of God and the faith that is very different from my own. He believes powerfully in a very specific understanding. If I understand him correctly, he sincerely believes that the scriptures are basically dictated by God. He also believes that these same scriptures are perfectly clear about what God commands; we must have the proper opinions about Jesus in order to be right with God and avoid eternal suffering after we die. He also believes that homosexuality, to continue the example from the original post, is forbidden by God. He fights passionately against society's movement toward understanding gay folks with tolerance and acceptance.

Gary is not so different from me in that I too fight passionately against society's movement toward tolerance of certain things. For me, it is not gay folks, but a tolerance of the fact that enormous numbers of people around the world suffer due to what I see as an unjust (and unbiblical) distribution of resources.

I am intolerant, for example, that the U.S. chooses to be OK with the fact that being born in some locations in our nation increase opportunities for success, freedom, and health, while being born in others increase opportunities for functional illiteracy, prison, and early death.

How do we gather together at the table of God, while still being true to our discernment of living a life that honors the Risen Christ? Honestly, I don't know. Frankly, we are still fighting the old modernist vs fundamentalist debates from 100 years ago!

Evangelicals have a saying. "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." I can love Gary while I hate his protesting against gay rights. Gary can love me while he hates what he sees as my blasphemous preaching of the Gospel.

As Saint John (Lennon) said, "Love is the answer, and you know that for sure".

John said...

You seem to be raising several issues here, one about toleration of ideas and one about toleration of personhood, conflicting beliiefs as opposed to difference in race, gender, gender orientation, etc.

It appears to me that there is an inherent tendency towards general intolerance in religiousness - not in the faith tradition itself, but in the choice to embrace faith. Basically, a person says 'I choose to believe this because to believe otherwise would be wrong for me.' Or more simply, I believe this because I believe this to be true and logic and reason therefore tell me that all else which does not agree is necessarily wrong. The awareness of the 'wrong for me' nuance is often lost, and even forgotten by even the most accepting of people. Oftentimes the intolerance of notions of faith spills over into matters of personhood.

Differing over ideas is inherent in the human mind. Human logic is not mathematics. The hope is that in a civil society we can unite over shared concerns and 'tolerate' differences in non-essentials. Not always possible, but often do-able.

As to 'non-idea' related intolerance, that seems to me not to be an area of politics, choice, liberty, etc. Instead, for Christians this should not be a question of 'toleration' of the 'other' at all, but a decision to embrace the tenets of our faith and founder: love one another, even and especially your enemy, and embrace the other, especially those who have been rejected by society, especially those who have been rejected by other from within our faith tradition.

So long as we choose who we will love and continue to reject all others, we are failing to follow our master. Considered another way: we are still hanging onto our belongings and not selling them off to follow Jesus. The belonging we are hanging onto is the option to reject those who make us feel uncomfortable, the option to reject the 'other' however we define the 'other.'


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John and Brian,

Thanks for the comments -- I think that you raise a key issue here -- the difference between tolerating ideas and tolerating persons.

The study doesn't seem to make that distinction, but I'll push it a bit further -- how do we reject ideas that we find inappropriate or wrong but not at the same time reject or exclude the person?

I'll throw in the case in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul tells the church not to associate with sexually immoral persons -- in this case, a man living with his father's wife, a form of sexual immorality not known even among the pagans. Paul's admonition is to exclude the man -- driving the wicked from your midst. The point of course is keeping the community pure -- but if we understand Paul he also sees ways in which such exclusion can lead to restoration.

John said...

As for Paul's instruction, my perception isthat he is recommending sociial ostracism as a correctivve method. I feel compelled to see it this way, notwithstanding the language of purity used by Paul, because Paul (and Jesus) are so clear in their generally negative view of Jewish purity laws. How can he say on the one hand that you can eat whatever you want and it will not cause you to be polluted but you must drive out the sinner before he pollutes the congregation? How can Paul cut off one sinner while Jesus made such a point of eating with the very worst of sinners. How can Paul exclude one sinner when he says that we are all sinners?

Any suggestion by Paul that sinners need to quarantined from the community for reasons of purity stands in such stark conflict with his overall teachings that it must be erroneous, or must be interpreted differently, i.e., as correctively intended ostracism.


Brian said...

You guys are right to differentiate between tolerating an idea vs tolerating a person. It really is a different thing.

As for the question about what to do with rejecting an idea but not the person, I think you both are hitting at something important. That something is an emphasis on being an intentional community.

Intentional communities include congregations, businesses, recovery groups, and bowling teams. Intentional communities can, and should, welcome all kinds of people and different ideas. There is one reason to exclude someone from an intentional community. That reason is that the person is harming the mission, or the reason the intentional group exists in the first place. Basically, you're either with our program or not. (With us or against us is exactly right in this case.)

This does not mean that the person must be excluded by all members at all times. It doesn't mean people in the group can't stay friends with the person outside of the group. It certainly does not mean that the person should be excluded to the point of causing, or allowing, them harm.

A congregation may need to exclude someone for the sake of the congregation's mission. That doesn't mean that the excluded one is excluded from all within the denomination. Indeed, a solid and committed Christian may simply not be right for a particular congregation. That person may be ideal for another congregation within the same denomination.

Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion. It is nice to think these ideas through.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Whether or not I agree with Paul, I'm not sure that Paul and Jesus are at odds here. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, but he also called on them to cease their behaviors.

Paul makes it clear that while we will be in relationship with "sinners" in the world, that doesn't mean that those whose lives are contrary to the faith should be welcome in the body.

The Amish use the "ban" as a way of encouraging change in attitude/behavior.

I'm not suggesting that we take this route, but as Brian notes if someone is harming the community they may need to be excluded for the common good.

All are welcome, but could it be that there are exceptions to the rule?

John said...


I think we are in agreement here and with Brian also, in terms of excluding those who are a danger to the community.

That leads to the more difficult question as to what constitutes a danger to the community. For example, those who oppose unreserved gay involvement in church life would likely claim that base on their interpretation of Scripture homosexuality is a sin, and allowing gays to be involved in church leadership without condemnation turns a blind eye to this particular sin, in the most public fashion, and worse, sends a message to the whole community that sin does not matter, thus corrupting the community.

That is why it is important to address homosexuality squarely, so that we make up our minds either that it is a sin, or it is not, and we act as a community according to thus determination.

However we decide as a community, it is important to do so openly, so that everyone understands what is happening theologically, and thus avoid any hint of corruption.

If we determine that homosexuality is not a sin, then we must confront the objections head-on. Most importantly, we must address Scriptural issues very directly, or we not only risk suggesting that we are turning a blind eye to sin (and communicating that it doesn't matter) but we leave the impression that Scripture doesn't matter either, because we allow erroneous interpretations to stand unrefuted, thereby suggesting that those interpretations are correct.

Ban = corrective ostracism.


Brian said...

Paul's bold (harsh?) leadership in 1 Cor. 5 is making me think of two things.

The first one I'll address is not the main point, but one I wish to get out of the way first. This being that speech at that time tended to be over-the-top by our standards. In other words, it can be helpful when Jesus or Paul make hyperbolic statements for the contemporary reader to rachet it down a couple of notches. I think then we will be more likely to understand the spirit of the teaching in a way similar to how the original audience would have understood it.

The main thing standing out to me from the passage (as it relates to our discussion) is that Paul is not opposed to this person for having a different point of view about sexual ethics. He is opposed to this person's behavior for discrediting the image of his movement. This guy's actions set the movement back.

Corinth was a swinging town. Not only was it a fun party town for sailors on leave, but the traditional religions of the town had rituals that included sex and booze. Paul's movement in Corinth would have looked really square by comparison. However, the member in question is currently living with his father's wife. This sort of behavior wasn't to be "found even among pagans".

I'm going to guess at something that isn't actually in the scripture itself. I suspect this was a well-known and scandalous situation. If so, I'm guessing that the opponents of Paul's movement were making hay with this. He was hurting the progress of Paul's social movement toward the realization of their goals.

For what it is worth, I would not support any movement that insists on ideological purity. I think this can lead to mind-control and exploitation. (Think of brainwashing techniques found in dangerous cults.)

John - I'm on your side in the homosexuality issue. It is not a sin. I'm proud to associate with others in our movement who wish to speak boldly to this. But, I don't think that our denomination should require ideological conformity on this issue. I'd prefer to see it happen congo by congo. (It will happen eventually....about 20 years after mainstream society.)

That said, I'd like to see progressive safeguards in place at the General level: Safeguards to protect openly gay people seeking ordination/licensure (for example). This way regions can still choose for themselves, but individuals can turn to the General Church for justice.

Maybe you were talking about your congregation rather than the General Church. If so, maybe you're called to be the prophetic voice for the congo on the issue. Laity leadership on difficult matters can make a real difference.

Gary said...

According to the Bible, homosexuality is a sin. That would make liars of those who disagree with the Biblical injuction.

In my experience, "secular" people are at least as intolerant as those who profess some kind of religion. And then there are those who are secular in their thinking, but who claim to be religious.

Brian said...

Gary says, "And then there are those who are secular in their thinking, but who claim to be religious."

I know what you mean Gary. There's this old boy who goes around saying secular things like "The Sabbath is for people, not people for the Sabbath".

Fortunately, we have people who stand for the Truth. They'll be sure to neutralize these so-called religious folks.

Gary said...


I had you in mind with that comment. You are unbiblical and worldly in your beliefs. You have the spirit of antichrist, yet you claim to be religious. I agree that you are religious, but not Christian. You call good what God has called evil. Real Christians don't do that.