Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jane Smiley Headshot

"Tolerance" or Social Control?

Posted: Updated:

Sunday's post by Mark Joseph about Anne Lamott's defense of her pro-choice beliefs reminded me of what I find most annoying about Christians like Mr. Joseph. His reaction to an article Lamott wrote in the LA Times seems to have been that he found her passionate defense of a woman's right to choose "intolerant". Leftist Christians, like Lamott, are supposed to be "tolerant", which means, I suppose, that they aren't supposed to offend "anti-choice" Christians with the intensity of their principles. But in my experience, what pro-choice women are supposed to "tolerate" is the proclaimed right of anti-choice Christians to tell them what to do with their reproductive lives, their bodies, their families, and their birth control choices. Where does "tolerance" enter in here? Tolerance is about agreeing to disagree. Anti-choice and anti-abortion activism is not about agreeing to disagree, it is about social control.

Let's propose a hypothetical; there is a woman in Missouri. She has three children and a husband who is an alcoholic and often out of work. Let's make her a little less sympathetic by proposing that she's no angel herself--she has a bit of a temper and she's been known drink to excess once in a while. Let's say, her husband gets her pregnant. Let's say that she's thirty-eight, twenty years beyond the age of consent. Let's say that she decides to have an abortion, as a way of trying to sustain what little stability there is in her life. Now, at the same time, there's a man in South Carolina who is a deeply religious anti-abortion activist. Let's even say that he's a Catholic priest, and that his bishop has given him permission to pursue his activism. He is celibate, and believes strongly that abortion is wrong. He has never impregnated anyone, he has never had a family, he has never been a woman. He is strongly attached to his principle about abortion, but it is a principle, something abstract, something that he actually can never experience. He doesn't know the woman in Missouri. But he wants to make sure that she cannot get an abortion.

The question that seems obvious to me is, why would he care about whether a woman he does not know has an abortion or not? He doesn't know her embryo either. So he has no personal relationship with the situation. But he still wants to dictate the terms of the outcome because of his beliefs. It would, possibly, be one thing if he knew the woman or was related to the fetus, but he isn't. He has no investment in the situation except abstractly and emotionally. So why does he care? Hmm. No doubt he would say that he cares because even though there is nothing about abortion in the Bible, he is convinced that God doesn't like abortion. This is a theological argument, a teaching of the Church, and a holding of the Pope. But there is nothing about theology that is universal. Theology is always particular to one religious institution. If the woman in Missouri is not Catholic, there is no reason for her to even think about Catholic theology, and yet the man in North Carolina presumes to impose his ideas of right and wrong on the woman in Missouri.

It's the same with gay marriage. An evangelist in Texas has no knowledge of two gay men in Seattle who have lived together for ten years and would now like to get married. He has his belief system and they have theirs. Although the evangelist in Texas hardly knows any gay people, he cannot tolerate their existence because--well, because why? He cannot tolerate the thought of them because--well, because of a theological argument. The gay men in San Francisco don't share his theology, but they are supposed to allow his theology to dictate the shape of their lives.

When Christians talk about secular Americans being "tolerant" of Christian beliefs, they are misusing the word. What conservative Christians want is not toleration, but social control. Toleration takes place between two people who know one another, and is a feature of personal relationships. Social control is about who gets the power to dictate policy and law. Christians like Mark Joseph sometimes play the "tolerance" card as a way to present themselves as a disempowered group, but what it is about them that is disempowered is their ability to tell the rest of us what to do. And most of the rules they want us to follow are abstract--rules about how men and women should relate, rules about what families should look like, rules about what people should learn. The program, for Christian conservatives, is not essentially about faith or morality--those are elements in a larger program. The larger program is enforcing conformity. What's the real goal? Well, no doubt it is money and power--have you seen how wealthy the Pope is? Of Pat Robertson? Or the pastors of some of those other mega-churches?

Secularists are sometimes called "fundamentalist" because they hold their beliefs--say pro-choice, separation of church and state--quite passionately. They vehemently do not want to be dictated to by religious groups, and they do not want their children to be forced to go to religious schools (school where creationism is taught as science). They are alleged to be "intolerant" of Christians. But the secularists are rarely if ever saying "Do as I do", they are saying "Leave me alone". The Christians quite often are not only saying, "Do as I do", but also "My right is to make you live by my beliefs, and if you resist me, then you are 'intolerant'."