Christianism, Debated


    Thanks for your emails. Here's one point that needs addressing:

    You decry the intolerance of those you call Christianists, but why? I agree that intolerance is wrong, but that's my moral belief. If it is yours, too (and what else could it be?), then why should our moral belief be given precedence over another? You seem to be in a battle over morals and insist on taking the position that your moral values are better and deserve more respect because they're ... well, not moral values at all, and besides, they're more moral.  I find this more fascinating than anything else, and sometimes even amusing.
    Your moral values are consistent with your religious beliefs, of course, and you believe that intolerance is one of the big sins. That's fine. But doesn't that make you a Christianist, too, since you are trying to impose that set of moral values on others?

    I'm glad to get this email because it offers me a chance to clarify something. My issue with Christianism is not "intolerance." In a free society, I'm quite happy to live among people who are intolerant of me, who decide not to associate with me, and generally disapprove of me, for whatever reason they decide. My point is that such intolerance not be enforced by the civil law; and that the civil law be restricted to reflect non-sectarian moral arguments that can be assessed and debated by Christian and non-Christian, Jew or Muslim, Mormon or atheist alike. If we can achieve a broad moral consensus, good. If we cannot, especially over divisive religious disagreements, then neutrality is the better option. And neutrality exists. A law that allows legal abortion or gay marriage as well as adoption and straight marriage is neutral with respect to its citizens' choices. It is not biased in favor of any one of them. If you have a moral objection, persuade and proselytize, don't legislate.

    My belief in this boundary for political debate is not based on morality as such. It's based on a political judgment. That judgment is that in a society where so many people differ on so many vital, irresolvable issues - especially the meaning of life, the fate of our souls, the morality of sex, the salience of gender, the true beginning and end of life - we should keep the law as neutral as possible, so it does not become oppressive of people's freedom to decide for themselves what is true or untrue, right or wrong. This requires certain virtues - the ability to tolerate immorality in one's neighbors, moderation, restraint, openness to debate. Just as Christianists want to obliterate distinctions between civil law and God's law, so they want to describe such virtues of restraint as acquiescence to sin. And yes, in religious terms, they are. But acquiescence to others' sins is another way of saying political toleration. And it is political toleration that is under threat in America right now. It's time Christians and conservatives brushed up on their John Locke and came to its defense.

    (Photo of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson by Thomas Michael Alleman for Time.)