What the Duck? Defining Religious Tolerance in Modern America

Phil Robertson

Throughout history, American society has given great importance to the principle of religious tolerance. Some of the nation’s first settlers crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution, and the Founding Fathers explicitly wrote freedom of religion into the Constitution. Today’s conflicts between the secular left and religious right, however, merit careful consideration of this notion’s meaning.

In December, A&E suspended Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for inflammatory comments regarding the gay community. He categorized homosexuality as a sin akin to bestiality and adultery, angering liberals and gay-rights activists who called upon the network to take action. Phil Robertson certainly had the right as a private citizen to say what he did, just as A&E had the right as a private company to make employment decisions based upon his actions.

Shortly thereafter, the political right criticized A&E for religious intolerance– 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 does, after all, put “homosexual offenders” in the same category as “adulterers” and “the sexually immoral”– and launched a successful campaign to have Robertson reinstated.

Although the most important factors in A&E’s choices were likely economic rather than ideological, the debacle questioned what it meant to be religiously tolerant in modern society. Can you be highly critical of someone for a religious belief while still calling yourself religiously tolerant?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes. We should not discriminate against someone simply for belonging to a certain religion, but specific views should not be absolved from moral scrutiny just because they are religious in nature. Only a fraction of those who decried A&E for religious intolerance would extend the same accusation to someone who openly condemned Mormon polygamy.

Perhaps religious views are given special treatment because individuals seldom choose their religion. Yet, political principles receive far less protection from outside condemnation even though they similarly tend to be passed down from parents to children. Few today would criticize the civil rights activists of the 1960s for being “intolerant” of segregationists’ political beliefs.

If an atheist and a devout Christian both opposed equal rights for gays, would it be acceptable to decry the atheist’s view but unacceptable to criticize the Christian’s? Religious tolerance should function much the same way as tolerance for others’ political and philosophical beliefs does. People should tolerate views with which they simply disagree, but make character judgments based upon beliefs they deem morally deplorable.

For example, as a Jew, I disagree that Jesus was the lord and savior. But since I don’t find this belief particularly damaging or unethical, I am tolerant of it, and I don’t criticize others for believing it. Similarly, while I disagree with those who oppose affirmative action, I don’t categorize their views as morally unacceptable.

However, opposing equal rights for those of different races or sexual orientations is an immoral position that merits character judgment, regardless of any religious basis. This judgment does not preclude friendship or open dialogue, and should not be perceived as an abrogation of religious tolerance.

Modern religious tolerance, therefore, prohibits condemnation for simply belonging to a particular cultural group, but enables individuals to criticize and make judgments about others for beliefs they consider morally deplorable. I concede that this practice is problematic because it relies on personal conceptions of morality. Exempting religious beliefs from all ethical judgments, however, would lead to far more problematic moral relativism. We cannot shy away from difficult ethical decisions by simply adopting a boundless conception of tolerance.

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