Varieties of Intolerance

Cardinal Pell at Oxford, March 6: “Varieties of Intolerance: Religious and Secular.”

He begins by speaking of the hatred unleashed against Christians by Proposition 8 opponents since November:

Little about this prolonged campaign of payback and bullying has been reported internationally, and I suspect that for some, or even many of you here tonight this is the first time you have heard anything about it. It is being waged against Christians and others who have done nothing more than take part in a political campaign in a democracy, endeavouring to persuade a majority of the electorate to their point of view. Few human rights activists have objected to the vilification and hate-speech that has been directed at supporters of Proposition 8. In general, the media has shown scant interest in a form of organised intimidation, which even extends to making people unemployable, simply because they do not agree with same sex marriage. And you have to search long and hard if you want to hear the stories of those who have been assaulted or abused because they believe that marriage can only mean the marriage of a man and a woman. It hardly needs saying that there would have been no strange lack of attention if supporters of same sex marriage were being targeted for bullying and blacklists.

He then looks at some issues involving Muslims.

We should note the strange way in which some of the most permissive groups and communities, for example, Californian liberals in the case of Proposition 8, easily become repressive, despite all their high rhetoric about diversity and tolerance. There is the one-sidedness about discrimination and vilification. Opposition to same-sex marriage is a form of homophobia, and therefore bad; but Christianophobic blacklisting and intimidation is passed over in silence. You can be prosecuted for hate speech if you discuss violence in Islam, but there is little fear of a hate speech prosecution for Muslim demonstrators with placards reading “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”

It is a fundamental truism that not all religions are the same. This might be an obvious point to us, but the idea that all religions are basically concerned with the same things and more or less morally equivalent in the goodness and badness they have brought to human history is very pervasive. Major differences exist between religions, within religions, and in the contributions they make to culture and society. In a democracy, believers and non-believers must be free to talk about these differences, to criticise each other’s beliefs (what Catholics used to call apologetics), and to evangelise (or propagandise) while always respecting the freedom of the individual. Reciprocity in this is essential: it is not a one way street.

But tolerance has become a one way street for many.

Until relatively recently anti-discrimination laws usually included exemptions for churches and other religious groups so that they could practice and manifest their beliefs in freedom. These exemptions are now being refused or defined in the narrowest possible terms in new anti-discrimination measures, and existing exemptions are being eroded or “strictly construed” by the courts.

In the United States the exemptions granted to churches and their agencies vary from state to state, and in the extent of protection they afford. The effort to wind these exemptions back has focused initially on contraception. At least eighteen states have enacted “contraceptive mandate” laws, usually with names such as The Women’s Contraceptive Equity Act or The Women’s Health and Wellness Act, which require employer health insurance plans to cover the costs of contraceptives on the basis that failure to do so constitutes sex discrimination. Catholic health insurance usually did not cover these costs.

The state of New York passed such a law in 2002, which like a similar law passed by California in 1999, grants an exemption defining religious employers so narrowly that church welfare agencies, schools and hospitals do not qualify. Appeals to the two states’ highest courts (in 2006 and 2004 respectively) to broaden the definition were rejected, and the US Supreme Court declined to review the Californian decision. While most states with contraceptive mandates make broader exemptions for religious employers, only one grants protection to individuals who conscientiously object to them.

Exemptions for church hospitals or medical services are increasingly contentious in the United States, with opponents describing them as “refusal” or “denial clauses”. When exemptions are granted, the standard of care provided by these services is criticised as second-rate, on the grounds that they fail to offer patients the full range of options. Individual healthcare workers have been sued and dismissed from employment for adhering to their convictions. In 2007 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming that almost 100 million Americans are at risk of being denied “legal medical interventions” by doctors who, because of religious or moral objections, either decline to inform patients about possible treatments or refuse to refer them to other doctors who will provide them.

He touches on the matter of same-sex marriage:

As a number of commentators have pointed out, the legalization of same sex marriage has momentous potential to curtail religious freedom. Generally churches and ministers of religion who decline to bless such marriages are protected by exemptions. But in places such as Canada this protection is not extended to civil marriage celebrants, even when the plain meaning of the statutory exemption suggests they are protected. Anti-discrimination laws are also raising serious freedom of religion issues for churches in the areas of relationship counselling, sex and relationship education in secondary schools, the hire of parish, school and church facilities, and accommodation arrangements in emergency housing, retreat, conference and aged care centres.

We need to do a better job of defending and rightly defining religious liberty, he says:

How should Christians respond to this growing secular intolerance? Clearly, there is an urgent need to deepen public understanding of the importance and nature of religious freedom. Having the freedom to search for answers to questions of meaning and value, and to live publicly and privately in accordance with our answers is an essential part of human fulfillment and happiness, and gives rise to other important freedoms such as the rights to freedom of expression, thought and conscience. Believers should not be treated by government and the courts as a tolerated and divisive minority whose rights must always yield to the minority secular agenda, especially when religious people are overwhelmingly in the majority. The opportunity to contribute to community and public good is a right of all individuals and groups, including religious ones. The application of laws within democracies should facilitate the broadening of these opportunities, not their increasing constraint.

His call to Christians:

Put simply, Christians have to recover their genius for showing that there are better ways to live and to build a good society; ways which respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They also have to recover their self-confidence and courage. The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publicly. Believers need to call the bluff of what is, even in most parts of Europe, a small minority with disproportionate influence in the media. This is one of the crucial tasks for Christians in the twenty-first century.