Tuesday, February 10, 2009

When to Speak Out against the Tyranny of Tolerance

Speaking of the Crunchy Con blog, I enjoyed reading this post and the resulting comments yesterday:

At the monastery this weekend, there was an academic conference going on. One of the papers was about drawing lessons from St. Cyprian's writings during an early age of martyrdom -- lessons that Christians living in contemporary liberal democracies can use to determine when they are obligated to speak up for their faith, and when they are permitted to keep silent without betraying their faith.

I didn't get to talk to the professor about the question, nor to sit in on the discussion, but her paper brought to mind something that I've been thinking about for a while. Not long ago, I asked a couple of smart Christian journalist friends who work in secular media why they never wrote about homosexuality, religion and public policy. I know that they're both interested in cultural and religious matters, and both are conservative Christians. Both of them said to me that they have careers to protect, which is a big reason why they keep their views on that subject to themselves in their writing.

I've also talked to Christian friends in the academy. One, a graduate student in theology at a Protestant university, told me that you'd have to be an idiot to defend traditional Church and Biblical teaching about homosexuality inside the university today. He said that's a certain way to end your academic career before it gets started. "Even in a religious university setting?" I asked him. He told me that the pro-gay sentiment is overwhelming on faculties, and if you're like him, and take the Scriptural view, you have to keep your head down and your mouth shut if you want to get a job. [...]

So, are there any general rules Christians, or political conservatives, should apply to themselves when speaking out for their religious faith, or moral/social convictions, could cost them their job? Granted, it's a far more serious question for religious believers, for whom failing to speak out under certain circumstances could constitute denial of the faith. Still, any ideas about when one is obliged to speak out, and when one is permitted, and perhaps even required, to remain silent?

Of course, since Rod chose to frame the issue of when to speak out and when to remain silent around the hot-button issue of traditional Christian teaching about the immorality of homosexual activity, this red-flag-waving caused the usual stampede of loving tolerant homosexual activists bent on denouncing as hateful bigots who should be marginalized and excluded from society anyone who disagreed with them that homosexual activity, and gay marriage especially, are the summit of all human existence which only bigotry could possibly see as even remotely problematic from any moral standpoint. Still, despite the attempted derailing of the entire thread, most posters managed to stay on topic and discuss the competition between free, vigorous, energetic speech which should characterize both university inquiry and journalism (among other professions) and the kind of prudence which should accept the reality of the present age in its ceaseless homage to liberal thought paid in both those institutions, and, accordingly, remain silent in order to remain employed.

It is a particular puzzle for modern man; liberated from the moral constraints of the past, the one thing he is not particularly free to express is his choice to take up those moral constraints voluntarily, because he thinks they are true, profound, noble, and holy. He is especially not free to discuss these moral truths with others who have rejected them, and is further not free to admit to having acted publicly on those convictions, particularly at the ballot box. Choosing to do any of those things in settings other than those where he knows his views will be accepted and respected (e.g. church, or a gathering of like-minded individuals) is taking the risk that he will suffer some unpleasant consequences; at work, the most likely consequences are to be reprimanded in some way, forced to endure the brainwashing known as "diversity training," or, at worst, terminated from his employment.

Though this is clearly an unjust situation, it is less clear what to do about it. There are times when a man of good character will realize that he is in a completely intolerable position and must act for the good of his own conscience; but there are also times when a man of good character will accept the dictates of the 0ften-overlooked virtue called prudence, and realize that it is not the time nor the place to make the kind of statement that could easily get him fired. There is no need for him to lie about his views, of course; following the example of St. Thomas More he could simply remain silent.

How are we to know the difference--to know when to act, and to know when to be quiet? The Holy Spirit should be our guide in these difficult situations, and prayer and seeking the advice of a good spiritual director are important. But I think that when the consequences of speaking out are likely to be severe, the justification for speaking out ought also to be severe; that is, a mere lunchroom conversation will rarely rise to the level of a situation where we must speak, but pressure to add one's name to a public petition which runs counter to one's views, or to teach or lecture in such a way that supports the position you know is morally wrong, or to write in such a way that you are defending the position opposite to your own, would be different matters.

All of this, of course, makes me think of the situation of the Episcopal Church in Fort Worth; an interesting letter from one of those remaining within TEC can be read here. While I don't agree with the writer, it's clear from the timeline that Bishop Iker did everything he could to remain in the ECUSA, even sending women to Dallas since he couldn't in good conscience help them become female priests himself. But as so often happens, those determined to become a more "tolerant" church were also determined to force their idea of tolerance on everybody else, regardless of how many consciences were violated in the process, and in the end I think Bishop Iker had to stand up for the truth and take the actions he has so far taken to protect the souls in his care.

Our modern world is continually seeking to advance its agenda, and so much of that agenda is so diametrically opposed to the Gospel that we're most likely going to run afoul of it sooner or later. When the time comes to stand on our convictions, we should be prepared to do so; and our previous habits of prudence and silence will strenghten and aid is if that day comes. The kind of tolerance that tolerates evil but not goodness isn't really tolerance; it's tyranny. And tyrants have a way, eventually, of drawing that line in the sand which no good man can cross.


Jeannette said...

Should we speak up? Do you think God might be asking you to inconvenience yourself for His sake? Google English Martyrs. Or Korean Martyrs. Or Japanese Martyrs. Or Vietnamese Martyrs. Yes, there are times when prudence is best, but isn't now the time to speak up, before it gets to that point?

eulogos said...

I'd say, yes, speak up when you can or when you must, but as for keeping things from getting to "that point" I think it is far too late. It isn't here yet, but it is coming soon.
And some are going to fail to bear witness.
This is what I fear most. Some Catholic hospitals which are more institutions than Catholic, will perform abortions, after all, its the LAW.
I have failed myself to speak up at times out of cowardice or the desire to be accepted. Other times I have spoken, at some small cost. LIke being threatened with failing in my nursing BSN program.
Being prepared in one's mind is a great help; it is much harder when a situation sneaks up on you. I think we might need to practice on small occasions for when the large occasions strike. (Just so long as that isn't harassing an old woman who reads pap smears for Planned Parenthood while failing to tell a neurosurgeon who is the parent of your college daughter's friend that being on the board of Planned Parenthood is wicked...)
It is true that one doesn't need to volunteer for martyrdom, when those are really the stakes, and one can say nothing. But in other situations saying nothing is a betrayal and the cost is only having everyone think you are a fanatic, perhaps some minor shunning or ostracism.
Susan Peterson