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Intolerant Tolerance

by James Hitchcock
July 19, 2002

I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts. This line from the poet Virgil refers to the famous incident in which the Greeks offered the Trojans the "gift" of large wooden horse. Virgil's warning means not trusting enemies even when they appear friendly.

One of the most influential contemporary intellectuals is a literary critic named Stanley Fish, who is quite liberal but unusual in that he is sharply critical of liberalism itself. He is deliberately provocative, as in the title of one of his books - "There Is No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing Too". There is no such thing as free speech because those who most strongly espouse it -- liberals -- in the end cannot actually allow it, and it is a good thing that it does not exist because there are things which, from a liberal point of view, should not be expressed.

Fish is overtly sympathetic to conservative religious believers who complain, for example, that their beliefs are not treated fairly in the public schools. Refering to a legal case of some years ago, he acknowledges that the parents who brought suit were correct in charging that the effect of the public-school curriculum was to undermine their children's religious beliefs. In good liberal fashion, Fish points out, this was done in the name of tolerance.

The curriculum exposed students to a wide variety of beliefs, each treated respectfully but in such a way that no belief could be considered definitively true. Students were propagandized to adopt a relativistic view of religion. In effect, Fish admits, liberal "tolerance" can tolerate anything except that which it deems intolerant. While claiming to be open to all points of view, it enforces an orthodoxy of its own. (A dilemma is Islamic "fundamentalism". Are liberals supposed to respect it in the name of cultural diversity, or should they deplore its "reactionary" reliance on religious authority?)

Fish goes farther than any other liberal in acknowledging the valid grievances of conservative religious believers. But (I can't resist saying it) there is something fishy about his sympathy. In the end it does turn out to be a Trojan horse.

Fish is part of the movement called "deconstruction", a radical form of intellectual relativism which is unwilling to allow people to make claims to posses truth, of whatever kind. Some religious believers have pointed out that this relativism also undermines the rationalist critics of religion, those who think human reason is the only road to truth. If no one can claim to disprove religious faith, then faith is as valid a basis for belief as any other.

Fish, however, will have none of this, precisely because religious believers are asking for tolerance. In doing so they are playing the liberals' own game, Fish charges, and they should not do so. Instead, Fish argues, believers ought to be forthright in admitting that they too do not believe in tolerance. If they think they posses divine truth, they ought to insist that everyone accept it and recognize that tolerance trivializes it. Although Fish is not quite explicit, the implication of his position is that believers ought to espouse the Inquisition and other forms of coercion.

There is a certain appeal to his thinking, because he is refreshingly candid and lays out the issues starkly. But it is a Trojan horse because I am sure Fish does not think believers can succeed in imposing their beliefs. He no doubt assumes that the liberal intolerance he exposes will continue to dominate, and he will merely say to believers, "Tough luck!" It has also no doubt occured to him that nothing would discredit religion more thoroughly than if believers took his advice and attempted to coerce non-believers.

His claim that ultimately tolerance and religious belief are incompatible is one with which some believers already agree. The refutation of that position is the Second Vatican Council's decree on religious liberty, reiterating the ancient Christian teaching that a coerced faith is not faith at all, that genuine faith must be adhered to in the fullness of human freedom.

There are many flaws in the liberal society, some of which Fish has brilliantly pointed out. But in the present historical situation Christians must work within the framework of the liberal society, insisting that the liberal claim of tolerance really mean something.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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