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Tolerance - A Liberal Dilemma 

by James Hitchcock
July 10, 2003

We live in complicated times, to the point where it is hard to tell what a properly enlightened person is supposed to think.

A liberal newspaper warns its readers not to succumb to anti-Islamic prejudice as a result of terrorist episodes. Islam, we are sometimes told, means "the religion of peace", and Muslims simply want to be treated fairly, like everyone else.

Then, however, a man named Nasir Ahmed, head of a local Islamic Information Center, writes to the same newspaper to protest a different kind of misunderstanding -- the claim that Islamic clergy are too deeply involved in politics.

Mr. Ahmed regards that claim as misinformed but goes on to say that Muslim clergy in Iran have a good deal of political power "based on their conviction that political life should be within the limits of religious faith, not the other way around."

At that point the good liberals who fear anti-Islamic bigotry are put in a dilemma. Mr. Ahmed seems to be affirming the very thing which they try to minimize -- that Islam does have a political agenda and that its agenda might not be compatible with that of some Westerners.

Mr. Ahmed goes on to ask rhetorically, "How can Islam -- or, for that matter, any religion -- coexist with democracy in its present form", and he insists, "It would be a better world to live in if 'democracy' coexisted with any form of religion..."

This, I think, hits the nail squarely on the head, and reveals the hopeless muddle in which politically correct people now find themselves. Mr. Ahmed is absolutely correct in pointing out that the teachings of the great world religions do not permit of their being subordinated to political systems. Religion makes absolute claims, and in the end political systems have to be judged by religion, not the other way around. Thus to accuse a particular religion of being undemocratic is not automatically a condemnation.

Democracy is in serious trouble, Mr. Ahmed charges, because it is in the process of legalizing sodomy and recognizing homosexual marriages, and he asks how a religion can tolerate this in the name of democracy.

At this one can hear politically correct brows contracting into furrows. As good liberals, we need to be tolerant of unfamiliar beliefs, and in time of war we should be especially vigilant against demonizing our supposed enemies. That is the democratic way. But then some of the people we are urged to tolerate tell us that they do not accept the principles of our democracy and that no religious believer can give ultimate allegiance to any political system. Who then holds the trump card -- Muslims whom some Americans want to demonize or those who support homosexual liberation? It is a dilemma sufficient to cause a politically correct person to have a nervous breakdown.

Almost all Christians and Jews in the United States long ago came to terms with democracy, and few of them would seriously question it. But in doing so have we in fact become complacent and unwittingly compromised our principles? Mr. Ahmed raises uncomfortable issues, apart from the specific question of homosexuality -- can the popular will, as expressed through democratic channels, over-ride the divine law? I fear that relatively few religious believers even think about it.

My own response to Mr. Ahmed is that "democracy" is what the citizens make it, and it need not lead to the breakdown of moral values. Nothing guarantees that moral breakdown cannot occur in monarchies or dictatorships, and our citizenry is far more morally conservative than that least democratic of American institutions, the Supreme Court. One of the virtues of democracy is precisely that is allows, even encourages, things like the pro-life movement, in which citizens exercise their democratic rights on behalf of moral goods.

Liberals like to point out how many of the newer immigrants to the United States are not Christians, and they draw from this the conclusion that Christian moral beliefs can no longer be "imposed" on the country. But, as Mr. Ahmed indicates, much of this immigration will if anything strengthen traditional beliefs, about which the major world religions are in remarkable agreement.

Liberalism now finds itself faced with a dilemma from which it can find no exit. Tolerance is at the heart of its message. But can it continue to tolerate those whom it considers intolerant?

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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