My ongoing inability to explain the difference between zero intolerance and zero tolerance

There's an extended and intriguing discussion by several bloggers at Volokh (including Eugene Volokh) about a recent study showing that 53% of academics have a negative view of evangelical Christians. Ilya Somin thinks that the negative view is grounded in opposition to the evangelicals' political conservatism, while others see personal prejudice, or even an anti-Christian (or anti-religious) animus.

Glenn Reynolds linked the Volokh discussion, as well as this very thoughtful response response from a Penn Law professor who happens to also be an Evangelical Christian.

I don't know how helpful it will be, but I thought I would weigh in based on my own life experience in academia and with Evangelical Christians.

I'm not trying to be profound or settle anything, but I want to look at what I think may be at least a partial force behind this clearly identified anti-Evangelical bigotry in academia.

Yes, bigotry. Let me get that out of the way. We are all bigoted to one degree or another, yet none of us wants to admit it, because "bigot" is such a loaded word.
The devil is to be found in the details of what being a bigot means, though. This has caused me to vacillate somewhat on the definition, and in my admittedly contradictory way I have condemned bigotry while admitting that I suffer from it. On one occasion, I took issue with the idea that opposition to gay marriage is necessarily bigotry, and I cited the Merriam Webster definition of "bigot":

a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.
I concluded that opposing same sex marriage is not bigotry unless it is grounded in hatred or intolerance of homosexuals.

But even that begs discussion of what may be an unacknowledged elephant in the room: the seemingly intractable conflict between Christian Evangelicals and gay activists. Each side sees the other as bigoted, and each side is fueled by this mutual bigotry from the other side. To anti-gay fundamentalists, bigotry or prejudice against homosexuality reflects God's ultimate truth, but does that mean it is not bigotry? I realize that many of those who condemn homosexuality claim they love homosexuals but "hate the sin" of homosexuality, but this distinction is lost on homosexuals, who see condemnation of their form of love as the most profound form of bigotry imaginable, and who then reflexively invoke the principle of "the best defense is a good offense" and endorse unhinged bigotry against those they see as bigoted.

I've looked at this phenomenon in a number of posts, and it isn't easy to settle. Bigotry never is; I've also looked at bigotry against pit bulls,
bigotry against Hindus, evangelical bigotry against non-evangelical Christians, including "apostate" Episcopalians and Mormons -- the latter being reflected in the Huckabee campaign. (Some evangelicals went so far as to advance the claim that Romney was "Satanic." I think most people would agree that such a claim is bigoted. But those making it might see themselves as merely advancing one of those self-apparent truths which aren't as apparent to others.)

Whether it is fair to say that academics do not generally know evangelical Christians, I'm not sure. They would have most likely seen the television variety, and I suspect that many would be able to quote or paraphrase Jerry Falwell on the cause of 9/11 being gays and abortionists. (But was that religion? Or was it political conservatism? Does it matter?)

Not that it's fair to lump all evangelicals in with guys like Falwell. Or Robert Knight (who blamed Howard Stern and homosexuality for abu Ghraib.) Or Dinesh D'Souza. Or my emailer Matt Barber. But let's suppose you disagree with people like that the way you might disagree with, say Cindy Sheehan. Is that bigotry? If so, then where is the line to be drawn between disagreement and bigotry?

Is there a different definition of bigotry where it comes to political as opposed to religious disagreements?

Should there be?

If I disagree with Falwell, Knight, D'Souza, and Barber, does it matter whether I am I having a political disagreement, or a religious disagreement?

Let me go back to my early college experiences with evangelicals. (I'd rather not, but I think I should, because it may shed light on what drives academic bigotry.)

Back when I was a kid, the word "Christian" was generic, and did not contain negative connotation it has picked up in the past couple of decades. There were all sorts of Christians, just as there were atheists, but it hadn't yet occurred to the proselytizing atheists to use the term "Christian" to link "regular" Christians with the in-your-face, proselytizing variety. The latter group seemed to spring into life in the late 60s and early 70s, almost with a vengeance. There was a vocal group at UC Berkeley called "Campus Crusade for Christ" along with a plethora of confrontational street preachers, known in those days as "Jesus freaks." They would heckle people, and people would heckle them. After all, they were standing there in the middle of the most radical place in the United States preaching fire and brimstone. Yet there was something cute and innocent about it, and most people went about their business. Still....

Whether you believe in God or not, there is something annoying about having a stranger come up to you and attempt to convert you to a religious viewpoint you do not share. Many but not all people who experience this could be expected to develop a negative view of the proselytizers. Others might laugh them off. I used to ridicule them, because I thought they were ridiculous. I had friends, though, who considered them extremely dangerous, and even regarded them as "the enemy." This was especially true of those who had grown up in evangelical families; one friend hated "the fundies" with a passion because his fundamentalist Texas parents tried to beat the demonic sissiness out of him when he was an adolescent, and he made it his personal mission in life to confront and hurl the worst possible insults at the street preachers.

Even in those days, I liked to see myself as taking a broader view of things, and I actually developed a friendship with the local leader of the "Jesus freaks" -- a man named "Holy Hubert Lindsey." [Quite a fascinating character; he's probably deceased but he seems to be enjoying a new life on the Internet. Bio with photo here.] On his way to the campus, he would sometimes stop by my house and we'd chat in the yard about stuff like the weather and cars, and while he'd usually lay off on the personal stuff, one time he did take me aside and whisper in my ear that if I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, that he would accept.... Eh, never mind what he'd "accept." How would anyone know? (Even Hubert, bless his heart. It's been many years.)

The reason for recalling this is that I suspect antipathy towards evangelicals might be rooted in something more than their tendency towards political conservatism. Unlike non-evangelical Christians, unlike Jews, Mormons, Hindus, or Buddhists, evangelical Christians are sometimes seen as being unable to leave people alone. Whether this is true about all evangelicals, the fact is that many people do not like the feeling that they're being preached at. I don't especially like being preached at either, unless I put myself in the position of "preachee" by going to church. But suppose someone feels a compulsion to preach at me. Is my not liking it bigotry? If I take a dim view of gratuitous preaching, am I bigoted against those who preach gratuitously? I like to think that I apply the same standard to, say, gratuitous preaching against sexual sins that I'd apply to gratuitous preaching against Global Warming sins and I tend to regard both with derision. But if that is bigoted, am I not just as much an anti-environmentalist bigot as anti-sex-warrior bigot?

Saying that I "try to be fair" is not enough, and does not settle this. Nor does pleading guilty to my own bigotry while calling nearly everyone a bigot in the general sense.

Clearly, there's a right to disagree, and that carries with it a right to be intolerant of opinions, persons, and conduct we don't like, and to say so. But if intolerance is bigotry, what are the implications?

Does that mean we have to tolerate everything?

What a hellishly bigoted world that would be!

posted by Eric on 06.22.08 at 10:41 AM


...evangelicals are sometimes seen as being unable to leave people alone.

well, since "evangelize" means basically "the act of bringing the good news" one can not be an evangelical and "leave people alone."

What evangelicals in their zeal to help all too often forget (and this of course also applies not only to those of the Christian variety but also to the Gaiaists, the Gays and all the others with the Glaze of the True Believer clouding their eye) is that your not liking it is not bigotry but an exercise of your free will. We all have the right to wallow in ignorance if we so choose.

Mr. Bingley   ·  June 22, 2008 11:06 AM

I defer to my learned colleague from Baltimore.

When A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.

I can only add the observation that evangelism is essentially spam; It is motivated on the same cost-benfit analysis, and has the same low chance for success. Perhaps some of the ill-will towards Evangelicals is not merely from their tactics, but from the feeling that spammers don't seem to hold their products in high regard.

Booklegger   ·  June 22, 2008 1:05 PM

My only beef with Evangelicals is that they somehow think that a person who has grown up in the United States, a country with a Christian majority, can be ignorant of their message. If someone in the modern age is not a Christian, it's not because they haven't heard the message.

Interestingly, the anti-Christians have much the same problem. They seem to believe that everyone else is some kind of idiot, unaware of flaws in Christian religion, American society, Western civilization, etc. They think that if they can just shriek their obscenities loudly enough, we'll all hear and join them.

Trimegistus   ·  June 22, 2008 4:08 PM

A thoughtful post, Eric. Two comments:

  • We evangelical types have got smarter in recent years. We still believe the best thing we can do for someone is introduce him/her to the love of God, but we have learned that in-your-face tactics do more harm than good. There's a whole literature on non-invasive ways to share the faith.
  • Prejudice against evangelicals, whether widespread or not, probably springs from a one-size-fits-all view of us. Attributing to all members of a group the characteristics of the worst members of the group (all black people are gang members, all New Englanders are elitists, whatever) pretty much defines prejudice.

notaclue   ·  June 22, 2008 4:11 PM

"Does that mean we have to tolerate everything?"

And there you have put your finger on one of the major blind spots of current leftism. Everything must be tolerated, nothing is permitted to be evaluated, and there shall be no judgment rendered of relative worth.

Well, save against those of your own culture who do not share your views, they obviously are stupid and evil and deserve no civil rights at all. But that attitude isn't intolerance, it's simply, uh... ummm...

Steve Skubinna   ·  June 23, 2008 4:21 AM

Trimegistus - people born in America think they know what Christianity is about, but what I usually encounter is an appalling ignorance of what Jesus said. As with most other topics, people latch on to a few cliches of doubtful accuracy and believe they have got it figured out. It's not any worse than the inaccuracies they believe about medicine or the economy, but it's no better.

The different generations believe different inaccuracies, but I actually encounter few people who know with much clarity what the claims of Christianity are - or more exactly, what they are not.

Oversimplified evangelism is traditionally regarded as the cause of the problem, but I think this is less the half the full explanation. All of us want the traditional reigning moral authority in our societies to back up our own pet ideas, so Jesus gets trotted out to shore up a wide variety of preferences. That is an unfortunate tendency among believers and nonbelievers alike.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  June 23, 2008 8:41 AM

I suspect that most academics have a negative view of evangelicals simply because they believe that evangelicals are stupid, at least to some degree. How could someone believe in any religion with such dedication that it controls the way they organize their lives? How can anyone believe in any principle with such dedication?

Academics have been conditioned to think of themselves are not only intelligent, but also objective, which means they must be open minded. Real religious belief is decidedly not open minded, at least in certain core areas. You must accept some absolutes if you are going to be religious. These absolutes will preclude alternative views in those areas of thought. That is dogma.

Evangelicals, as has been stated before, are imbued with a commitment to save the lost, to bring those who do not profess a personal relationship with Jesus into such a relationship. People without such a relationship are lost to God forever. They will be consigned not to oblivion, but to everlasting torment of unspecified form, but grounded in the absence of the presence of God. This evangelism is a compulsion for believers. It is not an elective activity. Furthermore, evangelism is an outward sign of concern for fellow human beings. When you accept that there is an afterlife, and that it is eternal, and that there is a danger of that afterlife being punishment, then the compulsion to evangelize becomes paramount. Having this compulsion described as spam is short-sighted.

Others have pointed out the evolution of methods that are currently being used to offer non-believers a chance at heaven. No matter the method, it simply must be done. Refusing to do so is a breach of contract in the believer's own relationship with God. Combine the moral compulsion with the ignorance of most people to the teachings of Christianity, and you're going to have conflict.

Chris   ·  June 23, 2008 9:48 AM

Nice post. Evangelical Christianity has changed over the years. A much larger percentage of us don't yap all the time about our religious faith to those who aren't inclined to listen. We prefer to follow Francis of Assisi's advice to "preach always; when necessary, use words."

Jesus did command his followers to go and preach the Good News, and we must do that, but we also must be sensitive to the situation. Even Jesus only preached the gospel to those who were ready to listen. Evangelicals need to follow the example of Jesus, and many more are in these times.

Michael McCullough   ·  June 23, 2008 6:16 PM

"My only beef with Evangelicals is that they somehow think that a person who has grown up in the United States, a country with a Christian majority, can be ignorant of their message."

I am truly amazed at how many people--even people who are pretty well educated--have only the vaguest understanding of Christian belief. Really and truly.

Some years ago, Reason magazine had an article by David Brudnoy which reviewed whatever the most recent movie of the time was about Jesus's life and death. Brudnoy at one point explained that he was utterly mystified why Christians were so focused on the life and death of an obscure Jewish preacher 2000 years ago. Disagree about whether he was the Messiah or not; disagree about whether he died and rose from the dead or not; but having not a clue why Christians think he was important?

Yes, there are a lot of people who have grown in the U.S. who have never attended church; who were not raised in Christian homes; who have only the slightest awareness of what the Christian faith (in fundamentalist or liberal forms) teaches. When I lived in the Bay Area, I was astonished at how many of my fellow students had nearly zero knowledge.

Anonymous   ·  June 24, 2008 2:02 AM

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