Tolerance is a liberal virtue, if not the supreme liberal virtue. Liberal societies pride themselves -- or at least our society does -- for their tolerance of intolerance. Liberals like to say their tolerance proves that they fear nothing, that it shows their own strength and confidence when they let Nazis and Klansmen march in public. But their tolerance may also reflect a certain moral fear of coercion as the ultimate betrayal of their principles and their self-regard. Yet much of what liberals see as the progress of civilization has been achieved through forms of coercion, or else has provoked protests against coercion from the vested interests who have resisted change. The labor movement rose to its height of power through the coercive power of strikes and later with the coercive support of governments, and an abhorrence of coercion today may inhibit workers from reclaiming that power. Southerners and people elsewhere in the U.S. were coerced into desegregation, if not literally at gunpoint then simply because laws now required them to do what they preferred not to. Democracy itself is implicitly coercive to the extent that the will of the many binds the few. Now, amid the backlash against Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its perceived empowerment of homophobic discrimination, a counter-backlash warns against coercion by the gay-rights movement. Many observers have lamented how the once-uncontroversial original federal RFRA, which in many cases has protected actually disadvantaged religious minorities, has become a lightning rod little more than twenty years after its passage. Labels guide discussion; if the gay-rights movement opposes RFRA laws in the states, doesn't it oppose religious freedom itself? In the New York Times, David Brooks, a conservative who writes for a liberal audience, urges the course of true liberalism: tolerance of intolerance. For Brooks this is the moral option, according to this week's definition of morality as "a politeness of the soul" that in pluralistic societies aims to "turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems" and seeks "creative accommodation" of "different values [that] disagree." He offers analogies from Jewish experience: Conservative Jews learn to tolerate Orthodox practices that may seem offensive. On the issue of gay rights and religious freedom, Brooks warns that "a movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side" of coercion, especially when it takes a disproportionately punitive form like the six-figure fine a bakery may pay for refusing to bake a same-sex wedding cake. What Brooks seems to be asking is that the gay-rights movement recognize homophobia (though he probably wouldn't call it that) as a "philosophical difference" that should be respected both on an intellectual level and as a liberal imperative.
Like many commentators, Brooks has succumbed to the religious right's hyperbole and seems to accept the premise that resistance to gay equality is a religious obligation. This is the very point I've been questioning for some time. Did the dissident bakers believe they would go to hell if they baked that cake? I doubt it. Is making the cake morally equivalent to worshiping the emperor in Rome? I doubt that. Unless they can convince me that they did feel this way and had scriptural reason to do so, their refusal of service was a political act rather than an exercise of religion. While common sense always asks whether the wedding planners couldn't find another baker, or whether the bakery's offense deserves such a pricey penalty, it should also ask whether freedom of religion was really at stake in the dispute. If the religious right or the Republican party wants to insist that it was, and is, then they're on the slippery slope to Christianism and moral equivalence with those Muslims who declare jihad a religious obligation of each individual Muslim. The easy way out for everyone, with the least cost to freedom of religion, would be to deny homophobia the dignity of a religious obligation. But since the religious right apparently sees this issue as a Here I Stand moment, they'll have to deal with the opposition's refusal to elevate homophobia to the dignity of a "philosophical difference." However troubling the truth may be for liberals, there's no escaping the revolutionary character of the moment. The gay-rights movement is intolerant in the same way any revolution is intolerant, for good or ill, in its refusal to concede any good reason, even in theory, to dispute gay equality. The RFRA movement forces the issue by appealing inappropriately to religious freedom at a moment when the gay-rights movement sees religion as no good reason to relegate homosexuals to second-class citizenship. The gay-rights movement dares tell the world that no one has a right to question the equal humanity or equal citizenship of homosexuals. Yet this need not be a threat to religious freedom unless people choose to define their religions as essentially and imperatively homophobic. Only if discrimination against homosexuals is treated as an act of worship is the freedom of worship threatened by the gay-rights movement. That's as polite as the movement can be at this point.
Every liberal, I suppose, hears a small voice in his or her head that whispers, "What if you're wrong?" Some liberals may worry about a lack of self-questioning (if not self-doubt) in the gay-rights movement. Can homosexuals really not tolerate the possibility that they or their movement are wrong in any way? This question can be answered with a question: in what way can homosexuality be wrong? Once we've gone beyond a primitive biological determinism that assumes an individual obligation to reproduce, why should we consider sexual preference "wrong," whether it's innate or chosen? We have no reason to treat "God" as a good reason to treat the homosexual differently from the heterosexual. The Constitution or the principle of pluralism may require us to respect religion as an individual choice, but that respect doesn't oblige us to respect religious opinions on political questions. Isn't that what we want Muslims to understand? If we resist their attempts to codify their religious preferences into law, mustn't we resist attempts from any quarter, and from the majority faith especially? There is, to borrow a phrase, an implicit wall separating religious freedom from theocracy. Religious freedom today is more endangered by religions' attempts to breach this wall, which can only fall on their heads, than by any militant movement against religion. If there is a moral burden of "politeness" at this point in history, it rests on the shoulders of faith, not with those the faithful would oppress. If this be coercion, make the most of it.