Liberal intolerance is suppressing freedom of belief and conscience in the United States, religious and secular panelists agreed in a discussion at Georgetown University.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), joined in the conversation Oct. 27 at the country’s oldest Roman Catholic university on how “illiberal liberalism” is affecting the free exercise of religion.
While both liberals and conservatives can be intolerant, the left controls influential institutions in a U.S. society polarized increasingly over such issues as same-sex marriage, abortion and the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate, members of the panel said.
The problems with intolerance among conservatives “are ameliorated because you don’t have the right in control of the key culture-making sectors in American life,” Moore told the audience. “[T]he left is primarily in charge of culture making right now.”
Photo by Doug Carlson
ERLC President Russell Moore speaks during an Oct. 27 panel discussion at Georgetown University on intolerance toward religiously based views. Also pictured, from left, are moderator Timothy Shah and fellow panelists Kirsten Powers and Phil Zuckerman.
Liberal intolerance can even reach the level of “a certain form of fundamentalism,” he said. “That is happening on most secular college campuses.”
Another panelist, USA Today columnist and Fox News analyst Kirsten Powers, chronicled the trend in her recent book, The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech. In doing research for the book, she found the problem was “so much worse” than she expected on campuses and in the wider culture, Powers said.
Religiously based views on such issues as gay marriage and abortion “are treated as if they are actual attacks” that create harm, she said, adding her book provides “example after example” of this.
Rather than disagreeing and debating, Powers said, the response of the intolerant left is: “We don’t want to hear about it. And if you do talk about it, we’re going to call you a bigot; we’re going to report you to the authorities; we’re going to make you a social outcast.”
Secularist and atheist Phil Zuckerman agreed liberal intolerance happens on university campuses.
“I am ashamed of it; I am angered by it,” said Zuckerman, sociology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “[I]t is upsetting, and it is disturbing.”
Liberty University, a well-known evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., “shamed secular institutions,” Zuckerman said, when it warmly welcomed Bernie Sanders, a socialist and Democratic presidential candidate, at a speech on campus in September.
While Powers’ book cites anecdotal evidence of liberal intolerance, moderator Timothy Shah pointed to a study by the Pew Research Center that found increasing governmental and social restrictions on religion in the United States. The Pew research released in May showed such restrictions rose from low to moderate in the past six years, leaving the United States in the middle range of nearly 200 countries.
Americans increasingly live in a society where public argument is “for the most part a means of tribal identification” that often relates to fundraising, Moore said. In this culture, he said, a person makes an argument primarily to say, “I am affiliated with these people and not affiliated with these other people.”
As a result, civil debate suffers, and the result is “not being able to distinguish the dignity of the person from an argument I disagree with,” Moore told the audience.
This contrasts with the method of discourse used by the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he said.
King would “speak prophetically” against Jim Crow laws in the South, Moore said, but also to segregationists and people in the middle to say, “Here is a vision of America that can include you, that is a moral America that is quite different from what you experience right now.”
Powers said her ultimate theory for why the shutout of religiously based viewpoints by liberals is occurring is they do it “because they can.”
It is not based on being liberal or conservative but on human nature, she said. The left’s dominance in culture leaves “no checks and balances,” she told the audience.
“When you have very little ideological diversity, … what do you get? You get authoritarianism,” Powers said.
The liberals he knows among academia and students, Zuckerman said, believe “they’re fighting the good fight by looking out for racism, looking out for sexism, looking out for homophobia, looking out for what they see” as religious oppression.
When it can’t be found in the people in power, “you have to find it where you can,” he said.
Powers noted she grew up in a “liberal bubble” as an atheist or agnostic. But she became an evangelical Christian about 10 years ago and recently converted to Catholicism. She said many people are like she was – unaware they are intolerant and without a framework for understanding religious faith.
Evangelical Christians should seek to help secularist progressives understand who they are and what they believe, Moore said.
As evangelicals, “we have to be faithful in all the ways that we’ve been called to be faithful, and we have to be the sort of people who know how to dialogue with and persuade with our convictions those who disagree with us,” even if that means they understand and never agree, he said.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)