January 19, 2007

Why does tolerance stop at the church door for so many?

They are all around us. It may be the person who sits next to you in Hum class. It could be your friendly acquaintance from across the hall. It might even be your RA or RH. Or maybe it’s your favorite Maroon columnist. Perhaps you don’t know what I’m talking about, but if you, like me, saw Jesus Camp (it was screened last weekend at Doc), you know that those crazy Christians can be downright frightening. But for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, let me summarize: The movie follows Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal pastor, and some of her young parishioners. Fischer runs a camp, the inspiration for the title, called “Kids on Fire,” where the children are encouraged to accept God into their lives, fight abortion, and speak in tongues, among other things. All of this is punctuated by commentary and criticism by Air America radio host Mike Papontonio. While parts of the movie are undeniably disturbing, the obvious derision and condescension by the audience here at the U of C was also disturbing, but in a very different way.

One of the main tenets of liberalism—one adhered to by a plurality, if not a majority, of students on campus—is (was?) tolerance. Despite this, it often seems that this tenet is ignored when it comes to Christianity. Why does cultural relativism break down when it meets the most popular religion in the western world? The only explanation for this seems to be that Christianity, with its positions on abortion and homosexuality, is one of liberalism’s biggest enemies. Then again, Islam isn’t such a big fan of homosexuality either, but liberals consistently rush to defend it as “the religion of peace.”

Throughout the movie, the crowd at Doc burst into laughter as Fischer prayed for a PowerPoint presentation to work and as one speaker discussed the imperative of ending abortion. I admit I found myself snickering a few times as well (when the conspicuously obese Fischer condemned “fat and lazy Christians,” or when she proclaimed, “If Harry Potter had lived in the Old Testament, he would have been put to death”), and at times I felt uncomfortable. Moreover, as a Christian, I certainly disagree with her position that Harry Potter is evil or that a five-year-old can make the decision to accept Jesus into his life. But that’s not the question. The question is whether disagreeing with Fischer should make her a target for malice and disdain. Indeed, Fischer has “indefinitely postponed” the camp because of vandalism—allegedly—“directly linked to negative reaction to the movie.”

Both of my (agnostic) friends with whom I went to see the movie proclaimed themselves “scared” after seeing it. But in all honesty, what is there to be scared of? Although phrases like “warriors in the army of God” are used liberally in the movie, there is nothing to fear about these children or their parents. I know someone out there is thinking “Abortion clinic bombings!’ but when was the last time you heard about someone dying at the hands of a pro-life extremist? Well, actually, the answer is 1998, when Dr. Barnett Slepian was tragically shot by James Kopp. While we’re on the subject, let’s take a guess at how many people have died due to anti-abortion violence. One hundred? Five Hundred? According to the National Abortion Federation, since 1977, the answer is seven.

No doubt one of the words that will come to mind for many people when seeing this movie is “brainwashing.” But who is to say what is brainwashing, and what isn’t? Who decides whether the religious experiences the children are shown having are authentic or not? It is easy to condemn the parents, but if you earnestly believed, like these children’s parents obviously do, that being “born again” is the only way to heaven, wouldn’t it be of vital importance to see your children experience that? Most importantly of all, as adults—or even teenagers—the “Kids on Fire” will ultimately decide for themselves what is true and what is not. Who among us doesn’t know someone who was raised very religiously, but turned out very hostile to religion? Undoubtedly, as they grow older, many of these children will choose to leave the church, just as many will choose to stay.

Selective tolerance is none at all, but unfortunately, it is practiced all the time. Perhaps this is inevitable. Tolerance is much easier in theory than it is in practice. That is to say, it’s much less difficult to tolerate, for example, Native American tribes who committed horrific offenses long in the past than it is to tolerate people and groups whom you might actually meet and interact with. It seems that far-reaching tolerance might in the end be an inherently flawed goal, because true tolerance ultimately means tolerating the intolerant.