Intolerance and Tolerance

Premier Christian Radio

The Spectator for 24 November 2001 contained an article by Dr Colin Nicholl, a lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. He was reporting on Premier, the London Christian Radio station, and its being given a 'Yellow Card' by the Radio Authority. "This means," he said, "that if the station does not mend its ways it could lose its licence."

He then researched the problem, looking at the Radio Authority's Quarterly Complaints Bulletin. It appeared that Premier had complaints far in excess of any other of the many stations; and all the complaints came from one source, the Mysticism and Occultism Federation whose website Nicholl then 'visited'. It showed, he claimed, that the federation has "five 'part-time unpaid volunteers' who monitor the media, particularly the Christian media, such as Premier Radio, looking for 'unfair' and 'offensive' comments which are exclusivistic or 'intolerant' of other 'spiritualities', such as Satanism, occultism, New Age, magic, astrology and divination."

So what were some of their complaints? They included one against an evangelical minister, Dr Michael Youssef. He had suggested that mainline churches were bowing to political correctness and accommodating to secular culture instead of trusting in Jesus alone, "the true redeemer, the true saviour, the only one who can make them whole." Jesus Christ, he said, was the only hope for our society. Also Dr Youssef expressed his conviction that it was "crazy" to claim that one can be a "practising homosexual" and a "good Christian" at the same time, in view of Paul's teaching in Romans 1.

How, then, did the Radio Authority react? They judged that these remarks "denigrated the beliefs of other people" and thus contravened the Programme Code. Nicholl, therefore, asked: "Is it now the case that only those Christians who interpret the Bible as permitting homosexual practice can air their views on radio?" He could have added that the 1998 Lambeth Conference of bishops of the world-wide Anglican communion would now also be 'Yellow Carded' on this basis!

Another complaint was against Chuck Swindoll. I know for a fact that many Christians have profited from Chuck's ministry over the years. For a government authority to outlaw such a man is, indeed, sinister. Nicholl writes:

"Another well-known evangelical preacher, Dr Charles Swindoll, warned Christians of the dangers of 'dabbling in the occult' and advised them to destroy any occult materials in their possession. In advocating this, Dr Swindoll was merely reiterating the counsel of Acts 19.19. However, in a rather fascinating PC judgment, the Radio Authority asserted that 'divination' was a part of some religious belief systems, and that Swindoll's homily was tantamount to denigration of others' beliefs. This ruling raises a number of questions: since Satanists worship Satan, is it similarly offensive to portray Satan in negative terms? Since the perpetrators of the 11 September attacks considered themselves to be obeying Allah, is it now denigration of others' beliefs to denounce them and their British counterparts as 'evil' and 'deceived' and to pronounce that theirs is a 'religion of terrorism'?"

The Spectator article finished with another question:

"One parting thought: in the light of this rather pathetic state of affairs, in which the broadcasting legislation is being interpreted in such a remarkably draconian way, what will be made of Part 5 of the government's anti-terrorism laws, which outlaws with the threat of up to seven years' imprisonment 'insulting words or behaviour likely to stir up hatred against a group of people because of their religious belief'?"

The anti-terror legislation and the facts

The answer to that question is this: fortunately, when these new proposed laws reached the House of Lords, Part 5 received a mauling. The Lords did not think much of this serious erosion of fundamental liberties and so they rejected the clauses on incitement to religious hatred. This forced David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to agree to drop the proposals. So early on Friday morning, 14 December 2001, the anti-terror legislation became law without this new offence.

Undoubtedly there were good intentions on the part of those who wanted an offence for religious hatred. Since 11 September and the Muslim terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, there have been reports of attacks against individual Muslims in Britain (and against some Christians). Quite rightly, it was said, such behaviour should be outlawed. But the existing law, if applied, can be used against such behaviour. The Attorney-General in the House of Lords spoke of graffiti on a wall reading: "Avenge USA - Kill a Muslim Now!" That is wicked. But it already could be dealt with under current law, if there was a will. The main achievement of an incitement law would be to endanger the freedom of speech - one of our fundamental freedoms - and that includes freedom of speech for believing Christians. As citizens people of every faith should be treated equally before the law. But how should we view the relationships between the various religions as such in Britain? First, we need to establish the facts.

One of the most careful demographic surveys is British Social Attitudes. The latest British Social Attitudes - the 18th report (the 2001/2002 edition) has literally just been published. It reveals that contrary to what is commonly assumed, people are becoming more, not less, religious. To the question "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?" in the previous 17th report (the 2000/2001 edition which I quoted in the Coloured Supplement for December 2001), 43.8 percent said they had "no religion", with 51.9 percent claiming to be Christian (mostly with a definite denominational or "grouping" affiliation) and with 3.1 percent claiming to be of other faiths. However, now, in this 18th report 39.5 percent said they had "no religion" - a 4.3 percent drop - while 55.2 percent claim to be Christian - an increase of 3.3 percent - and with 4.7 percent of other faiths - an increase of 1.6 percent.

Translated into actual population sizes these latest figures would give 23 million people in Britain with no religion (this excludes Northern Ireland); 32 million who claim to be Christian; and 2.7 million who claim to be of another faith. Interestingly, in terms of wider issues of national culture, only 11.6 percent were brought up with "no religion", while 82.9 percent were brought up as Christian, with 4.5 percent brought up in another faith. Translated into actual population sizes those figures give you 6.7 million brought up with "no faith"; 48 million brought up as Christian; and 2.6 million brought up with another faith.

Of further interest are the numbers of Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Muslims. 29.8 percent of the population now claim to be Anglican - that is a significant increase of 2.7 percent over the previous year. 9.2 percent claim to be Roman Catholic - an increase of 0.3 percent over the previous year; and 2 percent claim to be Muslim - an increase of 0.5 percent over the previous year. Translated into actual population sizes that gives you 17.3 million Anglicans; 5.3 million Roman Catholics; and 1.2 million Muslims.


The myth of religious pluralism

What do these figures tell us about Britain? They tell us that the majority of our citizens do not consider themselves to be irreligious. That means that we cannot allow secular atheistic or irreligious broadcasters, educationalists or politicians to speak for the majority. Nor can we allow such people to say that we are now a religiously pluralistic society. We are not!

The religious community makes up 60 percent of the population. Of that religious community 92 percent are Christian with 8 percent being of other faiths. Of that 8 percent, 1.7 percent are Hindu; 1.3 percent are Jewish; 3.4 percent are Muslim; 0.7 percent are Sikh; 0.2 percent are Buddhist; and 0.7 percent are of other non Christian faiths. To talk about "pluralism" without qualification is grossly misleading and positively dangerous. What we have in Britain is a "subordinate" religious pluralism. The dominant religious culture, as the figures show, is "Christian". This, of course, does not mean "bible believing" or "committed". However 10.5 percent of the total population in Britain seem to be going to a Christian church weekly now. A further 2 percent go at least once in two weeks; a further 5.7 percent go at least once a month; and a further 9.4 percent go twice a year or more. Nor do these attendances include special occasions like weddings, funerals and baptisms. That means that nearly 28 percent of the population are regular (in some way) church goers.

But is there a Christian view of how these (unequal) faith communities should live together? Does the desire for social peace mean we should still be looking for some form of legislation to outlaw religious hatred? Should there be an outlawing of any religious intolerance?

The Bible certainly gives us guidance about "religious hatred". But it suggests that we must be careful to make distinctions. We are, for example, to hate what is evil (Romans 12.9). The example of Jesus makes it clear that in this "day of grace" - between his two comings - we are to hate all sin. But at the same time we are to love the sinner. Jesus "hated" false religion and religious practices. Nor did his love mean keeping quiet or being politically correct. Jesus called the Pharisees "hypocrites", "blind guides", "blind fools", "like whitewashed tombs", "You snakes! You brood of vipers" (Matthew 23.15,16,17,27,33). And in Revelation we are told that Jesus also hates "the practices of Nicolaitans [an early sect]" (Revelation 2.6). But Jesus loved sinners, as is so clear from the Gospel accounts. One of the Pharisees' criticisms of Jesus was that, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15.2).

Such hatred or intolerance of what is wrong comes from the fact that the truth matters. It is the truth that sets you free, Jesus taught (John 8.32). So there can be no genuine liberalism without the truth. And the first truth, concerning which there is to be no negotiation according to the Bible, is that there is only one true God (Exodus 20.3) and only one true way to that true God: that is through Jesus Christ (Acts 4.12).


The only true God

The Old Testament is God's preparation of his people so that conceptually and morally they would be ready for his supreme revelation in Christ. True, God only "spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets [i.e. the Old Testament]" (Hebrews 1.1 [NEB])". But those "fragments" and that varied teaching is vital for our understanding of God. And the first lesson in understanding is there in the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." So important was this lesson that there were, in Old Testament times, "holy wars" against pagan nations. By the time of Jesus, however, such "holy wars" are not to be the way to extend God's kingdom. On one occasion some Samaritans refused to welcome Jesus. When his "disciples James and John saw this, they asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?' But Jesus turned and rebuked them" (Luke 9.54-55). Then later in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the time of the actual arrest of Jesus, Matthew tells us:

"With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?'" (Matt 26.51-54).

God's way of salvation is now not by the sword. We see that so clearly. But in that "fragmentary" Old Testament revelation terrible wars were necessary to establish this elementary and fundamental truth, namely that there is only one God - the God revealed in the Bible. People must not be ensnared by false gods (Deut 7.16). It is similar with adultery. In Old Testament times it merited the death penalty. Jesus, however, opposed the continued use of stoning for adultery. But while he did not condemn the woman "caught in the act" to be stoned, he still upheld the commandment, for he said to her: "Go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8.11). That capital sanction was to teach that reserving sex for marriage is also a fundamental truth.

Jesus saw that one of the devil's supreme temptations is to make people ignore the Old Testament command to "worship the Lord your God, and serve him only" (Matthew 4.10). He saw the importance not of inclusivity but of exclusivity when it comes to the worship of God. It is for this reason that individual Christians and Christian churches have to be intolerant of fundamental doctrinal error - especially the doctrinal error of "multifaithism".

And the New Testament church was clearly exclusive. It was concerned to exclude both false teaching and immoral behaviour. But a distinction was made between the Church and the world. So in 1 Corinthians 5 after Paul has adamantly written that there must be the disciplining of a person inside the church, he goes on to say this in verses 9-11:

"I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat."

Paul is saying that Christian believers are to be intolerant and hate error in the church; but with respect to people outside they are to be "tolerant".

Toleration is, of course, not indifferentism. You can only tolerate what you believe to be wrong or evil. Toleration is the determination not to take direct or forceful action to prevent the existence of what you believe to be wrong or evil. It is like the Parable of the Weeds where the wheat and the weeds "both grow together until the harvest" (Matthew 13.30). The servants were told, in effect, to tolerate the weeds. Therefore, as God is tolerant in this day of grace, so must we be. Therefore Christians are to "associate with ... people of this world who are ... idolaters" - and people of other faiths would be classed as "idolaters". So exclusivity is only for the church. However, this toleration does not mean you do not try to convert the "people of the world". Nor does it mean you should support, let alone promote idolatry (or other faiths). No! The Christian is to go into all the world to preach the good news to persuade people against idolatry.


The state and toleration

But what should the state do? How should the state relate to religious beliefs and religious beliefs the majority may believe erroneous?

The state is certainly entitled to use force - that is its essential distinctive. But the state is not the Church. Its duty is to keep order. Jesus said:

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22.21)

This was, and is, so basic. Paul fills out the meaning of those words in Romans 13, where "Caesar" (or the state) is shown to be able to use force as "God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (verse 4). Paul has explained in the previous chapter that it is not up to the individual to "take revenge". He or she is to "leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord" (Romans 12. 19). That wrath - or judgment - will be fully revealed on the judgment day. But in the meantime for the good of society and to restrain the worst effects of fallen human beings, God delegates some of his judicial functions to the state and to governments (with a just war being an extension of those judicial functions).

But does this mean the state can use force for anything? No! It cannot enforce belief. As with the abolition of slavery it took centuries for this to be fully understood by Christians. It was some of the Puritans who saw this more than most. The disgraceful 1662 Act of Uniformity sought to enforce belief and forms of worship. It resulted in many good men, like Richard Baxter of Kidderminster, being forced out of their churches and ending up in gaol. So the stage was set for the Toleration Act of 1689 that followed the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, was also significant. In that letter he argued that belief cannot be forced by the power of the state. However, he never suggested that all beliefs could be treated as equal. Nor did he suggest that the state should be tolerant of immorality, rather the reverse.

The great western and Christian tradition of toleration was forged as a result of the Reformation and, yes, mistakes made on all sides. And that tradition has been clear until recently, certainly in the Church. It says that individual believers must be intolerant of fundamental doctrinal error - their commitment to the truth requires that. But individual believers in their relationships with non-believers must be "tolerant" - they will not seek to "force" them to make professions of faith. They realize that men and women have not only to "confess with their mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', but believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead" (Romans 10.9). And you cannot force the heart. The ideal government, then, is not one that enforces belief but one where civil order is maintained, so "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness" (1 Timothy 2.3).

But the ideal government cannot be neutral. While it will allow freedom for religion, it inevitably will have some value system. Currently in the world, the main options are Christian, Muslim or Secular humanist. Both Islam and Secular humanism do not make the distinction between Caesar and God. Islam ideally would seek to abolish Caesar; secular humanism ideally would seek to abolish God. Both strategies are disastrous. Jesus' teaching is so essential for public health.

The Christian value system that has informed and shaped the evolution of Western democracies ensures a level of toleration because of the separation of Church and State. However, that toleration is not infinite. John Locke was clear that the magistrate must ban a religious group if it "should have a mind to sacrifice infants, or lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous uncleanness, or practise any other such heinous enormities." Furthermore, democratic governments where there are a majority of Christian citizens should want their laws to reflect God's standards. Nor is there anything "intolerant" in the state privileging one religion, as is currently the case in Britain with the establishment of the (Protestant) Christian faith. Some choice has to be made.

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