Do Irreligious Realize They're Intolerant?

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Last Saturday, a friend who works at our neighborhood farmer's market complimented one of her fellow vendors on her dress.

"Thanks," said the smartly dressed woman, adding that she bought it Forever 21, a store she frequents "even though it's run by crazy Christians."

In case you didn't know, the owners of the fashion chain are Korean Christians who print "John 3:16" on their shopping bags. Gibbering maniacs, obviously.

Recalling the story, my friend, who is a practicing Christian, said she was so shocked that she didn't know how to respond.

"You could have said, 'Would you have had the same trouble shopping at a store run by Jews, Muslims, or Hindus?'" I offered. "Or you could have said, 'Does that mean you won't be buying stuff from me? I'm a Christian, and our farm is run by a Christian."

Had I been in my friend's place, I probably would have reacted the same way, too startled by the revelation that my market colleague was probably a bigot to have mustered much of a response.

But this is not the first time that's happened at our farmer's market. One of the best and friendliest customers of my friend's farm stand cut loose one day with a mini-tirade against pro-lifers and Christians. It had never occurred to this woman that she was buying goods from two pro-life Christian women. She simply assumed that they must agree with her, because everybody knows that only liberals live in our neighborhood and frequent farmers' markets.

True, our neighborhood is overwhelmingly liberal, at least to judge by voting patterns and the frequency of left-wing bumper stickers on cars lining the streets. It's the kind of place where you don't expect conservative Christians to live. But we do -- and some of us (I'm thinking of some of my Catholic friends) are even Democrats.

To be sure, folks on the political and cultural right are often guilty of the same thing, as we are constantly reminded by the media. What's annoying, however, is how rarely it ever seems to occur to liberals in the media and elsewhere that they too need to confront their own intolerance, and to learn something about civility.

It deeply annoys liberals to hear conservative Christians complain about how persecuted they are. They're right, in a strictly limited way. It's always unattractive to see people wallow in victimhood, which can become a crutch for excuse-making and self-pity. That said, sometimes people,even people we don't like, really are victims of bigotry. Conservatives,especially conservative Christians, know that we are held to a double standard on these things -- a contradiction of which many self-righteous liberals are unaware.

Having spent 20 years working in newsrooms, which tend to be populated with moralists who take a preacher's pride in reforming society, I heard my share of nasty remarks about Christians -- the kinds of things that would never be said about Jews or Muslims. Once I was in a news meeting in which a very senior editor made a vicious joke about Christians. He apparently felt safe enough to say what he did because he assumed everyone present agreed with him. And he was probably right.

A fellow writer at that same newspaper once asked me, an out Christian, to meet her in a stairwell for a tense discussion about her job, which she thought she was going to lose once it became known in the newsroom that she was a conservative Evangelical. I began to understand why an Evangelical friend who has a high-powered career in network news lives in the closet as a Christian, and endures casual insults all the time in editorial meetings, anti-Christian remarks made by people who assume everyone around them shares the same prejudices.

To be perfectly candid, these experiences have given me a lot more understanding for what gay folks have long had to go through in the workplace. Though I don't share the emerging moral consensus about homosexuality, I strongly believe that we are a better society for having gotten rid of the closet. One does not have to accept homosexuality to accept gay people any more than one has to affirm a particular Christian church or doctrine to affirm the common humanity of Christians who do.

In a recent interview on the (excellent) public radio program "Krista Tippett on Being," the conservative Evangelical theologian Richard Mouw spent an hour talking about the need to be more civil. He said that the concept comes from the Latin word that connotes learning how to live together in the city. Citing Aristotle, Mouw argued that "to be a mature human being is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people . who are very different than yourself."

True, all true, and important to say. And yet, I couldn't help noticing that the entire interview focused on Mouw's efforts to get his fellow religious conservatives to approach others more civilly. As valuable as that effort is, where are the Richard Mouws of the secular left? Does the secular left realize it has a civility and tolerance problem too? Do the media have the slightest idea how these issues look from the religious right? Do any of them even care?


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