If the three-part miniseries known as the “2016 Presidential Debates” were any indication, we have reached an all-time low in our capacity for civil discourse. At points, the proceedings were more akin to reality television or acrimonious divorce proceedings than an audition for the leader of the free world.
Viewers who hoped to evaluate policy positions were for the most part, treated to a series of contempt-laden one liners. Ad hominem attacks overwhelmed any potential for the sharing of ideas.
In short, we are witnessing – on a national stage – what increasingly is occurring on a regional, local, and personal level. It is the abandonment of what we used to call “tolerance.”
There was a time, within my lifetime, when we could respectfully disagree with co-workers, friends, and neighbors while still maintaining those relationships. Even pronounced differences in beliefs or convictions would not usually separate close friends.
That time my band geek friend John sent me a “Dear John”
I was a band geek in high school, and I formed lasting friendships with many people who, aside from the polyester band uniform and well-developed embouchure, were very different from me. One of those friendships was with John. We had different tastes in music, different religious beliefs, different political beliefs, and, to my chagrin, vastly different levels of success with the opposite sex. John and I formed a friendship in spite of those differences.
But just hours before the second debate, John sent me a “Dear John” message on Facebook, explaining that he had unfriended me and “can’t be associated” with me because of where I work. He explained that he was severing our 20+ year friendship in order to “interact with people who want to bring people together.” I’m not sure if this is what he meant by “bring people together” (his actions were accomplishing the opposite), but his decision was prompted by an article I wrote suggesting that “liberty” wasn’t well-served by forcing 18 girls into a single-stall shower room.
I’m not angry at John, but I’m disappointed that our culture has embraced a mantra for interpersonal relationships that “you’re either with me, or you’re against me.” And I’m frustrated that my friend believes my organization is part of the problem, when Alliance Defending Freedom exists to protect freedom of conscience and belief, freedom that benefits all Americans.
A diverse society protects diverse beliefs
ADF defends the legal rights of people to live and work peacefully according to their beliefs. People like Barronelle Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother and Washington floral artist. Barronelle served customer Robert Ingersoll for nearly a decade, providing flowers for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events. But when he asked her to design custom floral arrangements for his same-sex wedding, Barronelle knew she couldn’t.
I felt terrible that I couldn’t share this day with him, as I’d shared so many with him before. I took his hands and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Rob said he understood, and that he hoped his mom would walk him down the aisle, but he wasn’t sure. We talked about how he got engaged and why they decided to get married after all these years. He asked me for the names of other flower shops. I gave him the names of three floral artists that I knew would do a good job, because I knew he would want something very special. We hugged and he left.
Barronelle loves Robert Ingersoll, but that does not mean she agrees with every decision he makes or endorses every opinion he holds. And a fair-minded society shouldn’t require her to, just as it shouldn’t force Robert Ingersoll to agree with Barronelle’s decisions or endorse her beliefs. A diverse society necessarily allows for diverse beliefs, and a free society vigorously protects the right of its citizens to act peacefully according to their beliefs.
Unfortunately, Washington State, the ACLU, and even Robert Ingersoll disagree. They sued Barronelle and she now faces the loss of her business, savings, and home. Why? For having a different belief about marriage than Robert Ingersoll, and for seeking to peacefully live according to her conscience and consistently with her beliefs. Put more simply, for taking her friend’s hands in her own, looking him in the eye, and saying “I’m sorry I can’t do your wedding.”
Forcing conformity in a diverse society doesn’t unite, it divides. And believing that you must separate yourself from – or punish – those who hold views different than your own only exacerbates the problem. You begin to see those “others” not as friends, neighbors, and colleagues who add something unique to the diverse fabric of our nation, but as faceless impediments to a never-never land where “everyone thinks like me (or they will when they grow up).”
The end result of this dangerous misunderstanding of tolerance is two individuals yelling at each other on national television, all the while telling us that they have what it takes to lead our nation. The worst part is, until we change our private interactions from disgraceful to respectful, we’re getting exactly what we deserve.
Forcing conformity in a diverse society doesn’t unite, it divides.