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The rock that is higher

Two books expose the intolerance of "tolerant" relativists

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

"That may be true for you, but it isn't true for me." "You don't have the right to impose your morality on anyone else." "You people who think you have the only truth and the only morality are intolerant and just as bad as the Taliban."

When Christians try to evangelize someone, offer an opinion on public policy, or engage in an act of persuasion, the cultural left tries to silence them by invoking the doctrine of relativism.

What we think of as true is really only a personal or a cultural construction, so the argument goes. This is true of religion, and it is certainly true for morality, which varies according to different people's choices and values. To impose one ideology on everyone is an act of power and a violation of people's rights and freedom. We must instead practice tolerance by accepting people's different beliefs and values.

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These now-commonplace notions are exploded in a new book, The Truth About Tolerance by Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti (InterVarsity Press, 2005, paperback). In a scholarly but lucid analysis that traces the virtue of tolerance all the way back to the Bible, the authors show that tolerance requires disagreement. Otherwise, there is nothing to tolerate. And toleration depends on objective truth.

While exposing the intolerance that passes for the virtue today, the authors make an illuminating point: "Relativism is bankrupt as a moral philosophy, and no one is actually a real relativist, including the contemporary secular liberal. Secularists today make a whole host of moral judgments, and they do so unhesitatingly," they write. "The relativism of the secular liberalism . . . is only relativist when it is resisting traditional Judeo-Christian morality."

Actually, say Mr. Stetson and Mr. Conti, secularists engage in selective relativism. They invoke relativism when arguing against Christians and other cultural conservatives. But they treat their own beliefs and moral principles as objective, absolute, and universal truths.

This is the point, too, of William Watkins in his book The New Absolutes (Bethany House, 1996). He identifies 10 core convictions that govern today's secularists:

(1) Religion interferes with freedom and must be banished from the public square.

(2) Human life is valuable only as long as it is wanted.

(3) Marriage is a human contract made between any two people, and can be terminated for any reason.

(4) Family is any grouping of two or more people.

(5) Sexual intercourse is permissible regardless of marital status.

(6) All forms of sexual activity are moral as long as they occur between consenting adults.

(7) Women are oppressed by men and must liberate themselves.

(8) People of color should receive preferential treatment.

(9) Non-Western societies and other oppressed peoples and their heritage should be studied and valued above Western civilization.

(10) Only viewpoints deemed politically correct should be tolerated and encouraged to prevail.

Other core beliefs could be added to the list, such as environmentalism and evolution. The point is, secularists tend to hold to these principles with both zeal and self-righteousness. Secularists would have no problem carving them in granite and inscribing them on monuments set up in courthouses.

Sometimes the secularists cast their moral absolutes as inversions of traditional morality. Often they seem genuinely unaware that they are moral absolutists. These beliefs are not just consciously held, rationally arrived-at positions. Rather, they are often unexamined assumptions, presuppositions deeply imbedded in the secularist worldview.

Christians should not let their opponents get away with playing the relativism card. After uncovering the secularists' own absolutes, Christians could then ask them, "What is the basis for your beliefs?" Once the ground is shifted to a discussion of foundational worldviews, the Bible emerges as a solid rock.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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