Should we tolerate the intolerant? (updated)


Kim Davis, an elected county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, according to news reports, is continuing to deny marriage licenses today, despite an order by the U.S. Supreme Court that she cannot refuse to do so.

She believes that she is defending her religious liberty and that her religious liberty trumps not only the law, but also the rights of the people in Rowan County, Kentucky, to acquire marriage licenses in accord with the law and their own religious beliefs. “This searing act of validation would forever echo in her conscience,” her lawyers told the Supreme Court. According to the New York Times, she is in her office this morning with the door and blinds closed.

First of all, let’s pull away the mask. Anyone who believes that Ms. Davis’ conscience is kind and conscientious is greatly deceived. She is a hateful, hypocritical (married four times) and intolerant person. She is being used by, and financed by, other hateful and intolerant people for political purposes. After this is resolved, keep an eye on what she does. Michael Savage predicts that she will become well-off and popular on the right-wing lecture circuit.

For the rest of us, she presents a problem that goes beyond the law. The law is clear. But the attitude that truly conscientious people should take toward the hatreds and intolerant mischief of people like Kim Davis is not so clear.

In a post a few weeks ago, in the matter of Cecil the lion, I mentioned John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, which for decades has been the leading text in the field of moral philosophy. Rawls’ 500-page book includes a section titled “Toleration of the Intolerant.”

“Some political parties in democratic states,” Rawls writes, “hold doctrines that commit them to suppress the constitutional liberties whenever they have the power.” Check. We’ve got that — a Republican party, allied with the Christian right, that is fanatical about the privileges and liberties of the privileged but determined to keep down anyone who would challenge or dilute the privileges of the privileged.

Rawls writes, “Now, to be sure, an intolerant man will say that he acts in good faith and that he does not ask anything for himself that he denies to others. His view, let us suppose, is that he is acting on the principle that God is to be obeyed and the truth accepted by all. This principle is perfectly general and by acting on it he is not making an exception in his own case. As he sees the matter, he is following the correct principle which others reject.”

And yet: “Each person must insist upon an equal right to decide what his religious objections are. He cannot give up this right to another person or institutional authority…. From the fact that God’s intention is to be complied with, it does not follow that any person or institution has the authority to interfere with another’s interpretation of his religious obligations. This religious principle justifies no one in demanding in law or politics a greater liberty for himself….”

In other words, Kim Davis is claiming the right not only to deny people marriage licenses, but also the right to be a religious dictator for the people in her county.

Rawls again:

“Rather, since a just constitution exists, all citizens have a natural duty of justice to uphold it. We are not released from this duty whenever others are disposed to act unjustly…. Knowing the inherent stability of a just constitution, members of a well-ordered society have the confidence to limit the freedom of the intolerant only in the special cases when it is necessary for preserving equal liberty itself.”

I have put the last sentence above in italics because I believe that, setting aside matters of law, that is the moral principle behind the Supreme Court’s ruling — that denying this liberty to Kim Davis is necessary to protect the equal liberty of others.

“The conclusion, then,” writes Rawls, “is that while an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and within reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger…. The liberties of some are not suppressed simply to make possible a greater liberty for others. Justice forbids this sort of reasoning in connection with liberty…. It is the liberty of the intolerant which is to be limited, and this is done for the sake of equal liberty under a just constitution….”

Rawls was writing in 1971, though his book was revised in 1990. Rawls died in 2002. Religionists imagine that no moral framework exists outside religious authority and ancient texts. But most religionists would not know a moral framework even if a modern moral framework saved them from stoning or being burned to death for their own Old Testament crimes.

One of the gross moral flaws and limitations of religions such as Christianity is that they contain no principle for deciding between competing claims other than, ultimately, “I am right and you are wrong, on the authority of the texts.” To make this situation even worse, sects and individuals disagree on the interpretation of the texts, and on what to conveniently ignore in the texts and what to emphasize. They claim liberty for their own arbitrary choices and the end of a stick for everyone else.

As for Kim Davis, I say that she is a common sort — a hateful and vindictive person hiding behind religion. I also say that one of the dangers of religion, and of the authority-loving people who are drawn to it, is that religion tends to produce not good people (though certainly some religious people happen to be good people, not necessarily on account of religion but often in spite of it), but rather that religion tends to produce minds incapable of moral reasoning. Think of Abraham, who was ready to kill his own son because God told him to. As far as I know, the Bible story of Abraham and Isaac is still taught to children to instill the desired concept of unquestioning obedience to authority, and faith.

Take your place, Kim Davis, among the vilest moral imbeciles in American history.


According to news reports today (Sept. 3), a federal judge has ordered Kim Davis to be sent to jail until she complies with the order to issue marriage licenses. While she is in jail, a county judge will issue marriage licenses.

There is an interesting quote in the New York Times story:

“They’re taking rights away from Christians,” Danny Kinder, a 73-year-old retiree from Morehead, said of the courts. “They’ve overstepped their bounds.”

Dear clueless, deranged, and insufferable Christians: You are overstepping your bounds. Your rights to discriminate end where other people’s legal and religious rights begin.



5 thoughts on “Should we tolerate the intolerant? (updated)”

  1. Once the Supreme Court rules on an issue,it becomes the law of the land. Whether a defiant governor blocks a doorway, or a county clerk hides behind a closed door, that law will prevail. Am I missing something here? I have always been under the impression we obey our laws or face consequences. The rights being trampled on are not those of this clerk. Those licenses will be issued, but it is shameful this clerk could delay the law being enforced by even an hour. Both saddens and infuriates me.

  2. Very insightful post. This is the “religious liberty” agenda, and make no mistake it is a well-organized political/legal agenda. And it is not going to end anytime soon.

    They are willing to destroy First Amendment law for it. And they will. They’ve already made a good start. See the Supreme Court’s decision in the City of Greece case last year.


  3. I don’t agree with the county clerk denying those who now have a right to practice it. It’s not her place. I, for one, am remiss that it requires the Supreme Court to relay such a decision on human beings. That’s the appalling part of it to me. Now, I’ll probably rescind my remarks through debate but here goes nonetheless.

    As far as whether or not we should tolerate the intolerant, that’s a two-way street. There is an equal amount of equally absurd prejudices on both sides of the political fence. Conservatives, though advocates of “small government” tend to think the government is there to prop up otherwise outdated forms of de facto law, i.e. social conservatism in legal and municipal matters. Liberals, on the other hand, typically advocate more regulations and legislative altruism and tend to inadvertently neglect the lower classes by forgetting that the law treats everyone equally, even those that lack the education to better themselves. I generally think of liberals as wanting more government until an officer chokes them with a baton. Laws are enforced with violence not fairy dust, hence the problems with police shootings.

    No amount of civil ordinances protecting certain groups from others, specifically homosexuals and transgender individuals from bigots, will stop it from happening. In cases where someone works for themselves in a private business, it would be deliberately provocative of someone to seek out a service from someone else who does not wish to serve them based on something that may go against their religion, whether real or perception. Why would anyone want to give that person their business or much less work for that person if they’re knowingly entering into a social contract with someone who will actively prejudice them?

    Why is it that those that generally claim to be the socially mindful intellectuals in society are those that are so easily provoked by religious monuments or for that matter professional team nicknames like the Washington Redskins that have been around for ages? How come NOW is the time for all these prickly pears to come forward with every social disgust they’ve acquired over the years? Is it unfathomable that a county clerk in a rural part of an historically impoverished state might be intolerant of homosexuals regardless of a Supreme Court decision?

    All that said, any county clerk, working for a municipality that most likely offers health insurance and a pension, must be sitting on a winning lottery ticket otherwise they’re just foolish. That’s the bottom line.

  4. Dan, thanks for your reply. I will respond to just a couple of your points.

    First, I think that underlying this particular front in the culture war is that many people — especially today’s young people — increasingly intuitively tend toward a Rawlsian sense of justice. That is, justice as fairness, as opposed to old-fashioned “utilitarianism,” which boils down to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Of course, many people aren’t even at the level of 17th Century utilitarianism. It’s a shame that this concept is not articulated to the public. I find it tremendously encouraging that so many young people have this intuitive sense of justice as fairness.

    On the matter of religious monuments, during the past few months here in Stokes County, there was an uproar over whether to put “In God We Trust” on the side of the county courthouse. The county commissioners voted to do it, and the sign is now installed.

    I attend almost all county commissioners meetings, so I watched this play out. Dozens of preachers, including preachers from other counties, all of whom normally show not the slightest interest in county government, parachuted in and thumped the Bible in public comments. They distorted and cherry-picked the Bible, quoted the Founding Fathers completely out of context, lied about what opposing citizens had said, and just in general showed themselves to be some of the nastiest and most hateful people you’d ever want to meet. Yet they are the people the flocks look to as leaders.

    As this pathetic little political drama played out, I didn’t say anything. I understood the whole drama to be nothing more than a political wedge issue financed by out-of-county and out-of-state interests. Why not just quietly give them their little sign on the courthouse and deprive them of the opportunity to grandstand and drive their wedges. The “In God We Trust” courthouse movement is designed to create maximum political and cultural turmoil at the local level and to strike a blow against “liberals,” with preachers leading the troops.

    Actually, now that I mention it, I lied when I said that I didn’t say anything. I did make the comment to one of the preachers, as they were noisily trooping out of the commissioners chambers and leaving the building after their show and before the actual commissioners meeting began, “Y’all are not interested in the rest of the county’s business?”

    I would take them much more seriously if any of them ever had a word to say about our understaffed health department, our children needing foster homes, our school buildings with leaky roofs, our extraordinarily high suicide rate, or the conditions at our animal shelter, which are so bad that the State Bureau of Investigation has gotten involved.

    This is why I call such people moral imbeciles, including (and especially) preachers. They drive wedges, stir up hatred, generate publicity for themselves, demand symbolic tokens of their own dominance and privilege, and are blind to the real problems that have to be solved at the county level.

  5. I’m from Arkansas, so I get to see a former governor from here trot out on the front line every time one of these moral imbeciles takes a sanctimonious stance that only serves to stir up the idea that we’re nothing but uneducated hypocritical Southern Baptists. So, I’ve got that to deal with, but with respect to your comment that about how today’s generation has a Rawlsian sense of justice, I’d have to disagree, to a degree. If it’s Rawlsian, it’s misguided or misunderstood and most likely a false social preference to keep things nice in social circles.

    Many of them share the perspective justice should mean equality, but that isn’t true justice. This relates to your earlier post regarding Cecil the Lion. I think that many of them have the same view as the 1960’s counterculture movement except possibly more naive. Many of them voted for Obama twice never considering American foreign assaults in Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, and Libya while he’s been in office or that the Occupy Wall Street movement was deemed a vacuous charade as soon as students tweeted on iPads that their student loans be forgiven. I digress.

    Basically, we all know evil exists in the world in many forms, whether it’s war, killing innocent, regal animals for sport, disobeying the law for misconstrued religious convictions, or more common forms like murderers, rapists, and child molesters. Take for example Jerry Sandusky. He was revered, to an extent, at Penn State, his crimes are revealed, and instead of allowing the man who committed the crimes to take the fall alone, everyone from Joe Paterno to people who are fans of Penn State are indicted by the court of public opinion and the media. One man alone was responsible, and instead the whole framework of what allowed those atrocities to happen comes under fire from the media and the NCAA, the same NCAA that makes $500,000,000 a year off schools like Penn State. And, in the end, they gave back the wins from 1998 to 2011 and reinstated the scholarships, pretty much discrediting what they’d done and admitting they need Penn State to make money. For what it’s worth, I think Paterno probably knew exactly what happened, and Penn State reacted appropriately by firing him immediately, but that was to cover their own mistakes.

    Now, where I’m going with that is we have one man responsible for all these crimes, and instead of demonstrating genuine empathy for the victims or seeing how as a community those problems can be prevented, the spectacle of shame is levied on a football program, and to a larger extent, college football in America, by the media and the court of public opinion. It’s a cop out. People like to stand on high and point their fingers and not look at themselves, and that’s not justice as fairness, that’s just half of a thought.

    Economic justice is when you get what you give, and if you’re incapable of that, the state has measures to see to it you’re not left out, whether they’re efficient or not is entirely debatable. Social justice is becoming more difficult to define with the immediacy of social media. There’s no time to sleep on anything anymore; everyone has an opinion whether it’s warranted or not.

    The spectacle isn’t a substitute for true justice, and it’s not justice as fairness. I fear being tried by the court of public opinion almost as much as being tried by the courts, but that’s only because I know better.

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