I may be a little slow to react here, but I did not want to let this one go by. Nicholas Kristof's April 24th column, "Hug an Evangelical," reiterates the charge that the the American left's vaunted ideal of tolerance has a fatal blindspot when it comes to looking upon its closest neighbors, the American right, and, most specifically in this case, evangelical Christianity. This charge has never been answered adequately in my opinion, and Kristof's views here create an opportunity to point out that there are, and should be, limits to tolerance, even that tolerance that proceeds from a professed respect for the beliefs of others. For--and I speak only for myself here but I consider myself a lefty so my opinion is an "authentic" lefty one--not only is there is a difference between a tolerance for ideas and a tolerance for the consequences of those ideas, but the question of whether and how to tolerate inherently intolerant views creates a kind of paradox that is difficult to sidestep in a purely logical sense but which might become intelligible in an ethical sense.
Kristov's observations that evangelical Christians are demonized by the left might well hold water, and I do not wish to defend offhand characterizations of these followers such as "religious nuts" or "know-nothing fundamentalists" (this phrase from Richard Rorty book I read some time ago caused me to jump up in defense of my parents, who I will grant do know something even though I disagree with their world view). However, I think the rub here is some odd belief that those who champion tolerance should mindlessly tolerate anything at all, no matter what its consequences may be; in fact, there is one thing that the tolerant should not tolerate and should not feel any need to apologize about not tolerating, and that is intolerance itself. Why so many writers and speakers on the right do not understand this mystifies me.
For although Kristov might be right when he writes that "saying that one will tolerate evangelicals who do not evangelize" is "like Christians saying they have nothing against gays who remain celibate," it may also be a little like saying that one will recognize the rights of white supremacists to hold their views as long as they don't embark on genocide; this makes clear that what is objectionable in all cases is not that one might dare to ask an individual not to do something that his or her very identity demands, but, on the contrary, that one might allow one's egalitarianism to disregard the consequences of allowing any and everyone their various types of expression. Arguably, gay folks having sex with each other does not do any great harm to non-consenting bystanders, whereas the self-righteously motivated actions of both evangelicals and fascists has been known, historically, to do a fair amount of just that, and it is precisely the harmful consequences of their intolerance of outside views that make the motivations and actions of evangelical Christians often as unpalatable to the left as those of individuals of any other authoritarian bent.
And rightly so, even if--and to be intellectually honest this almost has to be the case--the left would defend the right of these individuals to hold and express their views. But there is an even finer line to be drawn and toed here in the case of evangelism, which operates precisely according to a principle of intolerance towards competing world views. To what extent is it hypocritical for the non-evangelical, self-professedly tolerant liberal to criticize those views? On the one hand, to do so verges on intolerance, but on the other hand, if one goes ahead and criticizes, then what one is criticizing is exactly that: intolerance.
For if evangelism is still anything like that which I was taught when I was young, its essential belief would seem to be that one holds the only answers to the universe and that one has the right--nay the divine duty--to impose them upon everyone else in the world, whether or not this everyone else is amenable to being converted. More disturbingly, as is currently being made all too evident by the example of both radical Islam and, ironically, the divine mission doctrine of President Bush, one in such an evangelical mood may be alarmingly willing to kill and to be killed in the service of pressing one's message to the world. This is, plainly and simply, intolerable to those who preach tolerance, and anyone who opposes the processes of conquest and empire as being antithetical to this tolerance is not being hypocritical when he or she abhors those processes in action, but is, rather, following his or her principles to their ethical conclusion.
The difference, it seems to me, between the intolerance of the left and the intolerance of the right is that, to be consistent, the left must be able to tolerate the very existence of views they oppose, whereas the right, which owes no allegiance to tolerance, is allowed to wipe out that with which they disagree without being called onto the ethical carpet for hypocrisy. That they might be called onto the ethical carpet for other, more objectionable offenses seems to escape everybody. In the meantime, the left stands dumbly when accused of intolerance, when they should simply be saying, "Of course we are intolerant of intolerance. Don't be silly."
Thus, as a radical lefty, I say to evangelical Christianity that you are entitled to your religion and that I, personally, do not feel the need to demean you for your beliefs. However, I will always strongly object to your insistence that everyone who does not believe as you do is going to burn in Hell forever; and I will even more strongly object to any efforts to bring that Hell into being on Earth in order to punish those that you cannot convert. This is where my tolerance ends, something for which I see no need for apology.