After Westboro: The Trouble With “Tolerance”

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, protecting the rights of this group to enact anti-gay protests outside of military funerals.

There is no shortage of commentary in print and on the web concerning the constitutional merits of the Court’s decision and the myriad emotional reactions to Westboro’s particular brand of protest. But what do the actions of Westboro and the Supreme Court’s decision have to do with theology?

Perhaps not much. Most readily dismiss Westboro as a fanatical fringe group that receives a disproportionate amount of media attention for the relatively tiny size of the congregation. Those who so vehemently oppose Westboro’s actions usually do so because of their distasteful displays at the most offensive of locales (e.g. funeral services for fallen soldiers). But theologically, this group is usually written off as ridiculous and wholly out of touch with mainstream Christianity.

Though before we become too dismissive of the theological significance of these matters, we should probe beneath the unsophisticated theological surface of Westboro’s colorful signage.

In nearly every psychology 101 course, when it comes time to explain Freud’s structural approach to the mind—the division into id, ego, and superego—the professor draws upon the board a picture of an iceberg. With a small tip of the iceberg visible above the waters, the vast majority remains submerged underneath. Forgetting the nuances of Freudian psychoanalysis for a moment, that iceberg image seems quite apropos for reflecting theologically on matters regarding Westboro.

Like the tip of that iceberg (for Freud, representing the conscious mind), we are most aware of the messages that rise to the surface; all the way to the Supreme Court, for instance. But theologically speaking, as well as for Freud, what is submerged beneath the water’s surface can have a far more profound impact upon life than the tiny bit visible above.

While I am not suggesting that what rests beneath the surface of the theological waters is unconscious (as in Freud’s theory), I am suggesting that it often remains out of our direct vision—hidden and obscured by the noisy, seemingly more vicious messages of hate like those of Westboro.

So what is going on beneath the theological surface?

Troubling Tolerance

Even as churches like Westboro continue their hate-filled protests, other anti-gay groups like Exodus International are beginning to qualify their speech in very peculiar ways. Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, is reported to have said, “All the recent attention to bullying helped us to realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether they agree with them or not.” Focus on the Family has even launched a project called True Tolerance to address sexuality (i.e. “homosexual advocacy”) and bullying (i.e. “deceptive” anti-bullying initiatives) in schools.

All of this talk about “tolerance” scares me. More than Westboro’s vitriolic speech that is obviously hateful (e.g. signs that read “God Hates Fags”), these advocates for tolerance toward LGBT persons have me more than a bit concerned.

They concern me because people generally like this talk about tolerance—a lot. Practicing tolerance seems like a virtuous striving in our quest to “get along.” But talk about “tolerance” sounds different based on one’s position in the conversation. The talk takes on particular meaning depending on whether one is doing the tolerating or being tolerated. To queer ears, tolerance doesn’t seem like such a gift.

What exactly does it mean to be tolerated? Those who were once persecuted are later tolerated. Those who were once treated with violence are now allowed to exist in an atmosphere of “beneficent” tolerance. Tolerance says, “You shouldn’t be here, but I’ll allow you to exist.” We commit ourselves to overlooking the offense, the annoyance, the violation to our senses caused by the things and people we merely tolerate. Indeed, toleration is no gift to the tolerated.

Further, tolerance is a poor excuse for a theological notion. We should practice intolerance toward any notion of “tolerance” that creeps into our theological imagination and vocabulary. The only way in which we can practice tolerance is if we have constructed our theological understanding of the world in a hierarchical fashion. And depending on your position in the hierarchy (straight white men presumably near the top) determines whether you get to do the tolerating or are simply the object of someone’s toleration. Tolerance only works one way on the hierarchy.

(As an aside, it doesn’t help one’s case for tolerance to place the word “biblical” in front of it. My immediate question upon reading Chambers’ statement is, “Just what part of the biblical canon is one appealing to when making a case for ‘biblical’ tolerance?” Potential answers could be categorized according to gradations of frightening.)

Above all, the trouble with tolerance is that it presumes an acquiescence to, even an acceptance of, an oppressive status quo. There is no prophetic imagination or dream of justice embodied in a resolve to tolerate. If our goal is to practice tolerance, then we have given up on a quest for a more radical acceptance and embrace of difference and Otherness. Tolerance assumes that the hierarchical theological constructions we hold are “natural” and that the binary ways that we construct the group we call “us” and the groups we call “them” have some basis in reality. Tolerance allows our unearned privilege (whether racial privilege, class privilege, heterosexist privilege, etc.) to go unquestioned and unchallenged.

So beneath the theological surface of the iceberg’s tip—Westboro and the like—we do not find less hateful and violent theological and ideological views, just more subtly expressed ones. Unfortunately, it is the power that does not look like power that is most effective in maintaining circumstances of oppression. Likewise, physical violence gets the most visibility in the press while violence to the psyche and the soul is easily overlooked. And speech has everything to do with how this oppressive power and violence is enacted.

Why “Free Speech” is Not Always Free

In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain.” He goes on to note that as a nation, our course is that of protection for “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Americans have an historic commitment to the protection of speech; a determined commitment demonstrated in Wednesday’s ruling. But there are two ways in which even the freest speech we can imagine is not necessarily free.

First, as much as our commitment seems to enshrine freedom of speech as a value we hold dear, it often serves to display how inconsequential we actually believe “speech” to be. Far more than syllabic utterances strung together and pushed out into the world by our vocal chords, speech produces real consequences. That is, free speech is not free from consequences that affect our bodily, material reality. Our speech, our words, our language constructs our world, defines reality and gives meaning to our sense of self.

Michel Foucault called this type of power “discourse.” The term “discourse” describes the stories we as a society tell about ourselves and the world, from what perspective we tell them, with what authority, and in support of whose way of being in the world. Discourse describes whose stories get told in public and whose do not. Discourse is the way we define reality. And those stories, perspectives, and ways of being that fall outside of the constructed “norm” are subjugated to the dominant discourse. Narratives that challenge the norm are silenced.

The dominant heterosexist discourse in our society is one seeking to define reality solely from the perspective of heterosexual experience and to subjugate the narratives and lives of LGBT people. We can see the active struggle over definitional power in the questions surrounding who gets to define “marriage” (both in the legal and the sacred lexicons). In the end, this heterosexist discourse seeks to make non-persons of LGBT people. It defines the experience of heterosexuality as the only reality that counts and all other experiences as subjugated narratives that represent deviance, sinfulness, or illness.

Perhaps the most insidious way in which the personhood of LGBT persons is called into question is through theological discourse. When being gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual is presented as a violation of the sacred, the transcendent order, the Divine will, etc., theological notions are used to construct a reality, a way of being in the world that supports the heterosexist status quo and benefits a certain privileged few to the detriment of those whose lives look different.

For Westboro, this is expressed in simple language like “God Hates Fags.” But there are various levels of nuance to the message that LGBT people are unacceptable to God, and these often pass under the guise of tolerance. One of the most pervasive is the notion of “welcoming but not affirming.” It is the pinnacle of the soul-destroying practice of theologized tolerance that says, “You are welcome to exist among us, but we cannot affirm the goodness, value, or worth of your life(style).” This is a particularly popular discourse among “moderates” who rest proud that they aren’t like Westboro and for whom tolerance seems virtuous.

Secondly, free speech does not necessarily lead to greater freedom for the marginalized. Free speech and a tolerance for all views provide the discursive flexibility that allows descriptions of reality to bend toward an oppressive status quo without breaking. While we rest satisfied that all views can be freely expressed, the discursive power of the dominant descriptions of reality inevitably overshadows dissenting voices and narratives that challenge the status quo. Social critic Herbert Marcuse called this “Repressive Tolerance” in his famous 1965 essay by the same title.

As much as we enjoy free speech and should strive to protect it, we cannot be lulled into believing that simply because everyone has the right to speak that all voices can be heard. On the religious landscape, when those loudest among us are of the Westboro ilk, and those who are largest among us are silenced by comfortable, tolerant notions of welcome without affirmation—indeed, a resolve to say nothing at all—what voices are left to tilt the discursive scales toward greater embrace and inclusion for LGBT people?

An Ethic of Rupture and Resistance

Many have expressed anger at the Supreme Court’s decision to continue allowing Westboro to enact their protests near the funerals of soldiers, while others express ambivalence—desiring to protect free speech but outraged at how this freedom is often used. But aside from lamenting the decision or its results, what is left to do? How may we oppose hatred without sliding into a comfortable position of mere tolerance? How do we uphold the freedom of speech while recognizing that it does not always lead to greater freedom for the marginalized?

If we are to oppose hatred and move beyond the mere toleration of difference and Otherness, we must develop an ethic of rupture and resistance. This begins with the recognition that the actions of Westboro are only the visible tip of an iceberg of heterosexist ideology that is always resting just out of sight. Decrying the actions of Westboro does little to probe beneath the theological surface to question the ways many of our “good,” “wholesome,” “loving” churches are complicit in keeping oppressive heterosexist theologies submerged beneath a veneer of tolerance.

The fear of letting go of “tolerance” as an ideal may rest in the assumption that the opposite of tolerance is radical hatred and violence. Yet, radical hatred and violence—like that of Westboro and perpetrators of hate crimes—is never countered by tolerance but instead by radical acceptance and embrace.

In order for tolerance to no longer make sense to us as an appropriate theological category, we must question our hierarchical theologies that position some above others and bestow upon a small group the ability to hold tolerance, rather than radical acceptance and embrace, for the masses beneath. We must rupture our theological constructions that call for mere tolerance through the deconstruction of our theological notions that uphold hierarchies and binary divisions between the group we call “us” and all of the rest we call “them.”

Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid writes of “the desire not to make of God an occasional and compassionate visitor to the margins of the margins but to rediscover that God is a truly marginal God. This is a God who has never left the marginal because this God belongs to them.”

If God belongs to the marginal and is, indeed, a truly marginal God, we must resist the pacifying notion that free speech leads to a true hearing of marginalized voices. In our theologizing, we must ask questions that actively resist dominant discourse and the upholding of an oppressive status quo. We must ask whose voices are missing, whose stories are not being told, whose way of being in the world is being obscured by the stronger, more powerful voices among us?

Working toward the freeing of speech requires the privileging of voices heretofore ignored and overlooked and the troubling of tolerance that moves beyond passivity to an active, radical inclusion and embrace of difference and Otherness.