I’ve never admired tolerance as a virtue. It ranks well behind compassion, understanding and empathy, let alone encouragement and fellow-identification. When Australians pride themselves on being a tolerant people, what they are praising in themselves is often far closer to apathy – they simply don’t care very much about what they are tolerating. When something actually impinges on our daily lives, we soon find tolerance is a thin veneer.
But however substandard tolerance may be as an attitude, it is very much superior to its opposite. I fear very much for the tenor of the debate about same-sex marriage in the coming plebiscite promised by the federal government.
Recently many people were offended by the Australian Christian Lobby seeking to repeal vilification laws for the duration of the debate. I thought the idea misguided because it implied that those opposed to same sex marriage were wanting to vilify, but the request is understandable when the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart faces discrimination action for advocating the current law.
Opponents of same-sex marriage can and must make their arguments without contempt or vilification. Those who are Christians must do much more than tolerate LGBTI people, many of whom are also Christians – they must love them as themselves, and wish only the best for them. At the very least, this demands respect and simple human decency.
But, of course, the same obligation extends to supporters of same-sex marriage, who are often quick to dismiss opposition as pure homophobia. Sometimes it may be, but often it flows from a real investment in what society should look like and from genuine concerns about the direction it is taking.
In January the world’s Anglican leaders in England met to try to avoid schism over sexuality, which they managed by voting to uphold the traditional understanding of marriage. This outraged many secularists, including The Times, whose leader writer fulminated that the Church had no right to maintain its traditional view.
As James Mumford wrote in The Spectator, this indicates a disturbing trend. It is one thing to tell the Church it can’t impose its beliefs on the rest of society; quite another to say it must not hold those beliefs at all. He wrote: “It is easy to overlook how ominous this shift really is. The conviction that organisations and communities cannot determine their own distinct ethos, their own rules for membership and their own criteria for leadership imperils the very survival of a pluralistic society.”
It takes faith in Australians to believe we will understand how deeply this discussion can wound, and that all who take part will respect their opponents as holding beliefs in good conscience – in short, that we will all behave with simple human decency. But we can hope.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity