Action Alert!

Varieties of Intolerance: Religious and Secular

by Cardinal George Pell


There is a growing culture of suppression among secularist governments that is using the doctrine of "tolerance and diversity" to push Christians entirely out of public life, Australia's Cardinal Pell told an audience at the inaugural Thomas More Lecture at The Divinity School, Oxford University, on March 9, 2009. The Australian cardinal said that human rights and anti-discrimination legislation is being used as a weapon against Christians and Christian opinion in the public debate. The Thomas More Lectures are an initiative of the Oxford University Newman Society.

Publisher & Date

Oxford University Newman Society, March 6, 2009

Let me begin with two tales of intolerance.

On November 4 last year, the day Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, California and two other states also voted to amend their constitutions to define marriage as between a man and a woman only. This brought to 29 the number of American states with constitutional amendments recognizing only marriage between a man and a woman as valid, including Arizona which amended its constitution in 2008 after rejecting a proposed amendment in 2006. 42 states also have statutes defending the traditional understanding of marriage1. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut have legalized same-sex marriage - by court decisions, not legislation – and California's Supreme Court had also legalized same sex marriage in May 2008, when it struck down a marriage amendment made to the state constitution in 2000. The new amendment passed last November – known as Proposition 8 – is now itself before the California Supreme Court, which yesterday [March 5] heard argument in three cases claiming it is unconstitutional. We can expect a decision from the court within the next three months2.

Proposition 8 passed with a little over 52 per cent of the vote, with a turnout of just under 80 per cent of registered voters3. Supporters of same sex marriage have not taken this defeat well. Mormon temples in particular, as well as Catholic and Evangelical churches, have been the focus for demonstrations, often attended by violence, vandalism and intimidation4. White powder has been sent to places of worship5, and some blogs are calling for them to be burnt down6. Individual supporters of Proposition 8 have received death threats and been assaulted7. Businesses which contributed to the campaign in favor of Proposition 8 are being boycotted8, and individuals who made personal donations are being blacklisted and in some cases forced to resign from their jobs9. The situation is so serious that the non-partisan Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which takes no position on same-sex marriage and works with churches and organizations on both sides of the question10, ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on 5 December condemning the harassment and anti-religious bigotry being directed at Proposition 8 supporters11.

Little about this prolonged campaign of payback and bullying has been reported internationally, and I suspect that for some, or even many of you here tonight this is the first time you have heard anything about it. It is being waged against Christians and others who have done nothing more than take part in a political campaign in a democracy, endeavoring to persuade a majority of the electorate to their point of view. Few human rights activists have objected to the vilification and hate-speech that has been directed at supporters of Proposition 8. In general, the media has shown scant interest in a form of organized intimidation, which even extends to making people unemployable, simply because they do not agree with same sex marriage. And you have to search long and hard if you want to hear the stories of those who have been assaulted or abused because they believe that marriage can only mean the marriage of a man and a woman. It hardly needs saying that there would have been no strange lack of attention if supporters of same sex marriage were being targeted for bullying and blacklists.

Before beginning my second tale of intolerance let me make clear a number of presuppositions.

I approve of legislation outlawing incitement to violence and acknowledge that tightly limited anti-hate legislation is appropriate. But this second category of legislation should be used sparingly, lest it stifle robust legitimate criticism, so deepening tensions and exasperation under the surface, indirectly encouraging what it aspires to prevent. No-one has tried to use anti-hate legislation (so far) against Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens!

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 an increased number of Muslims came to live outside Muslim majority societies, a practice not encouraged traditionally. In the new situation Western countries with Islamic minorities must respect their full range of democratic freedoms, encourage participation and foster inter-community and interreligious dialogue. Both within Australia and internationally in South East Asia I have been a regular participant in these dialogues.

However I believe it is a mistake in principle and prudentially to try to prevent criticism of any major religious tradition, religiously, sociologically or philosophically. In a democracy criticism can be made and can be answered. No‑one today in the West would suggest that criticism of Christianity should be outlawed. A recent Prime Minister of Australia claimed that if Catholics were to riot every time they were criticized there would be regular riots!12

My second tale of intolerance is really a collection of tales following the same narrative. Some of these you will know. In separate cases in Canada last year, human rights tribunals brought charges of hate crime against the publisher Ezra Levant (for republishing the cartoons of Muhammad which were first printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005), and the weekly magazine Macleans (for publishing an excerpt from Mark Steyn's 2006 book America Alone under the title "The Future belongs to Islam"). In 2006 Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was charged with vilifying Islam in her book The Force of Reason, and in 2004 two Australian evangelical pastors were brought before a tribunal in the Australian state of Victoria for critical remarks about Islam which were alleged to be in breach of Victoria's "religious tolerance" legislation.

The charges against Ezra Levant were dismissed, and Macleans was grudgingly cleared13. Fallaci died of cancer before her case came to court, and the verdicts against the two Australian pastors were set aside on appeal. While a retrial was ordered, this was abandoned when the complainant, the Islamic Council of Victoria withdrew its complaint. It would be a mistake, however to think that all these complaints came to nothing. Levant was left with legal bills of $100,00014, and one estimate puts the legal costs of the two Australian pastors, whose case and appeal ran for two and half years, at somewhere between $750,000 and $lmillion.

I have not used the examples of Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliamentarian ordered to stand trial for inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims in his short film Fitna. As I have not seen the film I am unable to judge whether it does incite hatred, although I note Wilders has not been charged with inciting violence.

The expense of defending frivolous hate speech allegations, the time consumed in dealing with them, and the anxiety that comes from being enmeshed in a legal process straight out of Kafka all have an effect on the climate of openness, stifling robust discussion and fermenting intolerance under the surface. Since Ayatollah Khomeini placed a death sentence on Salman Rushdie twenty years ago last month, many in the West have grown used to practicing self-censorship when it comes to Islam, just as we seem to accept that ex-Muslims who criticize Islam and extremism, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, require round the clock police protection.

What do these two tales of intolerance' tell us? We should note the strange way in which some of the most permissive groups and communities, for example, Californian liberals in the case of Proposition 8, easily become repressive, despite all their high rhetoric about diversity and tolerance. There is the one-sidedness about discrimination and vilification. Opposition to same-sex marriage is a form of homophobia, and therefore bad; but Christianophobic blacklisting and intimidation is passed over in silence. You can be prosecuted for hate speech if you discuss violence in Islam, but there is little fear of a hate speech prosecution for Muslim demonstrators with placards reading "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas15.

It is a fundamental truism that not all religions are the same. This might be an obvious point to us, but the idea that all religions are basically concerned with the same things and more or less morally equivalent in the goodness and badness they have brought to human history is very pervasive. Major differences exist between religions, within religions, and in the contributions they make to culture and society. In a democracy, believers and non-believers must be free to talk about these differences, to criticize each other's beliefs (what Catholics used to call apologetics), and to evangelize, (or propagandize) while always respecting the freedom of the individual. Reciprocity in this is essential: it is not a one way street.

Some secularists seem to like one way streets. Their intolerance of Christianity seeks to drive it not only from the public square, but even from the provision of education, healthcare and welfare services to the wider community. Tolerance has come to mean different things for different groups.

One of the preferred means for addressing perceived intolerance is anti­discrimination legislation. As experience from across the Anglosphere has shown, the idea of anti-discrimination has enormous power to shape public opinion. It has been used very effectively to redefine marriage and to make a range of relationships acceptable as the foundation for various new forms of the family. Anti-discrimination legislation in tandem with new reproductive technologies has made it possible for children to have three, four or five parents, relegating the idea of a child being brought up by his natural mother and father to nothing more than a majority adult preference. The rights of children to be created in love and to be known and raised by their biological parents receives scant consideration when the legislative agenda is directed to satisfying adult needs and ambitions.

Until relatively recently anti-discrimination laws usually included exemptions for churches and other religious groups so that they could practice and manifest their beliefs in freedom. These exemptions are now being refused or defined in the narrowest possible terms in new anti-discrimination measures, and existing exemptions are being eroded or "strictly construed" by the courts.

In the United States the exemptions granted to churches and their agencies vary from state to state, and in the extent of protection they afford. The effort to wind these exemptions back has focused initially on contraception. At least eighteen states have enacted "contraceptive mandate" laws, usually with names such as The Women's Contraceptive Equity Act or The Women's Health and Wellness Act, which require employer health insurance plans to cover the costs of contraceptives on the basis that failure to do so constitutes sex discrimination. Catholic health insurance usually did not cover these costs.

The state of New York passed such a law in 2002, which like a similar law passed by California in 1999, grants an exemption defining religious employers so narrowly that church welfare agencies, schools and hospitals do not qualify. Appeals to the two states' highest courts (in 2006 and 2004 respectively) to broaden the definition were rejected, and the US Supreme Court declined to review the Californian decision. While most states with contraceptive mandates make broader exemptions for religious employers, only one grants protection to individuals who conscientiously object to them.

Exemptions for church hospitals or medical services are increasingly contentious in the United States, with opponents describing them as "refusal" or "denial clauses". When exemptions are granted, the standard of care provided by these services is criticized as second-rate, on the grounds that they fail to offer patients the full range of options. Individual healthcare workers have been sued and dismissed from employment for adhering to their convictions. In 2007 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming that almost 100 million Americans are at risk of being denied "legal medical interventions" by doctors who, because of religious or moral objections, either decline to inform patients about possible treatments or refuse to refer them to other doctors who will provide them16.

It will be a major escalation in the culture wars if President Obama keeps his commitment to sign into law a proposed "Freedom of Choice Act", which will sweep away any restrictions on abortion in state laws. It will also remove any protections in legislation for doctors, nurses, and hospitals with moral objections to abortion. I am still hoping against hope that the President will not trigger such a massive confrontation with pro-life Christians.

In Australia last year, the act of parliament which decriminalized abortion in the state of Victoria included provisions which made a mockery of conscientious objection, requiring doctors who object to abortion to refer patients seeking abortion to medical practitioners who will provide them. Where an abortion is deemed necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman, doctors and nurses are legally obliged to provide it, regardless of any conscientious objections they may have17.

The debate surrounding the Victorian abortion law was significant for a number of other reasons as well. Pro-abortion commentators attacked the concept of conscientious objection as nothing more than a way for doctors and nurses to impose their morality on their patients18. Victoria's statutory charter of rights, which purports to protect freedom of religion, conscience and belief, was shown to be a dead letter when it comes to abortion, thanks to a clause which expressly excludes any law concerning abortion from its coverage19. The human rights industry ran dead on the freedom of conscience issues which the legislation raised. Amnesty International seems to have been completely missing in action. While Amnesty was founded on respect for conscience, it adopted abortion as a human right in 2007. As we know, abortion corrupts everything it touches; law, medicine and the whole concept of human rights. It would be another tragedy if it has so quickly corrupted Amnesty's commitment to its foundational belief in freedom of conscience.

As a number of commentators have pointed out, the legalization of same sex marriage has momentous potential to curtail religious freedom. Generally churches and ministers of religion who decline to bless such marriages are protected by exemptions. But in places such as Canada this protection is not extended to civil marriage celebrants, even when the plain meaning of the statutory exemption suggests they are protected. Anti-discrimination laws are also raising serious freedom of religion issues for churches in the areas of relationship counseling, sex and relationship education in secondary schools, the hire of parish, school and church facilities, and accommodation arrangements in emergency housing, retreat, conference and aged care centers.

How should Christians respond to this growing secular intolerance? Clearly, there is an urgent need to deepen public understanding of the importance and nature of religious freedom. Having the freedom to search for answers to questions of meaning and value, and to live publicly and privately in accordance with our answers is an essential part of human fulfillment and happiness, and gives rise to other important freedoms such as the rights to freedom of expression, thought and conscience. Believers should not be treated by government and the courts as a tolerated and divisive minority whose rights must always yield to the minority secular agenda, especially when religious people are overwhelmingly in the majority. The opportunity to contribute to community and public good is a right of all individuals and groups, including religious ones. The application of laws within democracies should facilitate the broadening of these opportunities, not their increasing constraint.

Modern liberalism has strong totalitarian tendencies. Institutions and associations, it implies, exist only with the permission of the state and to exist lawfully, they must abide the dictates or norms of the state. Modern liberalism is remote indeed from traditional liberalism, which sees the individual and the family and the association as prior to the state, with the latter existing only to fulfil functions that the former require but which are beyond their means to provide. Traditional liberalism understood the state to exist to assist (provide subsidium) to the association; the association does not exist to further the function of the state. All this is clearly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which provides, for example, that parents have "a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children"(Article 26(3)); and in the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (1966) which provides that the state is to respect the liberty of parents "to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions" (Article 13(3)).

It is important to keep an eye on the bigger picture too. The great question which exercises modern culture is the meaning of human autonomy and especially sexual freedom. But this struggle is fundamentally a struggle over a religious question, which can be formulated in various ways and revolves around the reality of a transcendent order, or its denial. One way of putting it is: "Did God create us or did we create God?" The limited scope that secularism is prepared to concede to religious beliefs is based on the assumption that we created God. As long as the supremacy remains with man, as long as faith is understood as a private therapeutic pursuit that can be picked up, changed or discarded at will, it is permissible. But when people insist that faith is more than this and that the supremacy is not ours, it is resisted; increasingly through the law.

The use of anti-discrimination law and human rights claims to advance the autonomy project is not new in itself, but the withholding or retrenchment of exemptions for church agencies and conscience provisions for individuals is a newer and dangerous trend. A number of factors are at play here, but the broad effect is to enforce conformity. It seems that just as the faith and convictions of individual believers have to be privatized and excluded from public life, the services that church agencies provide to society have to be secularized. The service the church gives has always been a source of its growth and strength, and church agencies working in the areas of welfare, family, education, health and aged care bear witness to the values that Christian leaders put forward in public debate. Part of the logic in attacking the freedom of the church to serve others is to undermine the witness these services give to powerful Christian convictions. The goal is to neutralize this witness to the reality of Christian revelation. There is no need to drive the church out of services if the secularization of its agencies can achieve this end.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s remains the greatest modern example of cultural change. It was made possible by a range of factors, including the development of reliable contraceptives and the rising economic prosperity of Western life. Individualism ousted the family and the community from the first place. The ideas supporting free love and liberated sexuality that flooded the world in the 1960s were also important for generalizing confusion and for pushing the issue beyond sexuality to the more fundamental goal of radical human autonomy. These ideas were quickly taken up by a musical revolution (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones) which had an unprecedented cultural impact on that generation, reinforcing individualism and irreligion.

Two key premises of the revolutionary developments of the 1960s were that radical cultural change requires a significant proportion of the population to adopt new assumptions about love and sex, and that living out these assumptions will commit these people and the culture to further radical change. When Christianity was brought to the Roman world it also worked from these premises, for radically different purposes and with world-transforming results20.

The definition of the human person in the present age depends on which understanding of love and sexuality prevails in the culture. This is one reason why conflicts over the meaning and purpose of sexuality often seem to be at only one or two removes from public arguments over issues as disparate as religious freedom and biotechnology. The issue will be resolved differently in Europe and the United States, if Brussels wins its battle for secular conformity.

The question of autonomy, freedom and supremacy plays itself out, among other places, in the contest between religious freedom and sexual freedom. Absolute sexual freedom lies at the heart of the modern autonomy project. It extends now well beyond preferences about sexual practices or forms of relationship to preferences about the method and manner of procreation, family formation and the uses of human reproduction in medical research. The message from the earliest days of the sexual revolution, always barely concealed behind the talk of "live and let live" and creating space for "different forms of loving", was that few limits on human sexual autonomy will be tolerated. This is generating the pressures against religion in public life.

But there will be limits. There are already abundant indications of human autonomy being diminished from the left as sexual freedom becomes a driver of consumption and an organizing principle of economic life, with the re-emergence of slavery in Europe and Asia, the booming exploitation of pornography and prostitution, and the commercialization of surrogacy, egg donation, and the production and destruction of human embryos and human stem-cell lines. At the level of the individual, the possibilities of happiness are greatly restricted by the lovelessness, fear and despair that the assertion of the autonomous self against others usually leaves in its wake. Limits are an inescapable part of the human condition. The only questions are whether they will be the limits of servitude or the limits of freedom, and whether self love or love of others will be predominant.

Resolving these questions requires us to expand the boundaries of what is thought possible, especially by bringing into focus the experiences and ideas which are not acknowledged or legitimized by the secularist worldview. Put simply, Christians have to recover their genius for showing that there are better ways to live and to build a good society; ways which respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They also have to recover their self-confidence and courage. The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publicly. Believers need to call the bluff of what is, even in most parts of Europe, a small minority with disproportionate influence in the media. This is one of the crucial tasks for Christians in the twenty-first century.

George Cardinal Pell


  1. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "States with Voter-Approved Constitutional Bans on Same-Sex Marriage, 1998-2008". 13 November 2008 (

  2. Judicial Council of California "Supreme Court to Hear Oral Arguments on Prop. 8 Cases on March 5, 2009". News Release, 3 February 2009.

  3. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, "Statement of Vote, November 4 General Election" (

  4. Michelle Malkin, "The Insane Rage of the Same-Sex Marriage Mob", RealClearPolitics, 19 November 2008 ( of_the_samesex. html).

  5. Heather Sells, "Gay Marriage Battle Still Rages in Calif.", CBN news, 22 December 2008 (

  6. Malkin, "The Insane Rage of the Same-Sex Marriage Mob".

  7. Ibid; and Sells, "Gay Marriage Battle Still Rages in Calif."

  8. Alison Stateman, "What Happens if You're on Gay Rights 'Enemies List'", Time, 15 November 2008 (,8599,1859323,00.html?cnn=yes).

  9. Steve Lopez, "A Life Thrown into Turmoil by $100 Donation for Prop. 8", Los Angeles Times, 14 December 2008 (,1,6229461,full.column); and Stateman, "What Happens if You're on Gay Rights 'Enemies List".

  10. Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, "Brief Explores Looming Conflicts between Same-Sex Marriage, Religious Liberty". News Release 2 August 2007 (

  11. Available at (

  12. Tracy Ong and Natalie O'Brien, "Pope Row in Past, PM tells Muslims", The Australian, 20 September 2006 (,20867,20443538-2702,00.html).

  13. Joseph Brean, "Maclean's wins Third Round of Hate Fight", National Post, 11 October 2008 (


  15. Nina Shea, "'Insulting Islam': One Way Street in the Wrong Direction", Hudson New York, 26 January 2009 (­street-in-the-wrong-direction.php).

  16. Farr A. Curlin, Ryan E. Lawrence, Marshall H. Chin, and John D. Lantos, "Religion, Conscience, and Controversial Clinical Practices", New England Journal of Medicine, 356:6 (8 February 2007), 593-600.

  17. Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (Vic), s.8 (available at

  18. See for example Leslie Cannold, "Conscience Vote Meaningless Unless it is a Two-Way Street", The Age, 10 September 2008 (

  19. Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic), s.48.

  20. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ: 1996)

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