Misfires in the Tolerance Wars

Separating church and state now means separating belief and action.
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Luizo Vega, an "artist," plans to strip naked in front of "each and every place of worship" in Argentina. The real performance in "Faith Project," Vega told Las Ultimas Noticias, will come from the congregations. "I want to test all religions and see their level of tolerance," he explained.

Also in the name of "tolerance," France is engaging in stripping of a different sort. A ban on Muslim head scarves in schools and government offices has expanded to include large crosses, yarmulkes, bandanas, and perhaps even beards.

Such "conspicuous signs" of religion challenge France's "natural cohesion," President Jacques Chirac told his country. Unity, he said, depends upon "the principle of secularism. … It expresses our wish to live together in respect, dialogue, and tolerance. Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience. It protects the freedom to believe or not to believe."

France's claims reveal something about the culture war between religious conservatives and irreligious liberals (or at least between pundits who claim to represent these two groups). The war has chiefly been described by both sides as one over tolerance, with both sides accusing the other of denying basic freedoms of conscience. But ultimately the battle isn't over tolerance—it's over secularism.

Secularism today is markedly different from atheism. In fact, today's secularists embrace private faith. They balk only when someone connects their faith to action, and when religious action is not purely personal and devotional.

If the secularist has a life verse, it's Jesus' teaching to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." A Christmas Day Boston Globe article summarized the teaching as "Jesus' admonition that the secular and religious ...

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