How tolerance becomes intolerance
John Dorhauer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 11:07:08 AM EST
One of the strategies used by attack agents, spin doctors, and manipulators of reality is to take your organization's weaknesses and project them onto those who dare to use them against you.

This is irony at its most deleterious - accusing your accuser of those things, which, if brought into the light of day, would bring discredit and ruin upon your own organization.

Currently on the front page of is a set of theses about the decline in church membership in the United Church of Christ. These theses were posted on a message board by a Rev. Robert Tucker, and those who visit the website are invited to share their responses to them.

This is the second thesis:

Thesis Two. For leaders who tout openness and inclusivity, national staff are singularly and incredibly unwelcoming of divergent ideas and practices and people and organizations that run counter to their views. The sharp divide between the stated piety of inclusiveness and exclusionary practices is infuriating.

I don't know Robert Tucker, nor can I speak about his views on this subject. For all I know, he may just be mimicking or citing what he hears others saying. Regardless, he is correct in identifying this as a concern raised by many who are uncomfortable with some of the more liberal positions taken by the United Church of Christ.

This has been a common tactic used by trained activists: accuse those whose tolerance has grown larger than your theology allows of being themselves intolerant.

It is an effective strategy, and one that ingeniously places leaders of more progressive faith communities squarely on the horns of a dilemma. Option one: give in to the activists and accede to all of their demands, one of which is to abandon the theology that mandates the openness that fuels their anger and animosity. Option two: maintain those policies and practices that emerge out of your theology but which anger conservative activists, thereby confirming their suspicion that you are intolerant.

The problem here is that a fallacy exists of which those who develop these strategies are fully aware. And the fallacy is the notion that to be tolerant you must agree with me. Disagreeing with me is evidence of your intolerance.

After the United Church of Christ began running its ejector seat ad(ad, Mark Tooley (staff member of the IRD) wrote an essay that accused the UCC and its leaders of arguing that every other church was intolerant. In that article he makes the claim that the UCC is in fact the land of the exclusive and intolerant:

"Despite all of its welcoming and affirming, the UCC has lost one million members over the last 40 years, or over 40 percent of its original membership. Like the Episcopal Church, the UCC remains overwhelmingly a denomination of the white, upper-middle class. Minorities and working-class whites have not been ejected by the UCC but are not attracted to its brand of New England-style liberal Protestantism." (

In response to that, the Biblical Witness Fellowship began running on their web-site a page called "The Fellowship of the Ejected." The claim was that the UCC had left a wake of people who were ejected from the denomination because of their theological beliefs, and the site was a place for them to tell their story about such rejection. After months of leaving this page open, two people wrote in to tell their story. (see my article on this: This week in the Biblical Witness Fellowship .)

Yesterday, I spoke with a local UCC pastor who was reflecting with me about his frustration with a member of his church. The pastor would be considered by many folk to be a liberal, and the member of whom he was speaking would be considered a conservative. The member was expressing to the pastor his frustration with the pastor's intolerance. The pastor - a most tolerant and beneficent individual, to be sure - was expressing his frustration that despite all his efforts to be open to all, he would be accused of intolerance.

The point here is that too many people confuse legitimate disagreement with intolerance. While it may not feel affirming and personally comfortable to know that your pastor, or your denominational leaders, do not espouse your particular theological foundations - their right to have, to hold, and to act on their own theological presumptions is what is one of those things that have long characterized the United Church of Christ. Because of this, tolerance has always been one of their primary virtues: the only way to hold such a body together is to be open to all divergent thoughts and opinions. The UCC is not a doctrinal denomination that forces theological litmus tests on its adherents.

What so angers the conservatives among us is that their attempts to make us homogenous, to recreate us as a theological monolith with conservative underpinnings have all failed. And not because the UCC is intolerant, but precisely because they are not and don't want to be. And certainly not because the UCC is controlled by national leaders who refuse to hear any diversity of thought or opinion. The UCC is one of the most democratic organizations anywhere: our direction is determined by independent delegates whose debates and votes are public. The truth is that throughout our history, conservatives - who are always present and always welcome - have never been able to build enough of a constituency in this admittedly progressive denomination to alter its historic commitment to diversity of thought, theology, and opinion.

Their reactions to that include a misguided attack on leaders who will not give in to their demands to conform. And while some will buy what they are selling about intolerance among the leaders of the denomination, those who are able to think for themselves see this very differently.

Great post John. For me it was the real world illustration of the piece I wrote two weeks ago on Refuting the Myth of "Liberal Intolerance."

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 07:42:37 AM EST
I thought of that piece as I was writing this.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 08:46:51 AM EST


I'm not clear whether you are intending to imply the tactics, perspectives you site, i.e. conservatives in the UCC who want a homogenous doctrine/world view, should apply to Bob Tucker or whether his criticism of the leadership as being intolerant is sort of 'spring board' for writing about the 'Hey, you're not really tolerant because we can't get what we want.' tactic of some.

I think that latter, but some clarification would keep the good Rev. Tucker right perceived.

by Don Niederfrank on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 06:11:55 PM EST

As I say, I have never met Bob. I don't know anything about him, so the article is not about him.

On UCCtruths, there are listed a number of theses about the decline of membership in the UCC, along with an invitation to comment. I chose this one to make comment on because it demonstrates the broader principle or strategy used by right wing activists: take your own deficiency or flaw and remove the sting of any who would criticize you for it and attack them for the same thing. It is a good strategy - it really works. And this is a very good example of how it works.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 08:46:15 AM EST

I learned in college about this kind of thinking, which has served me well in the conference and association in which I recently began serving. My own congregation is very liberal (and hopefully to be ONA by the end of 2008 if not sooner), but the conference and association are among the most conservative overall in the UCC. I thus find myself on both sides of the table, an oddly back-breaking place to be.

What has helped me through thus far is the comments of someone who feels very much in the majority in our conference but in the minority in the denomination: if we expect to be taken seriously in our opposition, then we have to play by the rules - including civil discussion and full participation in the wider church. We may not be able to make the changes we want, but we will have earned our place at the table.

It was the only thing he said that day I agreed with, but hearing him say it before he launched into the issues he and I disagree on made me more willing to listen and take seriously his concerns and objections to actions taken at the national level. I hope it made him more willing to hear my (minority at that meeting) concerns and objections to proposed actions at the conference level, as well.

by RevRuthUCC on Mon Apr 09, 2007 at 01:18:08 AM EST
I found in most part, these 9 points to be sloppy. I have responded to all 9 on my blog at God-Space. And, probably taken a different track in my counter argument. William

by williambrandes on Mon Apr 09, 2007 at 01:26:56 PM EST

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