Defending the rights of schools that teach self-sacrifice

Much is rightly made about the importance of tolerance and sensitivity on the part of religious majorities towards religious minorities. But what about the reverse?  What about the importance of tolerance and sensitivity on the part of religious minorities when it comes to public expressions of spiritual belief by those in the majority?

This latter question was what I asked journalist Mona Charen to talk about at an American Experiment luncheon program twenty years ago after I read a syndicated column of hers on the topic.  Her presentation remains one of my favorites, as does the paper we later released containing her remarks, which I reread this afternoon.  I did so because what she asserted is keenly pertinent to several essays American Experiment published three days ago in a symposium, containing 35 essays in all, titled “Specifically, What Must We Do to Repair our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation?

What are the connections between what Charen – who is Jewish – argued then and what one symposium contributor argues now?  Here are two excerpts from Mona’s paper.

“Minorities owe themselves and the majority a sense of proportion.  It is certainly reasonable to ask the majority to be respectful of minority viewpoints.  It is unreasonable to demand that the majority stop being what they are.  I think that’s what these holiday cases amount to – a demand that Christians stop acting Christian because they might offend Jews, atheists, Buddhists, or whatever.  It’s fair to say ‘make room’; it’s not fair to say ‘make yourselves over.’”


“I submit that in this age of lawsuits and liability, secularism, and excessive fastidiousness about rights at the expense of all other values, we have to start thinking about religious tolerance in a new way.  I think we need to start thinking about the obligations of minorities toward the majority.”

Here are two passages in the symposium by Todd R. Flanders, headmaster of Providence Academy in Plymouth, MN.

“Repairing a culture of family fragmentation requires a culture of self-sacrifice.  Self-sacrifice must be modeled and taught if it is to be handed on.  There must be schools to inculcate it.  Consequently, the ongoing viability of such schools requires vigorous defense of First Amendment freedoms of speech, association, and exercise of religion.”


“Perhaps the defense of fundamental freedoms is not yet too much to ask in a society that takes pride in its tolerance.  Perhaps people with ‘coexist’ bumper stickers can be persuaded, with clarity and charity, truly to mean what they say.”

What’s the connecting tissue between these two sets of comments?

In alluding to threats to the “ongoing viability” of schools such as his, Dr. Flanders implicitly refers to principles and practices which can be ridiculed and assaulted by governmental officials and others in ways which require a “vigorous defense” of the such schools’ constitutional freedoms.  The most salient current issue of this sort is same-sex marriage, with the biggest fear among many being the possibility (some say inevitability) that Washington will eventually cause grief for certain religiously animated schools and other organizations if they don’t acquiesce to new Department of Justice or Department of Education assumptions and dictates about same-sex marriage in personnel, curricular and other matters.  What kind of “grief”?  The most serious would be governmental threats to their status as tax-exempt institutions.  Which is to say their financial lifelines.

One of the most remarkable things about all of this is the way in which acceptance and often advocacy for same-sex marriage has effectively gone from a minority idea to a majority matter of law.  Think about it.  Figuratively in seconds, major struts of Christian outlook and institutions have gone from modal dominance to weakened standing, at least in terms of various governmental enforcement powers.

Whatever one might think about same-sex marriage, and drawing on Mona’s paper, “it is certainly reasonable to ask the [brand-new] majority to be respectful of [newly branded] minority viewpoints.”  Just as it is “[un]reasonable to demand that [keepers of previous majority viewpoints] stop being what they are.”  It’s likewise “not fair” for members of the [instantaneously created] majority to demand that members of the [instantaneously olden] majority “make yourselves over.”

In bracket-free language, this means that both same-sex-marriage partisans and bureaucrats are obliged to let religious schools and other faith-based institutions go about their business and learning in peace.  Just as those who remain opposed to same-sex marriage are obliged to allow adherents to live similarly.

Or as we used to say in earlier aspirational times:  May we all live and let live.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow.