Another Perspective

Sects in the City

Liberal tolerance, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Mel Gibson.

By 3.7.04

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Here's a thought. Whenever a liberal offers a moral judgment of a particular work of art, such as a sculpture of the Ten Commandments on public grounds or Mel Gibson's movie, and requests that the government remove the first and enlightened people boycott and defame the second, this question should pop to mind: What would they do if it were the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the brilliant gay photographer whose provocative homoerotic work caused such an uproar when it appeared in some public museums in the 1980s and 1990s?

Let me illustrate what I mean. Suppose, for example, what occupied the Alabama courthouse was not a sculpture of the Ten Commandments but a Mapplethorpe photograph of a sculpture of the Ten Commandments with tiny naked men in the corner doing the Georgia crawl.

Or imagine if Mapplethorpe had choreographed dance scenes for a movie by Mel Brooks, not Mel Gibson, "The Passion of Jesus, Bus Depot Bar-Hopping Runaway," a kind of contemporary comedic interpretation of a Gay "Christ," a self-loathing ex-Catholic priest who left the church and holy orders as a result of being "besieged" by "the Christian right." This would, of course, be broadcast on HBO and commended by critics for its "insight," "ingenious use of metaphor," and "powerful, though humorous, treatment of a controversial figure whose life is shrouded in mystery."

Its producer and writer would likely have received a sizable grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And those condemning this film would be labeled by liberal pundits, the New York Times editorial board, and NPR commentators as intolerant, narrow-minded censors, and bigots who can't see past their religious prejudices and ingrained homophobia.

Gibson's film has been described as too violent. Columnist Andrew Sullivan has referred to it as "pornographic religion." Employing a little imagination and the rhetoric of liberal "tolerance," one can offer in retort that all-time favorite rhetorical question that ends all inquiry and discussion for the purpose of advancing openness, "Who are you to judge?"

Or we can say: "It's an orthodox Christian thing, you wouldn't understand." Or: "Because Jesus willingly gave his life, think of the crucifixion as an act between consenting adults, and that can't be wrong, right?" Or: "Perhaps it will help to think of the crucifixion as post-natal Roman abortion, or just 'Pilate's Choice' or 'prelate-assisted suicide.'" Or: "You're not very sophisticated; don't you know that Gibson's 'Jesus' is just a metaphor for 'Matthew Shepherd.'" Or: "Stop being so judgmental; learn to appreciate 'differences,' blah, blah, blah."

Liberal tolerance is rarely applied in a principled fashion, for it is often offered by those who have no serious interest in either liberty, tolerance (rightly understood), or even a critical assessment of their own views. Rather, they are interested in advancing an orthodoxy, like any other, that has its own understanding of what is good, true, and beautiful about which its proponents have no time to think judiciously or consider that any reasonable, decent person may sincerely disagree with it.

Francis J. Beckwith is Associate Professor of Church-State Studies, and Associate Director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University.

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