Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Books from the Religious Right: BE INTOLERANT by Ryan Dobson

At the 2011 CHAP convention, I picked up a copy of Ryan Dobson's 2003 book, Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid. Ryan Dobson, son of Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, has a long history of anti-choice, and anti-Obama comments on the Family Talk radio show, as documented by Right Wing Watch. He's also an unabashed supporter of "male headship", insisting that “The man should be the overall leader of the household ... We’ve raised a generation of little boys" in a 2010 New York Times article on Christian martial arts. Be Intolerant, with Dobson's sullen glower on the front cover, offers a glimpse into how he sees others.

Dobson complains that the fear of offending others, of being labeled intolerant and bigoted, is moral cowardice that prevents many Christians from speaking the truth. However, Dobson proudly proclaims that he is "totally, radically intolerant" in that he speaks openly about things that are right and wrong. The goal of Be Intolerant, he explains, is to lead people "out of the darkness of political correctness" into the light of truth.

Dobson accuses American culture of practicing moral relativism, which he blames on Enlightenment and postmodern ideas. He grossly caricatures Enlightenment ideas as promising that science and technology will solve everything, which only led to greater exploitation. To call this a grossly inaccurate parody of the Enlightenment would be an understatement.

Has this guy even studied the Enlightenment? Was he out sick when his high school history class covered it? I thought.

He then conflates tolerance and acceptance for others with moral relativism, creating a caricature of a freewheeling society with no moral compass.

Christianity is the only alternative to moral relativism, he argues, and believers have an obligation to share Biblical truth. His book is intended for young Christians who feel torn between God and the world, he explains. The fact that someone can tread many other paths besides fundamentalist Christianity and hollow relativism is never considered. Such a simplistic vision presents the world in black and white terms, ignoring anything outside two binary possibilities.

Dobson constructs a farcical straw man argument about society's moral relativism, then knocks down the strawman by slamming society's alleged moral relativism as meaningless and hypocritical. The problem is, American society doesn't remotely resemble Dobson's caricature. Americans of all stripes do have moral codes and deeply held convictions, but because they look different than Dobson's, he refuses to acknowledge them. American society does have some common values -- the Bill of Rights is but one example -- but Dobson refuses to discuss the interplay between collective and individual values.

Be Intolerant is extremely dismissive of sexuality outside of marriage, abortion, environmentalism, the LGBTQ community, and marginalized groups in general. A recurring subtext of the book is that opinions that differ from Dobson are not worthy of consideration. Why learn about other people and paths when they're WRONG, WRONG, WRONG and need to be taught THE TRUTH? What Dobson doesn't realize is that this attitude is more likely to alienate people than convert them.

Dobson complains that "[o]ur culture loves a victim", sneering at those who call themselves marginalized because they've "been picked on, pushed around, inconvenienced, or even slightly embarrassed in gym one day". The idea that some groups actually are marginalized in our society -- that some groups have endured long histories of erasure, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and violence -- escapes him.

Privileged much? I thought.

Predictably, Dobson insists that he shows such intolerance out of "love", a love that doesn't want to see his friends ruin their lives. The fifth chapter of the book is even entitled "How to be Intolerant -- In Love". The fact that such self-righteous "love" may not feel very loving to others, or that it might even do real damage, is never considered. Simply put, love that tears down, silences, and infantilizes others is not love.

Be Intolerant can be summed up as "I've got the Bible so I'm right, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong!." Dobson shows little curiosity about why others might not believe the same things as him or lead lives that look different from his. This reluctance to learn about people who are different from him, to hear their stories and reasoning, is very revealing.

Both the style and substance of the book left me unimpressed. First, his tone is juvenile and antagonistic. Be Intolerant reads more like a disgruntled teenager's journal than a mature guide to Christian living. Dobson might have used this tone to make his book seem rebellious and irreverent to young readers, but it came off as grating. Furthermore, Dobson's black-and-white, God-versus-the-world thinking is simplistic. Human beings are far more complex and diverse than he gives them credit for, and there are many paths in life besides fundamentalism and relativism. His vision of Christianity is monolithic, in that he fails to recognize that Christians have very diverse opinions about social issues and faith.

My biggest complaint against Be Intolerant is that it conflates intolerance with moral courage. In reality, Dobson's intolerance is merely ignorance and a refusal to respect others who are different. True moral courage involves helping others flourish and upholding their rights, even if they are different from us. Truly loving people will listen to others, ask for their stories, respect their intrinsic humanity, and help them flourish. To do that, we must reject self-righteous intolerance and cultivate humility in its place.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Media Girl: Gangsta' Christians: Ryan Dobson's spiritual ghetto

Musings of the Stupidest Smart Guy I Know: Be Intolerant by Ryan Dobson


  1. I remember hearing about this book a couple years ago, probably on Focus on the Family. I'm impressed that you could stomach that book. But then, you've handled a lot tougher stuff, Ahab!

    It's not too surprising that my assumptions about the book were spot on. It would have been more comforting being wrong. :-(

    Thanks for the review!

    1. Wise Fool -- You didn't miss anything. The book was juvenile, repetitive, and stuffed with strawmen.


All comments are subject to moderation. Threatening, violent, or bigoted comments will not be published.