Central Auckland might not be Iraq or Afghanistan but it has been the scene of extremist religious reaction.

It was perfectly reasonable for certain churches and for various individuals to express their displeasure and even horror at what they saw as unsuitable or blasphemous in the Joseph and Mary billboard.

But the man who painted over it and the woman who attacked it with a knife are intolerant religious fanatics.

As such they are dangerous. In the name of their God they saw it as their right, even their obligation, to break the law and damage property.

While their actions are clearly of a different ilk to the suicide bombers of 9/11 or of a Baghdad market place, the fundamental impulse is the same. In the righteous name of God, they felt called to do their duty.

The billboard certainly achieved one of its aims.

It turned a pre-Christmas spotlight on to Joseph and Mary and Jesus, the "reason for the season" as the saying goes.

It showed that "Christians" do not necessarily adhere to the doctrine of the virgin birth, although such believers might be a relatively small minority, and that the principal figures of the faith can be thought of in earthly terms. They need not be wrapped in saintliness and untouchability.

The billboard also presented a glimpse of the "progressive" strand to Christianity, these days deep in the shadows of traditional mainstream church belief and in another universe altogether from the vigorously promoted views of the religious right.

Key Western traditions grew from the Enlightenment, and some argue from principles within Christianity and the Reformation themselves, and are strengths to cherish: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, individual human rights and democracy.

In the name of these, the billboard was legitimate whether you were amused, apathetic, annoyed or appalled.

One suspects that for many in today's secular world the billboard was a quaint sideshow and a glimpse into potentially internecine Christian differences.

But do the very values of the West contain the seeds of their own destruction? Is tolerance - and so-called "progressive" Christianity for that matter - a licence for wishy-washy thinking, policy and behaviour? Do the fanatics and the intolerant simply take advantage of weakness? Are the institutions and principles of democracy callously abused by ideologues for their own ends? These are dilemmas which liberal democracies face.

These are the concerns that echo through modern Western Europe as immigration swells the numbers from cultures and beliefs where ethics like individual human rights are far from sacrosanct.

The way forward has to be to ensure pride in the basic values that underpin democratic society and to defend them with vigour.

It means being prepared to be tolerant of different cultures and different beliefs but intolerant when aspects of those cultures and beliefs threaten the core on which Western democracies are based. Already, countries, institutions and individuals have been bullied over freedom of speech, with the most stark example the furore over the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

While it is appropriate to be tactful, it is also essential not to be supine, even when what is painted, written or drawn might not be to your liking.

As famously attributed to French philosopher Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

In this context, it could be argued that the billboard was insensitive to the majority of Christians, and certainly hurtful to some.

But it is a sad indictment that it was splashed and slashed and it became necessary to take it down.

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