In Lieu of Tolerance

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Tolerance is the most conspicuous value of a pluralistic society. When I was teenager, growing up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s in multicultural, suburban Culver City, California, you could see COEXIST bumper stickers on what seemed like every fourth car. The ‘c’ was made to look like the Islamic crescent moon and star, the ‘o’ was a peace sign, the ‘e’ had gender symbols extending from it, the ‘x’ was a Star of David, and the ‘t’ was a cross. It conveyed, of course, a message of religious peace and coexistence. And in general, the idea of tolerance has a deeply religious intonation, though as a principle tolerance now encompasses many matters of non-religious identity.

Yet the idea of tolerance as a guiding value for society has been criticized in recent years, from different sides. It has been criticized for being impractical, for being easily perverted, and for being a morally shallow value in the face of deep ethical conflict. How, then, should we regard the principle of tolerance today? Is it a deep enough value to sustain America’s social fabric in the heat of our present polarization?

The broader history of our modern idea of tolerance has its roots in the sectarian struggles of Catholics and Protestants, dating back to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. In the centuries following the exodus of roughly half of Europe’s Christian population from the Catholic Church, wars and persecutions on all sides raged as Catholics vied with various Protestant denominations in various countries for religious and political supremacy.

At various climaxes of bloodshed, however, there were important moments of peace—The Peace of Westphalia, The Edict of Nantes—where Protestants and Catholics put aside their arms and agreed to let each other live and worship in something resembling tranquility, at least for a time. Experimentation with toleration and coexistence was manifested even more fully in the New World, where in some places men like the Puritan minister Roger Williams (founder of the Rhode Island colony) and William Penn (founder of the Pennsylvania colony) crafted a culture of religious tolerance far from the squabbles of Europe, ultimately leading to the American tradition of the separation of church and state.

From these select moments in history we have inherited an ideal of religious tolerance as rooted in a view that, whatever our differences of belief may be, they should not drive us to disenfranchise or oppress one another. It is only a short step further to apply this principle of toleration to matters of race, sexuality and gender as well. Indeed, the language of toleration has been extended in the moral buttressing of civil rights struggles across the last century.

Nonetheless, the real idealism of religious tolerance masks the uninspiring realism that historically brought it about. The episodes of religious tolerance most remarked upon in the fractious history of Catholics and Protestants tended to be moments when peace was achieved less by surging altruism and more from weariness of war; hostilities often resumed after political conditions shifted. These moments tended also to bring peace secured more one side’s domination than on all sides’ acceptance.

Likewise, in the settlement of the American colonies, a period which so prominently featured the flowering of religious tolerance, this peace was not achieved by idealism alone. The Puritans of Massachusetts were more interested in pursuing religious freedom for themselves than for others, and in fact banished religious dissidents like Anne Hutchinson and the aforementioned Roger Williams, and persecuted Baptists, Quakers, and other religious minorities. Catholics and Jews were treated poorly in many colonies. And in the early days of the Republic, Thomas Paine—who had been an important intellectual force in the founding of the country—was reviled, accused of being an atheist.

When we think of tolerance today, we think of a value that allows for diverse religious beliefs as well as other demographic and philosophical identities to exist alongside each other in modern society. But the term ‘tolerance’ has two connotations. Sincere acceptance of opposing beliefs is one. The other, however, could be called mere tolerance—the type of tolerance that allows for differing views or identities to coexist only because it is not worth the trouble to suppress them—and if things were different, they might be well-worth suppressing.

Tolerance becomes a difficult value to manage on multiple levels. In today’s politicized parlance, the language of tolerance is owned largely by the progressive (and secular) left. Against the backdrops of conservative speakers being ‘de-platformed’ on college campuses, outrage culture online, and certain instances of physical social violence, conservatives have seethed at the irony of ‘the left’ owning the virtue of tolerance while being intolerant of other views. In the words of former leftwing commentator Dave Rubin speaking for Prager U: “Who is tolerant? …Is it the Antifa thugs who caused Berkeley university to spend six-hundred-thousand dollars on security when mainstream conservative Ben Shapiro showed up to give a talk?”

These sorts of examples aren’t really representative of the broader culture of left-leaning politics in America. Most progressives and liberals are as repulsed by such excesses as conservatives are. But even among those who actively cherish the ideal of tolerance on the left, there is a question as to how far the tolerance in principle ought to be extended. In an article for the Huffington Post, Josh Feigelson of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago argued that, in general, we want to exercise tolerance and empathy as much as possible. But there are limits:

At root, the limit of tolerance seems to be, as the words suggest, the point at which a system can no longer contain—tolerate—the load it is being asked to bear. That applies to a bridge, a body, an ecosystem. It also applies to a relationship, a community, and a society. We can’t tolerate something anymore when the energy it demands of us—the physical, emotional, or psychological energy—is more than we can give.”

In this context, Mr. Feigelson wrote specifically of the likes of the Neo-Nazis whose violence led to the death of a young woman in Charlottesville. But what of those people whose views enable these Neo-Nazis? What of those whose perspectives led them to vote for a racist for President of the United States? What of those who are actively Islamophobic, or hold questionable views on “race science” and any number of dangerous ideas? Do we tolerate their speaking on college campuses? Do we tolerate them as friends and intimates in our personal lives?

While the tension around tolerance finds itself more conspicuous on the left where the ideal of tolerance has been more consciously owned, the right has its equivalent struggle. Can we really be friends with people who embrace evil? People who sanction the killing of babies, people who practice reverse-racism, and people who would like to see the overthrow of traditional American values and patriotic norms? After all, according to some on the right, these are people whose professed tolerance does not even extend to allowing a Christian-owned company like Chik-Fil-A to operate restaurants in cities from Boston to Buffalo without threats from elected officials to close them down.

What is the basis, then, for what David Blankenhorn calls “civic friendship,” when these are the ways we feel about each other’s views?

In this view, the only arguments for tolerance are practical ones. It simply costs too much for us to oppose each other violently. But there’s a catch—according to this view, tolerance is even perversely threatening to the peace, unity, and community that tolerance itself is meant to preserve. Tolerance numbs us to the need to stand firm against evil ideologies as those ideologies fester into overt racism, utopianism, and authoritarianism. Tolerance, it seems, can be counterproductive. That is why it can be difficult to be tolerant in the heat of polarization.

Given these limits, there must be something deeper than tolerance that allows us to sustain our civic bonds across the chasms of ideological division. In a recent conversation with Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, Arthur told Ciaran O’Connor and me about the limits of civility and tolerance:

It’s funny—if I said ‘Ciaran and John, my wife Esther and I are civil to each other,’ you’d say ‘dude you guys need counseling.’ It’s not good enough. Tolerance isn’t good enough…if I told you that my employees at American Enterprise Institute tolerate me, you’d say that we have a huge morale problem on our hands. None of those things actually gets the job done. The only thing that gets the job done is love, which is a conscious action.”

Brooks went on to define love by borrowing from St. Thomas Aquinas—Love is “to will the good of the other as other.” As Brooks explains, love is, in this manner of speaking, a distinct act. It is only in loving those with whom we disagree that we open the space for a more enduring understanding.

Love is the value to which we really aspire when we speak loftily about tolerance. If disagreement beyond a certain point makes our ideological opponents irredeemable, then there is little value in seeking to speak to their humanity. So too is there little value in taking time to reflect upon one’s own perspective, if there can be nothing to learn from someone who  is wrong.

On the other hand, if human-beings are redeemable, and if it is possible for us to learn from each other, than choosing to love in an actively transformative way is available to us in the context of our politics.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the practitioners of Non-Violence in the Civil Rights Movement made this choice. In a sermon delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1957, King argued that the first step towards loving one’s enemies was to examine oneself for the ways in which our own actions may have brought out the worst in our opponent.

That is why I say, begin with yourself. There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.”

The second step is just as simple: “…to discover the element of good in [your] enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.”

Love as a social value, and conscious acts of self-reflection and charity, are bound tightly to the virtues of humility and empathy. They soften our attachments to coarse ideological ballast in favor of a willingness to find common cause with each other’s plights. They are also deeply-held American values, deeply rooted in religious and social traditions which include, but predate by centuries, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Tolerance, too, is an American value, necessary to the success of this democratic melting pot which remains the envy of the world. Yet in lieu of mere tolerance, Americans need to reach for something deeper to sustain our bonds and to move our politics towards reason and compassion. Americans need to discover the power of love and its component virtues as social values, but this requires a choice.

It is not an easy choice. But it is the choice that will preserve our union. Love is the foundation upon which true tolerance must stand.

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2 thoughts on “In Lieu of Tolerance”

  1. Justin Naylor

    Thanks, John, for the excellent and inspiring column! I know that speculation about history is fraught with difficulty, but I wonder what you think MLK’s response would have been to the US Civil War? Did he ever write or preach about it? As an advocate for non-violent resistance, what might he have done living at the time?

  2. David Ludescher


    I agree that there are lots of ways to look at tolerance. You didn’t touch upon this, but it seems to me that freedom demands tolerance of others. Our freedoms of speech, religion, association, etc. would mean nothing if the government would not tolerate what is considered by many to be hate speech, or white supremacy. Or, even worse, our freedoms would be meaningless if certain people would force the government to not tolerate certain peoples based solely upon a belief system.
    Tolerance is also directly tied to justice. Almost any speech can be, and should be tolerated. There is no justice in punishing a man for “hate speech” or for being a “white supremacist”.
    Thus, I would argue that freedom and justice are American values, and tolerance is not really a value to be prized. Too much tolerance is a lack of justice; too little is a lack of freedom.

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