Toward a Tolerable Tolerance

The relationship between religion and politics, always a perennial subject of much consternation, is yet again at forefront of the national discussion. One of the chief questions that always arises out of such debates has to do with whether or not faith even belongs in the public square. The faithful say “yes!,” the unfaithful “no!,” with the overlap ruled by a nebulous force called tolerance.

Ron Hartikka recently weighed in on this whole notion of tolerance in a comment on this blog. Quoting from Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Hartikka observed:

And from page 140:

“With such an understanding [of tolerance], we can envision a state (whether or not such a thing is a present political possibility) that acknowledges the Christian faith as true, but deliberately provides for the full security of other views.”

No, no, no. The tolerance we have seen from the Christians has not been such that we are anxious to depend upon it. Forgive my speaking so bluntly, but it is the truth. (Forgive *me* Peter Lorre.) As Kevin Seamus Hasson says in relation to religious government in “The Right To Be Wrong”: “Tolerance, in short is just a policy choice of the government, not a right of the people. And policy choices can be reversed. The notion of tolerance though, is a Rasputin of an idea. Thoroughly discredited, it refuses to die.” Nobody, Christian or not, can be relied upon to deliver on a promise of tolerance.

Hartikka raises a couple of good points here. First of all, with regard to Newbigin’s quote, it might be helpful to note that Newbigin writes from a British perspective — a place where the government is officially nominally Christian. This flavors his statement a little differently than an American would naturally see it. Even American Christians like me who believe faith should have a place in the public square are suspect of the state church because there often tends to be a little too much state in the church.

That said, I agree with Newbigin’s statement that the state could conceivably acknowledge Christian faith as true while providing for the full security of other views. To show that this is possible we must first define tolerance, which is no easy task. Theologian D.A. Carson shows the modern difficultly with the term:

…It used to be that a tolerant person was one who insisted that those who disagreed with him had rights no less than his own to speak their own positions freely. The slogan was, “I may detest the things you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say them.” The tolerance, was, in other words, was directed toward people, not their ideas. In fact the idea implicit in this notion of tolerance is that the tolerant person disagrees with some idea or another: that is precisely why tolerance is needed. One does not “tolerate” someone with whom one is already in perfect agreement!

By contrast, the new tolerance is directed not to people who are permitted or even encouraged to articulate repugnant views, but to the ideas themselves: under the priorities of postmodern ideology, it is wrong to say that any worldview or set of ideas or religious opinion is wrong or untrue or evil. Ideas alien to us may be “bad” in the relative sense that our own system sees the other system as flawed. But (postmodern tolerance urges) it is wrong to say that a contrary view is wrong, at least in any objective or absolute sense.

Love in Hard Places, p.147

Such a view that this “new tolerance” espouses is, in the end, philosophically untenable because is presupposes a neutral position. The problem is that a purely neutral position does not exist in the real world, even in a pluralistic society like ours. As University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski aptly observes:

…The bottom line is that Neutrality is no more coherent in the matter of religious tolerance than it is in tolerance of any other sort. What you can tolerate pivots on your ultimate concern. Because different ultimate concerns ordain different zones of tolerance, social consensus is possible only at the points where these zones overlap. Note well: The greater the resemblance of contending concerns the greater the overlap of their zones of tolerance. The less the resemblance of contending concerns, the less the overlap of their zones of tolerance. Should contending concerns become sufficiently unlike, their zones of tolerance no longer intersect at all. Consensus vanishes.

The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, p. 53

Even the supposed neutrality of a secularist position falls prey to the fact that its ultimate concerns differ from those of, say, a Christian worldview.

Getting back to the point at hand, Mr. Hartikka contends that “the tolerance we have seen from the Christians has not been such that we are anxious to depend upon it.” While it may be true that some Christians in government have misapplied the faith through their politics, the same could be said of secularists, of whom the American government has likewise never been lacking.

For tolerance to work properly in a representative democracy like the United States, it must be focused upon people rather than ideas. That means that there will undoubtedly be disagreement, but people will continue to be safe and free to voice their opposition. While such a concept poses great risk to weak ideas, those who hold them will no doubt benefit from the fact that their ideas won’t be artificially buttressed by a tolerance that doesn’t tolerate contending concerns.

3 thoughts on “Toward a Tolerable Tolerance”

  1. Excellent post. Even “back in the day” I always found the above conflict to prove that tolerance in today’s world had actually lost it’s true meaning. I am hoping that this type of clarification of what tolerance truly is will get out there and open people’s eyes to how it really works.

    I appreciate this post very much.

  2. There are a few things for me to say. Here are some. More to follow – I think.

    First. My original comment rejecting Newbigin’s talk of a tolerant Christian state only gave half of my reason: that the state might withdraw its tolerance. The other half of my reason is that we have something much better than tolerance: an irrevocable right to religious freedom covering belief, expression, and exercise. The existence of that right denies the government the option of religious intolerance so its promise would be welcome but not very impressive.

    We should never trade that right for a promise of tolerance from any kind of government. Such promises came with the established churches of England and the colonies. They were broken.

    Madison and Jefferson first replaced toleration with a right in the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. Madison cut “all men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration…” and pasted “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise…” Governmental religious tolerance has been outmoded ever since.

    Hasson details the history of tolerance. He also works out the source of the right (conscience), describes its history, and suggests a future. (I’m recommending the book.)

    Second. As you point out, Newbigin writes from a British perspective and they have an established church plus blasphemy and blasphemous libel laws protecting (only) that church. To me, it seems that the state of England already ‘acknowledges the Christian faith as true’ but apparently Newbigin doesn’t think so. I wonder what ‘acknowledgement’ would satisfy him.

    Third. Agreed, tolerance is for people, not for beliefs, arguments, or ideas, and not for actions.

Comments are closed.