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Is Tolerance Intolerant?

by James Hitchcock
March 2, 2005

Shortly after Christmas a newspaper columnist produced what has now become a holiday staple -- an essay lamenting the intolerance of those Christians who favor symbolic public recognition of the season, such as Christmas carols and nativity scenes, both of which have long been endemic in America. There has, he feared, been an increase of tension over the issue, and he urged that everyone be more understanding.

Readers who praised this seasonal sermon unwittingly revealed the fallacy of the author's (and their own) position, which is that they alone truly understand what religion means. These self-consciously tolerant people were adamant that all religions must abandon claims to ultimate truth and admit to being merely part of a vague human search for meaning. For the tolerant, the chief problem is that not everyone agrees with them, and in the name of tolerance they ask others to give up their most cherished beliefs.

Liberal secularists have made "tolerance" into the ultimate virtue, so basic to their identities that they think of themselves as not even being capable of prejudice, intolerance as something of which others, especially orthodox religious believers, are guilty. But there is something odd about a program of tolerance that so often turns on acts of exclusion -- keep religion out of the public schools, take down nativity scenes and displays of the Ten Commandments, forbid the singing of Christmas carols, etc. In this respect "tolerance" has come to mean not expanding the scope of permitted behavior but of restricting it.

Obviously religion has given rise to a great deal of intolerance throughout history. But the greatest episode of persecution was not the Inquisition but the terror imposed by officially secular, indeed officially atheistic, states of the twentieth century, something that secularists almost never mention, because somehow it just doesn't seem relevant. After all, everybody knows that it is religion that produces intolerance.

Meanwhile, in the "Christmas wars" there have been increasing incidences of vandalism of nativity scenes, as well as of churches generally, something to which the media pay almost no attention. Anti-religious rhetoric on the part of the "tolerant" has also been escalating, as in the television personality Bill Maher's claim that religious believers are emotionally disturbed.

There is a common argument that understanding other faiths makes one more tolerant. But what constitutes "understanding"? To the secularist mind it means having a minimal abstract knowledge of another faith, of the kind one might acquire in a freshman course on "world religions." But true understanding, in this as other matters, requires some ability to understand from the inside, to have a sympathetic comprehension of why people believe what they believe, of what makes it seem true. When they talk about religion, most secularists, in my experience, fit the description of the tone-deaf man who thinks he is singing.

But behind the contradictions of secular liberal claims about tolerance is an even more intriguing question -- is tolerance really the ultimate virtue? Is it in fact a virtue at all? Possibly secular liberals cannot really be tolerant because in some vague way they sense the emptiness of that very ideal.

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's two volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', was released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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