This Is Tolerance?

Michael Metzger

Combustible fuel.
Attorneys are expected to finish closing arguments today in a hate crimes case that is roiling the coastal California town of Long Beach. On Halloween night of 2006, an ugly fight involving a group of black teenagers and three white women left all three women badly beaten (one had 12 facial fractures). Long Beach is a port city that prides itself on diversity and tolerance. There’s only one problem: modern-day tolerance, mixed with diversity, forms a combustible fuel that often ignites hate crimes.

Modern-day tolerance arose from stories like the one told by G. E. Lessing in the 1700s.1 A father had a magic ring that he wanted to give to one of his three sons. He did not want to hurt the other two, so the father had two other rings made. They, however, were not magic – but the sons did not know which was which. Eventually, an argument arose between the brothers as to which ring was truly magic. They went to Nathan the Wise, who offered this: “Let each brother think his own ring is the magic one. But – in the meantime – show forth gentleness and heartfelt tolerance.”

Sweet story, isn’t it? Lessing wasn’t against religion per se – he simply believed we can’t be sure who’s right. Faith is merely perspective, opinion, or taste. Let’s not argue about it. Instead, be tolerant. When the Holy Roman Emperor Josef II issued The Patent of Tolerance in 1781, it was intended to promote tolerant religion. We’ve heard of the Golden Rule – he who has the gold rules. In short order, The Patent of Tolerance led to church property being confiscated, clerics being ousted, hatred being fanned… and intolerance.

The Founding Fathers put an end to this. Nine years after The Patent of Tolerance, George Washington wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” The Framers’ genius was replacing tolerance with liberty of conscience. “And it was that idea, I think, which is the central American insight that religion is hugely important in the life of the nation, but it has to be a matter of individual conscience.”2 That’s because conscience demands respect. Tolerance breeds contempt. Respect allows for the right to believe anything, but it doesn’t say “anything anyone believes is right.” As Os Guinness points out, “The former is freedom of conscience, the latter nonsense.”3

Most of today’s yapping about tolerance is utter nonsense. “Tolerance is an extremely intolerant idea,” notes Bernard Lewis, “because it means ‘I am the boss: I will allow you some, though not all, of the rights I enjoy as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine.’ That, I think, is a fair definition of religious tolerance as it is normally understood and applied.”4

Look at Long Beach. Mixing modern-day tolerance with diversity creates a Molotov cocktail with a short fuse. The problem isn’t diversity per se. The creation is full of diverse races, colors, foods, and seasons. Diversity becomes dangerous when mixed with a tolerance that is full of contempt: I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell. What kind of tolerance disdains any discussion of religion in the workplace? How tolerant are university speech codes banning religious speech? Is it tolerant to mock students because of their faith? This kind of tolerance erodes trust, according to Harvard University’s Robert Putnam. He’s gathered research showing that, the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone. This is tolerance? Putnam’s research reveals, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down,” he said. “We act like turtles. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”5 So much for today’s tolerance.

If we’re talking about pizza preferences or different tastes in art, tolerance is a virtue since no one has a magic ring to determine what’s best. The Founders, however, held religion to be a matter of truth, not taste. When it comes to truth, tolerance is a travesty. It’s time we confronted this brutal reality. The city of Long Beach might consider adopting the Founders’ vision of respect and freedom of conscience. Otherwise, we’re stuck with an intolerant tolerance that breeds contempt and hate crimes.

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1 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was a German philosopher of the Enlightenment era who believed reason, not revelation, was the final authority for religion.
2 Jeffrey Brown, “Author Meacham Writes About Faith and Government,” Jim Lehrer NewsHour, June 30, 2006
3 Os Guinness, “A World Safe For Diversity: Religious Liberty and the Rebuilding of the Public Philosophy,” Trinity Forum Briefing (Vol 1, No. 1, October 2000)
4 Bernard Lewis, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell,” The Atlantic Monthly, (Boston: May 2003. Vol. 291, Issue 4), p. 36. Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
5 John Lloyd, “Harvard Study Paints Bleak Picture of Ethnic Diversity,” The Financial Times, Oct 9, 2006

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