Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.John F Kennedy
As Americans we focus a lot on our Constitutional Freedoms. Frankly, we are far more enthralled with these than most of the rest of the world for in the time since our Revolution, and especially during the last several decades, we have lost sight of something far more important than freedom in the American Experience. America was founded not by people who yearned to be free to practice free speech, any religion they choose, and the various political freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights. People undertook the rigors of transatlantic voyages and settlement on a wild and untamed continent in order to free from systemic intolerance of their proclivities (religion being the primary among these). Being free to practice your own religion or make speeches unpopular with the political establishment means nothing if others don’t recognize and tolerate those beliefs. Tolerance is not the acceptance of these beliefs but rather the acceptance that others’ have beliefs that you do not share.
Few aspects of modern liberal democracy are more celebrated than religious toleration. This toleration is widely hailed as one of the prime guarantors of freedom and even as one of the great achievements of democracy. But this last is especially odd because it treats tolerance as an end in itself. It obviously is not one, else we’d just tolerate everything and have done with it. But no one would suggest that the ideal society would tolerate everything–from pederasty to cannibalism. Rather, tolerance is a means, a way of ordering our society and our lives so that we can achieve certain ends. Specifically, it is a means of allowing people with fundamental disagreements, usually religious, to occupy the same society without resorting to violence over their different beliefs. Unfortunately, this order has begun to break down in modern America and the result is retrenchment to tribalism, xenophobia, and unfortunately hatred and violence. What was once our greatest strength as a nation has become our Achilles heel.
The modern concept of tolerance arose in 17th Century Netherlands as a response to over a century of open warfare between Catholics and Protestants. Religious tolerance was a way for these enemies to live together in peace and relative harmony but this toleration only works in the context of strong progressive and centralized governments such as those of the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Empire (then governing what is today Belgium). By diminishing the claim to truth and the moral authority of religion, these governments removed one of the key obstacles to power by the secular state. It was not an altruistic aim but rather a consolidation of power that drove the most significant act of progressive social reform in history.
Philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and even Aristotle had long argued the moral value of toleration, but it would take modern theorist like Johannes Althusius; Thomas Hobbes; John Locke; Pierre Bayle; John Stuart Mill; and John Dewey to see how to operationalize the idea of toleration to serve the ruling classes. For Locke, religious sectarian warfare is the fundamental problem of politics. The promise of religious toleration served the shift of power from the church to the state creating authority for the state over religion.
This is where the American Experience with Religious Toleration begins. Early settlers to North America sought refuge in the New World from the orthodoxy of the relationship between the Church and State. The early settlement, like Plymouth, were NOT places of religious toleration but rather a new orthodoxy around a new established religion but this would change as the Colonies grew. Places like Pennsylvania and New Amsterdam (now New York), were more interested in commercial prosperity than escaping the religious intolerance of Europe and the obvious solution was to secure power in the secular government. This meant diminishing the power of any one church or religion – religious toleration. This model is ingrained in the Declaration or Independence and the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It has served well for over 200 years. Unfortunately, the quest for power is unquenchable.
The recent dissolution of Republican ideals (individual freedom, limited federal government, “government will do for the people only that which they cannot do for themselves”, etc.) has led to a repudiation of toleration by the uneducated masses. As Marx once said, “Die Religion ist das Opium des Volkesis” (religion is the opium of the masses) and we are living in a time of widespread opioid addiction. In order to wrest power from the now vilified secular powers, the neofascist of today’s Republican Party (e.g. D Trump) argue against toleration of any differences be those religious, lifestyle, or even demographic variation from their orthodox ideals. THIS IS UNAMERICAN and we must fight against it. It has taken us over two centuries to expand our definitions of toleration to its current state and we likely have another two centuries of equally hard work to do to approach the vision set forth by our founding fathers. WE CANNOT AFFORD TO GO BACK TO THE DARK AGES and embrace hatred and religious, ethnic, and class warfare that held back the development of freedom before the American and French Revolutions. We must clamber and grapple our way forward not retreat to tribalism. We are revolutionaries, we are patriots, and we stand for freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.