“The History of Tolerance”

“Every culture and every age necessarily displays some tolerance and some intolerance. No culture can be tolerant of everything or intolerant of everything: it is simply not possible. A culture that tolerates, say, genocide (e.g., the Nazis) will not tolerate, say, the Jews it wants to kill or homosexual practice. A culture that tolerates just about every sexual liaison may nevertheless balk at, say, rape, or pedophilia, or in many cases bigamy and polygamy.” D.A. Carson

The Apostle Paul writes, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” He also told the Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands…”

If we are going to think carefully about tolerance and intolerance, a little historical perspective will help.

The older tolerance is well defined by Edward Langerak:

“Toleration is the enduring of something disagreeable. Thus it is not indifference toward things that do not matter and it is not broad-minded celebration of differences. It involves a decision to forgo using powers of coercion, so it is not merely resignation at the inevitability of the disagreeable, although begrudging toleration can be granted when one believes that coercion, while possible, would come at too high a price. Tolerating another’s actions is quite compatible with trying to change another’s mind, as long as one relies on rational persuasion—or, perhaps, emotional appeals—rather than blunt threats or subtle brainwashing.

Religious toleration generally applies to expressing or acting upon theologically-related beliefs, although the mere holding of beliefs or the persons holding them have also been the objects of intolerance and toleration.… [I]n spite of some behavioral similarities, toleration is distinct from the sort of pluralistic ecumenicism that seeks consensus on central religious matters or views other religious beliefs as simply different routes to similar goals. We can take religions extremely seriously, believe that we are clearly right and others are egregiously wrong on a matter of huge and holy significance, and still decide to tolerate their propagation of the error.”

Historical treatments that fail to probe tolerance’ connection, to “public moral law” or natural law” unwittingly elevate tolerance to the place of supreme virtue, so that its relations with other virtues are largely obscured – tolerance becomes distorted.

In the Christian heritage, the massive influence of Thomas Aquinas – and the articulation of natural law, as sometimes adapted, especially in the Reformed tradition, speaks of the imago Dei (image of God) and the constraints of common grace – working itself out in a variety of ethical structures that seeks the common good in any culture. Within such large frameworks of moral reasoning, tolerance is seen as a virtue because of its concern for the common good. Once tolerance is cut loose from this larger moral vision, however, and becomes shackled to notions of individual freedom to do what one pleases without consideration of the common good, it becomes quite a different sort of beast.

Instead of protecting minority groups as part of public policy for the common good, the enforced sanction of individual freedom encourages the centralization of power and fosters indifference to values other than the value of tolerance itself.

Amy Chua argues that world empires – China’s Tang Dynasty, Achaemenid Persia, Imperial Rome, the British Empire, the United States – demonstrate, in their expansion periods, a remarkable tolerance for pluralism and diversity, which has the effect of leveraging the contributions of all these diverse voices to enhance the empire itself. This is what she calls “strategic tolerance.” The decline of an empire is marked by increasing desire to control everything and a consequent diminution of tolerance. The tipping point comes when enough people begin to rebel against the intolerance implicit in these restrictions, generating strife, discord, hatred, and violence – in short, the seeds of the decline and destruction of the empire.

This is the sort of sweeping thesis that has just enough plausibility to make a splash in the public square. When the divide between Jews and Christians became ever clearer, Christians faced repeated rounds of Roman persecution until about a.d. 300, when Constantine professed conversion to Christ. It is often argued that emperors such as Trajan, who wanted to return the Empire to pagan discipline and who was therefore more brutal with Christians, and thus less tolerant, was nevertheless “better” for the Empire itself at that juncture, precisely because he imposed extra discipline – i.e., he was more intolerant. Life and Roman history are more subtle than Chua thinks.

As for her treatment of the United States, she praises the U.S. for being tolerant toward Jews and other Europeans, many of them scientists, who gained access to the country during Hitler’s rise to power, and in consequence strengthened the U.S. and put it into a position where it could defeat the Axis powers. But she says nothing about American internment of Japanese during World War II, at roughly the same period – scarcely an act of strategic tolerance. Indeed, at the time the internment was viewed as an act of wise strategic intolerance. She lavishes praise on the U.S. for allowing and sometimes inviting so many people in the previous century to enter the country, citing this as early strategic tolerance, but tends to gloss over the treatment of Native Americans. Writing as she does toward the end of the Bush era, the focal point of her curiosity is how close America is to the loss of “strategic tolerance” and the adoption of intolerance that will spell its decline. But she exhibits no feel for the increasing polarization between the old tolerance and the new, and little grasp of how there is rising, ironically, an increased “tolerance” that is being (intolerantly) enforced by law on those who disagree!

Christians must lead the way forward in modeling “peaceful living with all.”