We use many words to describe the virtues of the United States. Equality, justice, power, and diversity all come to mind. One central virtue underpins all of these, one indispensable concept without which a society that values individual freedom over central control cannot flourish. That virtue is tolerance.
The ability to accept without malice or anger that people disagree, even about deeply held and vital beliefs, is the glue that has kept the American experiment together. This quality is being tested today, and being found badly wanting.
William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682 with a dedication to religious tolerance. Penn, a Quaker, did found the city as a refuge for his community, but given how few Quakers existed, he knew that he would need others to come, and that those others would have to be free to practice their own beliefs.
In not much more than a century after that, Philadelphia became a commercial and political power that rivaled its ancient European ancestors. What became clear, and not for the first time in human history, was that tolerance and diversity of beliefs ignite human potential like nothing else. When the pursuit of ideological dominance is replaced by tolerance, human faculties become free to exploit nature in ways that are nearly miraculous.
Last week’s horrific political and religious violence from the right, along with last year’s shooting spree on the other side, increasingly look like symptoms of a severe decline of tolerance in our country. People’s increasing unwillingness to engage those with whom they disagree, and the assumption that disagreement implies bad faith, are at best terribly dividing us, and at worst killing us.
Enemies of the People
Despite his achievements, in terms of tolerance the president is doing enormous harm to our country and its discourse. Nowhere is this clearer than in his treatment of news outlets that criticize him. This is not to say that the news media does not often beclown itself in its treatment of Trump’s presidency. It does. But to claim that makes them the enemy of the American people deadens the values of a great republic.
When CNN or the New York Times is wrong, inaccurate, or biased, it is enough to say so. Calling them the enemy is an invitation to ignore what they say or, worse, to engage in violence, something we saw with a supporter of the president sending bombs to CNN. Increasingly, too many conservatives are saying that we are at war with progressives, that they want to kill us, or destroy our way of life. This kind of rhetoric is anathema to America and better suited to the European Middle Ages or the current deadly conflicts in the Middle East.
Conservatives, once happy warriors glad to engage because they believed in their ideas, are increasingly hiding behind bunkers. We used to say that conservatives disagree with liberals, while liberals hate conservatives, but this high ground, if it ever existed, has been undermined and leveled.
Complicity and I Can’t Talk To You
The left has its own brand of dangerous rhetorical style that betrays its liberal roots and reveals its newfound fascistic tendencies. It is now far too normal regarding issues of immigration, gender, law enforcement, and many others for the left to consider those who support Trump or the GOP complicit and unworthy of interacting with. This would be bad enough by itself, but it is now joined by the idea that those who are “complicit” should be publicly hounded, yelled at, and chased from public places.
The conservative is no longer a person they disagree with, but the embodiment of a philosophy they believe must be destroyed. Historically, when this happens what is destroyed is not the beliefs, but the lives of those who hold them, as so nearly happened to Rep. Steve Scalise last year when a progressive tried to kill him.
I’m so pro-immigration that I make most Democrats look like border hawks, and I am deeply troubled by and critical of the president’s dehumanization of those who seek a better life in America. But there are serious and important arguments against open immigration policies, arguments that must be addressed, not simply waived away as racism. Instead, too often the left dehumanizes those who do not hew to its policy prescriptions without question. Every conservative is now compared to Nazi sympathizers simply because many conservatives want our border laws enforced.
The Power Of Dispassion
Occasionally, when frustrated or annoyed about his homework, my son will groan or throw his pencil. He feels he is being disserved or treated unfairly, and this raises a passion. Once he is calmed and coddled, the work often comes easier. This is a lesson America needs right now. The flash of anger or display of indignation feels powerful in the breast, but empties the mind and makes doing our very important homework very difficult.
Phillipians 4:5 tells us, “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” This is ancient wisdom we desperately need. If we become so certain of ourselves that those who disagree with us must be shunned, humiliated, and even harmed, then we are lost. None of us is God. All of us will be embarrassed by our misconceptions laid bare by future generations just as we humiliate those generations that came before us.
Tolerance is ultimately an expression of humility. We must be humble before he who sees all things because we never will see all things ourselves. Anybody in the United States capable of uttering the phrase “Maybe I’m wrong,” is doing more benefit to the body politic than those who eschew such modesty.
Like all virtues, tolerance comes with dangers that must be considered, lest it turn into relativism. At its worst, tolerance robs us of the ability to make judgments regarding right and wrong. Without an overarching moral framework and, more importantly, laws, tolerance can create chaos. Decent people should not tolerate a good many things. But for the most part political, religious, moral, and philosophical differences do not fall in this category.
It may well be reasonable for those on the left to say they will not tolerate Trump and his supporters’ rhetoric, or for those on the right to say they will not tolerate the chilling of free speech. But what we must remember is that ultimately what is being tolerated is not the idea, but the person espousing it. So long as that person is speaking in a respectful and nonviolent manner, he or she should almost always be extended tolerance.
Take a breath, America. Do not throw your pencil in rage. Use it to describe what you believe, with a trust in the good faith of those with whom you disagree. These are dangerous times. But we can get through them with dispassion and a commitment to tolerance. If we lose that, we lose the American experiment, which is, has been, and will always be the greatest hope of the world. It is in our hands.