| || ||
Is Tolerance Intolerant? | by Dr. James Hitchcock
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.
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University,
writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in
the diocesan press. He is the author of several books, including The
Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis:
Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
This article originally appeared in March 2005 on the Women
for Faith & Family website. It is reprinted by permission of the author.
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |