During a recent discussion online about the Episcopal National Cathedral offering space for Friday night Muslim prayers, a colleague of mine made some very good observations, but then made this intriguing remark, “Of course, tolerance for its own sake should never be an end in itself.”
As a student of history and particularly church history, I would like to suggest tolerance like any virtue can and should be exercised as an end in itself. Further, tolerance of other peoples’ religious beliefs may be one of the greatest contributions of Protestantism. What do I mean and why am I saying this?
The word tolerance has seemed to fall in disfavor in recent years. Perhaps it is because when we say we “tolerate” someone or someone’s beliefs it tends to sound condescending. It seems to imply “you may be wrong, but I graciously have chosen to tolerate you in spite of this.” If this is what you think, then recapture the development of this important virtue.
The history of all denominations and indeed faith groups are often replete with examples of intolerance. Catholics did not tolerate Protestants. Protestants persecuted and murdered Catholics. Lutherans did not tolerate Calvinists. Anglicans did not tolerate Congregationalist, Presbyterians and even Methodist. However as these different churches emerged from bloody wars and acts of repression and then found their way to places like the new world, they learned, sometimes painfully, the importance of toleration. And in cultures and countries where religious liberty is truly exercised, as opposed to merely given lip service, religious leaders have learned that the defense of someone else’s right to their beliefs is defense of our own.
In the U.S., the two clear early beneficiaries of tolerance were Roman Catholics and Jews. I do not say this to deny the often deeply held anti-Catholic and anti-Semitism that existed in American history, but the truth is that over time, the toleration given between Methodist and Baptists as well as other protestant bodies, created a religious umbrella that allowed these two groups to exist and most importantly to exist without state sponsored repression. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is the fastest growing and largest Christian body in the U.S.
Let me underscore what I just said. The learning by religious leaders that in defending the free religious beliefs and practices of others they provided a strong defense of their own religious freedom was a direct result of the practice of the virtue of tolerance. Tolerance carries an implied two way bridge, a kind of covenant, that I tolerate your religious values because it insures a wider context of religious freedom that benefits us all.
This is why I am prepared to say unequivocally that tolerance for its own sake is worth it. In other words, even if Christians learn nothing else about the beliefs of Muslims and their practices, our ability to provide an attitude and even a place of tolerance is a significant accomplishment. Of course, few early religious leaders in the U.S. could have imagined the religious pluralism that exists today in our nation. Now we have a significant number of Muslims as well as other non-Judeo-Christian traditions, but it is a natural evolution of the virtue of tolerance that it is extended to this wider circle.
Further, and this is the really provocative thing that I have to say, in the face of growing secularization and a more vocal and hostile atheism, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have an overwhelming stake in religious toleration. Imagine a society in which religion is allowed as a personal freedom, but public displays, such as corporate worship, holidays, and tax free worship spaces are denied. I think this is not hard to imagine and could happen within one generation! I continue to fight this battle by pointing out that separation of Church and State is something I value as a citizen of this nation, but that for Christians, Jews and Muslims, separation of politics and religion is impossible. As a Christian, my beliefs in Jesus and his teachings have social, ethical, cultural, and political applications. I cannot separate my personal beliefs from my public behavior. If the early Christians could have done this, all of them would have been happy to burn incense to the current Caesar!
So, in the unfolding relationships between religious groups including Muslims in the country, I vote for toleration. It is possible that I may learn more about the religion of Islam in doings so, but I do not have to do this to justify toleration. Neither must I become syncretic or Universalist in my own religious views to do so. In fact it is exactly the defense of my own views, those of my Church, and of my fellow citizens that compels me to exercise toleration. So I say “Tolerance for its own sake” is something to affirm just as all virtues are good in themselves.
I do know, of course, that there are plenty of Christians in this country that take the view that Islam is a false religion and its adherents are at best deceived and at worse evil. They point constantly to the atrocities of ISIS and other extremist and Jihadist groups as examples for their beliefs, but this is wrong. We can no more do this than to have people point to the evils of extremist Christian groups as justification for condemning all Christians. As Karen Armstrong has argued, at the heart of all religions and at their best stand the equivalent of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you yourself wish to be treated,” and the truth that compassion comprises the deepest expression of the Spiritual Life. The virtue of tolerance provides the environment for the best in religion to flourish. This seems to me to be a worthy end in itself.