Acton Commentary

The Virtue of Tolerance


The holiday season is a time for love of children, compassion for the poor, and good will toward all—and a good deal of religious acrimony. Every year we hear stories of lawsuits and bitter fights over which religious symbols can be displayed in public. This year the big issue concerns cases in New York City, and Palm Beach, Florida, where symbols of the Islamic and Jewish faiths are freely displayed but Christian ones are not permitted.

The Thomas More Law Center is assisting plaintiffs who claim that this amounts to discrimination. They reject claims that the Menorah has secular significance whereas the Christian crèche does not. On the contrary, they say, all these symbols have both religious and secular content. If one or two from other faiths are allowed, surely Christian signs and symbols should not be excluded from display on public property.

Similarly, in hundreds of public schools around the country, we are witness to strife over what kind of music can and cannot be sung at holiday concerts. Concerts that are completely barren of religious content can seem abstracted from reality and drained of emotional energy, but that is what faces a multi-cultural, multi-faith world in which leniency for differences of opinion is at a low ebb.

Many of these cases are in and out of litigation, and some eventually go to trial, deciding for or against a particular symbol based on the finer points of law or, perhaps, on the arbitrary opinion of a judge. But lawsuits and court hearings are not going to solve the issue. So long as there are competing religious faiths that lay claim to the right to express themselves on public property, there will be disputes and acrimony.

Might I humbly suggest another approach? It comes down to one word: tolerance. It is something that sane living requires of us and it is a virtue because it is the underlying principle of social peace. It requires that we still our minds when we see symbols of beliefs that are not ours, and we do so because we understand that people are not homogenous and society does not require that they be so. We need to see through the symbol's particular meaning and appreciate what its very existence says about our ability to get along.

In practice, we do this all of the time. We see advertisements for products we have no interest in buying. People wear clothes that we do not like. People decorate houses in ways we might find tacky. Stores and restaurants play music we would not choose. And what do we do about it? As old-time Catholics used to say, we offer it up. We go on about our business and live with it, knowing that sights and sounds with which we do not agree do not fundamentally threaten our rights.

Perhaps the least tolerant institutions in America are the courts, which do indeed render decisions that seem arbitrary and discriminatory, as the cases cited above demonstrate. Christians are frequently asked to privatize their religion even as other religions enjoy the freedom to practice their faith publicly. We all know the source of this discrimination: a form of political correctness that censors Christianity as inherently oppressive but regards other faiths as living examples of diversity.

This double standard should come to an end but it will not until people of all faith learn to adopt values of tolerance. There is no more reason for people of the Jewish or Islamic faiths to be offended by the very sight of a crèche than there is for a Christian to be upset by seeing a menorah or a crescent. The world is made of many different perspectives on fundamental matters, and it is no concession to relativism to recognize this.

Let me illustrate what I mean. When my friend, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife were expecting a child, he told me that they looked around for a hospital in their area that they felt represented their values on family life and children. They ended up selecting a Catholic hospital.

When their child arrived, family and friends came to hospital to see the newborn. Upon entering the room, one of the visitors noticed a crucifix on the wall and remarked that it was insensitive of the staff to have left it up. He offered to remove it and place it in a drawer.

Mrs. Lapin stopped her visitor and said, “I know what the people who placed the crucifix on the wall theologically mean by it, and of course, I do not agree with them on that point. But I also know that it is a symbol that also guarantees a certain set of values that we do share, which is why we chose this hospital. So you leave it right where it is; it does not disturb me.”

A potential conflict was resolved in a manner that was satisfactory to all concerned parties. Imagine if the courts had gotten involved. The result would not have been to anyone's liking. Would that all such conflicts could be similarly resolved.

The guidepost of religious freedom offers only an imperfect way around these kinds of conflict, since one person's freedom can be seen by others as an imposition. The only real answer here is tolerance, which implies a spirit of liberality and limits on the ability of the state to impose religion where people do not want it. As Fr. John Courtney Murray, architect of Vatican II's document on religious liberty, used to say, separating church and state is not an article of faith; it is an article of peace.

Each case of religious conflict has its own special issues at work. In the Alabama courthouse case, a state judgeaggressively confronted an imperious federal court—recipe for conflict that is not to anyone's advantage. Religion neither stands nor falls on whether a stone image of the commandments is displayed in a public place. Better that Chief Justice Roy Moore had never made an issue of it.

Tolerance does not create perfect peace or perfect freedom. But it does minimize the likelihood of conflict and prevents conflicts from spinning out of control when they do rise. It minimizes the resort to central governmental authority when those proximate to the situation can deal with the problem. This is the best we can hope for in this world, especially in times when mono-religious states of any sort are increasingly a thing of the past.

In a world of pluralism, believers are going to have to make some compromises with faiths that are not their own as well as secular society in general, in exchange for which they are given the freedom to practice their faith and have the widest possible influence on the culture. So too do state courts need to realize that religious faith is a universal feature of the human experience, and it cannot and should not be legislated away.

There has never been a single answer to the problem of conflicting rights when it comes to religion. That is precisely why there is no top-down solution. Tolerance is the best means to achieve the social peace that everyone should seek. Surely that is a solution that both liberals and conservatives should embrace, if they agree that they should live peacefully under the same form of government.