The word toleration is often misunderstood. Often the word is applied to people who “enjoy hanging out with different types of people.” In truth, this is wrong; the idea of toleration and enjoyment rarely go together.
It was John Locke, the great English political theorist, who wrote the famous treatise called “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” It was published in 1689 against the backdrop of the European wars of religion. From the Knights’ Revolt in 1522 through the Thirty Years’ War, 1618 to 1648, Locke was deeply aware of how difficult it was for a society to embrace fundamental disagreement.
The issue then was religion. Locke argued that the state can permit a variety of religious viewpoints within the realm and should do so. He did, however, draw a limit around the
extent of that toleration. He insisted that Roman Catholics were a problem because they accepted the authority of a foreign ruler, namely the Pope. Atheists were a problem because he said they have no basis for their morality.
But among Protestant groups, the state could tolerate religious diversity. It was an idea that went on to have an enormous impact, leading ultimately to the Establishment Clause in the United States Constitution. Going back to Locke is helpful, for we can see here the main contours of the idea of toleration.
Toleration involves two primary features. First, there must be fundamental disagreement. Second, there must be some type of power dynamic. So, if you are hosting a dinner party and you have a possible guest who holds opposing political views, then you are a tolerant person if you invite that person. Or, if you are hiring for a position or have a property to rent and have a potential employee or renter who lives in a lifestyle that provokes your disapproval, then you are a tolerant person if you hire, or rent to, that person.
As we approach the 2020 presidential election, we are learning that most people are not tolerant. For many people, to socialize with a supporter of President Donald Trump or with an advocate of the views of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is unthinkable. In the same way that Locke excluded Roman Catholics and atheists, Americans are creating very firm lines around acceptable conversation partners. Republicans want to exclude these “unpatriotic socialists who want to destroy the American way of life.” Democrats want to exclude those “racist advocates for the rich.”
In my experience, most people are much more nuanced and complex than the stereotype portrayed by the “other side.” In the same way that Locke could not appreciate an atheistic humanism that supported the social contract or a Roman Catholic who confined the authority of the Pope to the religious realm, so we cannot appreciate the way our political rivals are forming their political views.
This is al compounded by the news bubble effect. We are all living in an echo-chamber. Our social media fills up with like-sounding rhetoric. We would never dream of watching MSNBC or Fox News. So we tolerate less and less. The country is finely balanced between Republicans and Democrats and increasing numbers on both sides cannot tolerate the other half of America.
Now there are groups that we all should have a problem tolerating. Holocaust deniers and white supremacists hold shocking views that undermine our moral commitment to the human rights of all people. However, while there is a legitimate boundary for toleration, on matters where the issues are less fundamental, it is good to stretch our concept of toleration as far as we are able.
Ultimately, a society that cannot tolerate fundamental disagreements will split apart. The costs of such division are high. So please search out different news sources. Search out the neighbor who looks at the world differently. Let us all learn again to tolerate fundamental disagreement.
The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.