In a very interesting article, Newsweek discusses the European reaction to Muslim violence over the cartoon issue (see Cartoons: The End of Europe’s Tolerance? РNewsweek: International Editions Р

This story brought to mind a question I am frequently asked: If you believe in tolerance, why don’t you tolerate the intolerant? Shouldn’t you have to tolerate everyone?

And my answer is a resounding “No!” This is the kind of black and white thinking that tends to get us into trouble. Tolerance is a value, and it has a certain priority. It is not an absolute that can never be questioned. I do not, for example, tolerate the person who is trying to rob me. I choose a strategy to defeat him, if one can be found. That’s an easy situation. It’s much more difficult to find a balance in the case of someone like Fred Phelps and his followers. In that case, while I believe in freedom of speech, and would not advocate his arrest unless he breaks some appropriate law, I certainly have no problem expressing my absolute revulsion at his ideas and his actions.

In the case of Islam, I make distinctions. Why? Because I believe the distinctions are valid. Those Muslims (and I choose not to try to decide if they are real Muslims or not) who want to kill me or even who will allow any form of force to make me conform to their views I readily condemn. Again, note that value I place on freedom of speech is very high. I do not want them silenced by force, but I will in no way pretend that what they say is alright. And as soon as they move to apply force, I am ready to act.

It’s easy for us to pretend here in America that we’re dealing with a small band of criminals, and if we can just eliminate those few, everything will turn out fine. But that is not the case. There is an ideological breeding ground right now in most of the Muslim world that is producing people who do want to destroy us, who do want to force their culture on us. It is a minority, but it also has a larger group of sympathizers. We cannot be tolerant of any actions they take in furthering those goals.

At the same time, both for moral reasons (I believe) and for practical ones we do need to distinguish that minority group from the majority. Strategically it may look something like divide and conquer, but as advocates of tolerance and diversity, we can leave out the conquer part. What we want to do is recognize how they are divided and use that to defend ourselves. When we respond with anger at all Arabs because of the actions of some Arabs, we simply increase the number and determination of our enemies. When we treat all Muslims according to we think some Muslims deserve, we spread our resources around, create enemies, and eliminate friends.

Looking again at Europe, the points made in the Newsweek article about religious tolerance are extremely important. Perhaps it’s time for Europe to look at a form of separation of church and state. Established Christian churches might actually find themselves growing and becoming more relevant if they weaned themselves of the protection of the state, and allowed the state to be neutral on religious issues. It’s going to be hard for Europeans to assert their culture, which does include a strong element of tolerance, while at the same time behaving inconsistently with regard to religion. In terms of religious tolerance, getting the state out of the business of religion can be extremely important.

(As an aside, I’m frequently reminded that the words “separation of church and state” don’t occur in the U. S. constitution, generally by someone who is opposed to the concept. I would point out first that “separation of church and state” is simply a title for a constitutional doctrine, and was never intended as a quote from the constitution. It’s what courts have determined was accomplished by the establishment clause. But even further, I don’t believe in separation of church and state because it’s in the constitution. I believe in it because it’s a good idea. I believe that churches will destroy spirituality and produce lifeless congregations, much like many of the state churches of Europe, if they continue to depend more and more on state assistance.)

When this cartoon issue first broke out, my immediate reaction was in two parts: 1) I thought the cartoons were offensive and needlessly so, and 2) I thought that the Danish newspaper that published them had every right to do so. Those elements of the Muslim world that responded with violence set back tolerance for Muslims and Muslim values; they certainly did not help. I continue to feel that way. I also see the divide deepening.

Let’s be careful to place the right priority on our tolerance here in the west.

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  1. Hi
    Haven’t been here before and so I’m not used to your style of writing.
    Forgive me if I’m commenting on something that isn’t really here.

    You wrote about separation of church and state in Europe. I wonder how that would help in this situation. In the USA you have a clear separation of church and state – but still in some states ‘fight’ about whether to teach evolution or not.

    Here in Finland most Finns belong to the Lutheran church. 85% I believe. Most of these are not church goers. Does is mean they have no faith? or are token Christians? I’m not sure though I used to think so.

    You see 25% of those do not pray. But 25% pray daily and 33% at least weekly. and they read their Bibles. It isn’t faith as we know it (those of us who attend church regularly) but we cannot dismiss their faith. Not in all honesty. It may actually be stronger than some who turn up and sit on a pew every Sunday in our church to be honest!

    Europe struggles to find balance. For us after Sept 11 and the bombings in London last July there was fear of terrorism (by militant Islam) but we are also an area where there has been a lot of so -called Christian violence too. (think Belfast N Ireland for example)

    and in was here – to our shame that Jews were slaughtered in their millions in WW2

    I don’t see how separating church and state helps make us more tolerant. churchs (even non state ones) can destroy spirituality, and produce lifeless congregations. So either I’m missing your point – or – …?

  2. Thanks for the comment. I’m not personally as acquainted with the situation in Europe, but base my comments both on my experience here and on the statistics. The only problem I see for tolerance is simply that state churches in Europe have government financial support and special concessions. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I would also be concerned that people who don’t support the religion are required by this means to provide finances for it.

    In the article on MSNBC on which I was commenting, this was mentioned as a problem with giving equal protection to Islam. Is it fair if the government supports a church but not a mosque? I would have trouble believing that was fair.

    Regarding believers who do not attend church but are otherwise involved, I certainly would not question their faith, but I would question whether their state churches support them. I do think that faith is endangered by a dependance on the authority of the state.

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