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Setting the Proper Priority for Tolerance as a Value

Every so often I have a conversation with someone who knows I value tolerance that goes something like this:

Q: So you believe in tolerance?
Me: (Heroically resisting the urge to tear apart the phrase “believe in x”) Yes, I value tolerance.
Q: But then you have to tolerate intolerant people.
Me: No, actually I don’t.
Q: But then you’re not really tolerant, because you don’t tolerate intolerant people.
Me: (Resisting pointing out the difference between not being logically required to do something, and actually not doing it.) ….

That one is easy to answer, simply because I don’t “believe in” tolerance as a type of absolute, but rather I value tolerance. One must, in addition, define tolerance, because many people seem to define tolerance as “believing everybody is equally correct” rather than something like “favoring freedom for people to hold ideas I regard as incorrect and take actions I think are stupid.” I mean something more like the latter. I value a broad range of tolerance. My value of tolerance, does not trump my value of private property, however, so I don’t favor toleration for stealing. It doesn’t trump my valuing of human life, so I don’t wish to tolerate murder.

All that is pretty clear, I think. I think it’s good to find limits to tolerance in our values, i.e. to find out where tolerance stands in our scale of values, and to make sure that it is placed in the proper order. Personally, on the question of tolerating intolerance, while I do not feel logically impelled to tolerate intolerance, since I could treat it like murder, I do try to tolerate intolerant expression. I’m thus strongly opposed to government hate speech restrictions (private organizations can do as they wish), and I question a great deal of hate crimes legislation. Thus my tolerance protects certain people who are intolerant, but not others, depending on their actions.

But there is another set of limits to our tolerance, ones that we may not even be aware of. I’m going to start by looking in church, and then take a look at Washington, D.C. In the United Methodist Church, I have found some very interesting limits on our tolerance. Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not complaining of how I personally have been treated. I am noting how people have suggested others should be treated.

We can, for example, tolerate people who are, by their own admission, either not Christian or barely Christian in United Methodist congregations I’ve known, and even let them teach. I hear occasionally about people who are too liberal feeling they are suppressed, but I also hear about many evangelical candidates for ministry who feel that they are being pushed out of that envelope of tolerance. It’s really a hard set of limits to see, but I get the distinct feeling that our candidacy program is not designed for boat rockers.

I see much more clearly that while various theological views are tolerated, provided they are expressed in proper theological language by people with the proper credentials, certain types of behavior are much less tolerated. For example, you would get less reaction in some congregations if you said Jesus was not divine than if you raised your hands during a song in the worship service.

As a sideline, I note that in my experience I can get by with saying things that my wife cannot. She is an RN (graduate of a three year program) author of three books, with 12 years experience in hospice care, ending as a director of education for a regional organization. I have an MA degree in religion (concentration–Biblical languages, which earns respect in many quarters!). If I were programming Sunday School classes, I would find more opportunities for her to teach than for me. There are more people who need her expertise. Yet she is heard much less, which is frankly a tragedy.

But where I have seen a consistent lack of tolerance is for the charismatic movement. I can see this when I teach about different streams of Christian thought. Presbyterians and Baptists are fine. A bit weird, maybe, but they’re respectable neighbors. But mention Charismatics and Pentecostals, and resistance starts in. Aren’t those the crazy people who speak in tongues? I can feel the discomfort.

The bottom line seems to be that we can tolerate any level of theological disagreement, but we can’t handle odd behavioral differences. We can’t tolerate being embarrassed. I think that is a line that we need to examine. Which is more important? Which is more substantial. The limits of our tolerance need to be chosen wisely, according to our values. If an embarrassing level of enthusiasm is really that important, then we need to be honest about it.

There is plenty there for people to question, because I’m speaking subjectively. But I see this in Washington, D.C. all the time as well. What kind of behavior should we tolerate in a politician? In a nominee for cabinet or the courts? I think that our politicians are showing their partisan stripes. Remember that partisanship is not just displayed in opposition; it is also displayed in support, based on party, of something that one wouldn’t otherwise support.

If we had a Republican president, would the Democratic Senate tend to respond in the same way to nominee problems? I’m guessing that we would have a reversal. Some Republicans and some Democrats would be consistent, but the proportions in each party would change. Tolerance, in that case, is based on party loyalty. We allow things in people of our own party that we would reject in the other one.

We tend to respond most negatively to things that embarrass us. The embarrassment is more important than any moral or legal issue. Our tolerance is determined not by our values, but rather by what is socially acceptable in our own circle.

While I value tolerance, I think that it can be extremely dangerous. It can, if it is not properly defined and positioned, provide me the excuse to allow things that I should not allow. At the same time since we all know, instinctively if not consciously, that tolerance can’t really be absolute, we have an alternative excuse to allow ourselves to be intolerant–when it suits us.

Making the choice to be tolerant or not from anything other than a conscious, well-chosen set of values is dangerous to each of us, and to our society.

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  1. Interesting.

    My problem with charismatic behavior has nothing to do with embarrassment, and everything to do with the fact that I want to be able to see and hear, and feel safe during, the service.

    Having someone in front of me leap to his feet and/or wave his arms around in the air means I may not be able to see the front of the church where the service is being led. Having someone in the audience shouting or talking in tongues means I can’t hear the service. And I don’t want to be knocked over by someone suddenly hurling himself to the floor (as a friend of mine liked to do).

    So, no, I don’t have much tolerance for such behavior (unless, of course, the service has been planned as such where there really isn’t much to see or hear except the charismatic behavior itself).

    1. Julia – you know, this is one of the great things about blogging. In all my “real world” discussions on raising hands vs. not, nobody ever brought up safety.

      Now on some other issues, such as being “slain in the Spirit” or even dancing in the aisles, I bring in safety.

      What I can say in favor of my point in the story, which is that tolerance is frequently abandoned under embarrassment, is that I know that many people are disturbed by one or two people holding their hands up and not jumping around at all.

      On your broader point, I’m guessing you wouldn’t like the safety situation at a rock concert. 🙂 I am constantly told “You would jump around, raise your hands, and yell at a rock concert” when I tell people my personal worship style is quiet. The problem with that assertion is that I not only have never attended a rock concert; I believe God could punish me for my sins by forcing me to go. For the music, I’ll stick with recorded. Such a crowd would unhinge me. My wife, on the other hand …

      I have to say that I find personality differences almost endlessly fascinating.

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