Tolerance, the Key to Liberty
Separating the person from the belief is a basic requirement of a free society.

State of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island



When Roger Williams published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution in 1644, colonial New England was beset by religious and cultural controversies. The experience of being religious dissenters in England had not made the Puritan divines entirely sympathetic to the status of religious minorities. Instead, authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony resorted to imprisonment, banishment, physical punishment, and, in some cases, execution to suppress religious dissent. Williams responded to this atmosphere by making a case for cultural and political tolerance. Calling for a separation of the institutions of government from those of religious institutions, Williams argued for a society where freedom of conscience and religious belief would be celebrated. Williams’s argument was not entirely successful; religious suppression continued in parts of New England (a handful of Quakers were executed between 1659 and 1661, for example). But it has been quite influential. Williams realized how radically transformative the impulses of tolerance could be, and many of the architects of the American civic sphere, such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, recognized tolerance as key for the enterprise of liberty.

In the “outrage porn” of the current moment, many are eager to position themselves as puritanical arbiters of justice. Conflating moral rectitude with expressions of anger (at both “bad” thoughts and the thinkers of those “bad” thoughts), the advocates of outrage wage a scorched-earth campaign to demonize, harass, and mock those with whom they disagree. “Moral indignation” has thus been rendered redundant, as pique directly correlates with the precision of one’s moral compass. In such an atmosphere, tolerance may be viewed not as a virtue but as an indifference to evil. Though it might be unfashionable, tolerance has powerful claims as an individual and civic virtue, so there is considerable merit in renewing a case for tolerance as helping to sustain and invigorate the American republic.

All too often, we have seen “tolerance” used either as a device for annihilating skepticism or as a Trojan horse for ideological warfare. In the former case, “tolerance” preaches that no way of living and no opinion is better than another (the implication being that those who defend some deeper ethical order are themselves intolerant). In the latter case, “tolerance” simply becomes a device for undermining one set of values and putting another set in its place. In many of America’s college campuses, for example, we see all too often how “tolerance” and the notion of academic freedom fall to the wayside the instant a student, faculty member, or invited speaker runs afoul of leftist pieties: Heretical thoughts are branded as “intolerant,” and therefore those thoughts and their thinkers must be purged from the college community.

In the face of these distortions of “tolerance,” we might return to a kind of tolerance that joins serious moral inquiry with authentic cultural dialogue and social pluralism. Tolerance does not mean a kind of moral nihilism, where all values are equally right and wrong, so who can judge? A bright line divides tolerance from glib indifference. Tolerance is maintaining moral principles while also recognizing the moral agency of another. It demands holding to one’s values while acknowledging that one might be limited in these values. It demands allowing others to do things with which one might disagree and to hold opinions that one might find problematic (and even hateful). Tolerance is allowing those whose beliefs are contrary to yours, and who live contrary to your moral views, some latitude to live their lives without public or private harassment.

The fact that some of the earliest uses of “tolerate” in the English language come from the act of bearing pain gives some hint as to how difficult tolerance is. In the case of tolerance, we are always on a slippery slope, ever negotiating the boundary where disagreement and disapproval of principles cross over into the persecution of those who hold these principles. Tolerance demands that we perpetually examine our own individual exercises of power.

Tolerance insists upon the distinction between the sphere of opinion and behavior and that of personhood. In that insistence, it makes possible a space for disputation combined with common fellowship or, if you will, brotherly love. When we offer some separation of opinion and behavior from personhood, we acknowledge that an individual can do things or hold positions with which we disagree and still maintain some essential human dignity. We recognize that, in censuring certain actions or thoughts, we need not assail the personhood of another. As part of that recognition of personhood, the tolerant individual and community become wary about exiling dissenting individuals and declaring them social outlaws.