There is no such thing as complete tolerance. It’s not that complete tolerance, however defined, is desirable but difficult, or impossible in practice but a worthy ideal to measure our efforts against. Rather, it is a thing like sola scriptura, contradicted and revealed as impossible by the simple act of stating it. (1)
For toleration exists when a consensus on certain foundational matters allows people and ultimately a culture to put up with behaviors that that same consensus considers wrong. If they did not consider the tolerated behaviors to be wrong, what we’d have isn’t tolerance, but acceptance – conformity to the consensus. Acceptance and tolerance are mutually exclusive.
What we had here in America was something like a consensus around what C.S. Lewis infelicitously called ‘mere Christianity’ – an imagined (and imaginary) agreement on certain fundamental principles rooted in the stories and teachings found in the Bible.
Once came across a letter from the early part of the 19th century, wherein a Presbyterian Calvinist (I think – the exact denominations of the people involved isn’t important to the point) wrote expressing his despair over the impending marriage of a family member to a Methodist. Didn’t they realize that was the road to perdition? Today, it is somewhat startling to think there were people who didn’t think that the grey goo that runs from liberal Catholicism through Episcopalians and Lutherans and then on down through Presbyterians and Methodists all the way to the higher-church (if that’s the right term) Baptists and ending in Universalist Unitarians isn’t one big happy, if terminally vague, family. Outside this pale in either direction lie the Catholics, readily identified by their failure to reflexively buy into all liberal positions as a matter of identity, and the Evangelicals, identifiable by their insistence that there are things one must simply believe that precede and supercede politics. (It was in highschool that it dawned on me that Evangelicals and Catholics have way more in common than either has with mainline Protestants. It’s gotten more pronounced since.)
Along the way are the occasional reformed this and orthodox that flavors of mainline Protestantism, which tend to be sort of wannabe Catholics or Evangelicals or some mix. And, of course, the Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox don’t exactly fit anywhere here, let alone Hindus and atheists. This is all very rough, but I think it roughly true.
What we had at our country’s founding were, generally, Calvinists in New England and Anglicans in much of the rest of the 13 Colonies, with some Catholics in Maryland and other oddball sects spread liberally all around. Later, after the Revolution, we had the mushrooming of more or less uniquely American varieties of Christianity from the Burned Over District (making them morel mushrooms, I suppose), but those new sects were not part of the consensus except accidentally, but rather more often a challenge to it.
All these sects at the nation’s founding shared a couple things. Perhaps most important and certainly the most persistent, was that the Catholic Church was the wrongest wrong ever wronged. Right behind that was the idea, greatly to their credit, that Christians of whatever non-Catholic flavor should live together in peace, using a sort of 10 Commandments + Christ’s Commandments as a baseline. Quibbling over what, exactly, Christ commanded was bad form, at least during the Revolution, Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention. Insofar as a consensus existed, that was it – that some sort of ‘mere’ anti-Catholic Christianity, based on the Bible and a moral tradition defended from scripture was the baseline from which what qualified as tolerable dissent could be defined.
The idea of tolerable dissent is key. Dissent which threatened the consensus could not be tolerated. We have little problem when the violation of the consensus is, say, murder. Action must be taken. We have more problems when the dissent is sexual. We want to think sex a merely private matter, but it’s very nearly true to say that all of morality is about sex. We have property rights – thou shalt not steal – because we need to hold property to fulfill our duties to our families, which were always understood as the fullest expression of human sexuality. Family life, and thus culture and society, are built on Commandments 4 – 10, and express our moral duties to our brothers and sisters. Thinking we can unhitch sex from moral duty is starting a brush fire in high winds. Lies? False witness? Coveting spouses? Have these these not become characteristic of our age?
I mention all this, which is basic logic and American history, because, today, as the Protestant churches dissolve all around us and the Sexual Revolution assumes its intended place as the moral foundation of all that is right and just, the pseudo-consensus that could tolerate, for example, the Sexual Revolution, is being replaced by one that cannot tolerate opposition to the Sexual Revolution.
The consensus upon which cultural (and, by extension, political and legal) toleration can be built must also be able to say what cannot be tolerated. The ‘mere Christianity’ consensus was never quite real, sustained as it was by good intentions where logic failed, and in any event waged intermittent war against Catholics, who were never fully embraced as Americans. (JFK taught the still-valid lesson that a Catholic can be an American as long as he’s not much of a Catholic.)
The thought that won’t go away today: we can’t hope and long for the reinstatement of some past ideas of tolerance under which Catholics would be free to practice our faith without state interference or surveillance. That ship has sailed, and in any event was more illusion than reality. Broadly-supported anti-Catholic movements include the public schools, ‘no Irish need apply’, the Klan, the Masons – these all lie close to the core of American history, and have not so much gone away as changed form. The tight-laced Puritan who hated Catholics has been replaced in stages by the broad-minded Unitarian who hated Catholics and finally the secular atheist who hates Catholics. And, I suppose it should be noted, the secular liberal Catholic who hates Catholics.
I can’t help but think it’s not going to be pretty. We Catholics strongly suspect and see evidence all around us that the currently forming consensus is imploding as its internal contradictions cause structural failure. At the same time, our enemies have long been able to rally around their shared hatred of the Church, postponing their own purges and civil wars long enough to beat Catholics down. These times are far too interesting.
The historic rise of a strong man (and, no, Trump is only that guy in the fantasies of the losers. I’m thinking a Napoleon) can in some ways be seen as the inescapable imposition of a standard plugged into the lacuna left by a failed consensus.
Let’s hope we don’t go there. I fear, however, that we can’t go back to the way things were, that the illusion of a consensus under which we lived for 200+ years has been shattered into too many pieces.
- Not to beat a dead horse, instead I direct you to the hundreds of comments in this post on Ed Fesser’s blog, and the hundreds more on the followup posts. Dr. Fesser summarizes the state of the argument occasionally over the course of the series, if your eyes start getting crossed trying to follow the comments. The gist is that those who put their faith in sola scriptura, if serious, will, when pressed with interpretations that contradict their own, eventually whittle down the true hermeneutic to ‘agrees with me and my friends’. That’s certainly what Luther meant by the term. That plowboy in the field, let alone the Jehovah’s Witness at the door? They’ve got it all wrong, somehow, although how they came to have gotten it so wrong seems to require a bit of extra-scriptural magic. It is breathtaking to see how often Luther lies at the root of poor habits of mind in the modern world.