Are you ready for the presidential debate? Or, like a growing number of people, are you sick of the nasty divisiveness of politics? Have you had enough commercials demonizing political opponents with endless distortions of fact? Sadly, all of this easily turns into political indifference instead of informed engagement.
In his new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by religion and politics,” Jonathan Haidt quotes Rodney King’s lesser known response to the riots incited by the court verdict that acquitted the LA police officers.
“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try and work it out.”
Although his words were aimed at racial reconciliation, I believe a lot of people feel this way about the current political atmosphere in the USA . Partisan divisiveness is an embarrassing example of a failure to promote the true virtue of tolerance. This indictment ought to seem a little strange because, for decades, much of public education and mainstream media has promoted tolerance. In fact, tolerance has even been required in many parts of public life. Why then does society seems less and less tolerant?
Perhaps it’s because someone forget to require politicians to show tolerance. The bitter partisanship of political rivals is a sad reminder of how divided we are as a nation. Some say this is just politics as usual but the tone, posturing and polarization seem to be getting worse. Whatever happened to tolerance?
A better answer is likely found in the kind of tolerance being promoted. In an ironic twist, the popular form of tolerance turns out to be intolerance disguised as tolerance. Just ask the average person if he has a feeling that tolerance is a kind of politically correct code language for putting people under some form of societal coercion. Ask him if he feels like he’s being forced to affirm a politically approved set of morals and values.
It might surprise the prophets of tolerance to learn that many people feel that the public square has increasingly become a place where you must believe what you’re told to believe — or else! This smug and condescending attitude has become pervasive in the extreme parts of the democratic party. And I think that many thoughtful democrats are embarrassed by it.
When we feel a need to demand tolerance, it should alert us to a greater need to teach the virtues that promote true tolerance. Virtues like respect, honor and neighbor love facilitate true tolerance. Forced tolerance threatens these qualities. For diverse people to live in civility by honoring and respecting each other, they must learn to have robust and respectful conversations about the common good. Coerced forms of tolerance foreclose on these conversations.
In a society that cherishes freedom, people want to know who gets to set the morals that everyone must tolerate. Who defines what “we the people” must accept as lawful and good? We need to teach people that tolerance does not mean agreement. It means treating others with respect when you disagree. Where disagreements are deeper, practicing tolerance becomes more virtuous. When told that we’re not permitted to disagree, we face coercion, not tolerance.
The strange version of forced tolerance promoted over the last few decades has encouraged people toward lifestyles of duplicity. People increasingly have learned to subscribe to one set of beliefs publicly and another privately. Is it surprising that this breeds resentment and sometimes violence? If you force a man against his will, he’s of the same persuasion still — and he’s likely to get mad.
I realize that civility necessitates law making and law enforcement. I also realize that we cannot expect everyone to agree on the laws. But, in a free society, trouble is like a storm getting up when laws are made that unilaterally overturn the collective will of the people. When, for example, a handful of justices define marriage for an entire State, we are only asking for trouble.
We must restrain judicial activism on one level and improve respectful and open dialogue on another. We must navigate the give and take of life together and show more deference to others. One of the greatest needs of this nation is more teaching and modeling of the virtues of respect, honor and neighbor love. These are the qualities that support the true virtue of tolerance. “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10).
Millersville Bible Church
Millersville, PA 17551