The Need for Tolerance in the Land of Diversity


Years ago in the days of my youth, when we were so engaged in the effort to establish a more peaceful world and experience more peace in our own country, we heard the often repeated challenge of Pope, now Blessed, Paul VI: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Today, I wonder if we might want to bring that wisdom a step further and add, “If you want justice, work for tolerance.”

This comes to mind as two recent studies from the Pew Research Center confirm what we have witnessed and personally experienced in this country in recent times – there is an increasing lack of civility and toleration in our society and public policy, especially toward religion. One report describes a growing and more intense partisan divide where there are not only differences in political beliefs, but animosity on a personal level. Another report on Trends in Global Restrictions on Religion ranks the United States as “high” on its index of social hostilities involving religion.

To even begin to respond to the undeniable need for a heightened level of tolerance, we must recognize that in a pluralistic society like ours, while we share some values in common, there are also some differing and divergent worldviews. When we turn to people of faith for example, we see things differently than many whose vision of life is determined by a purely secular outlook and experience.

In the past, we as a people were able to fashion a certain unity within this diversity, as reflected in our national motto, E pluribus unum (out of many, one). What we are witnessing today however, is something quite different. Irresponsible and intemperate rhetoric against those who believe differently is not only increasing in use, but apparently in acceptability. Instead of reasoned discourse, political posturing replete with spin and the corruption of language are utilized not simply to persuade, but to effectively tell people that the other side is not worthy of being heard or entitled to their own view – or even existing.

Instead of valuing diversity, this is the new weapon used to force a single worldview on all of society. Words like “justice” are used to justify injustice, “tolerance” is used to be intolerant to those who disagree, and “anti-discrimination” laws are being touted in order to discriminate. We are told by politicians, the media, the entertainment industry, and increasingly corporate America that anyone who dissents from the new order of marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the human person is reductively an “extremist” and “bigot” who engages in “discrimination” and fosters violence against others. This charge directed towards those who disagree with the new order is itself a form of intolerance which undermines the foundations of tranquil human community. However, tolerance needs to be applied with the same measuring rod.

One of the lessons that we as Catholics can offer is our own experience in working for tolerance and respect for all persons. The Church’s on-going involvement in inter-religious dialogue shows that it is possible to deal respectfully with others who believe differently even in the face of deep historical divisions. In that process, we also gain a greater appreciation for how some terms can be offensive to others and we should avoid them. For example, the word “Holocaust” takes on a very specific meaning for our Jewish brothers and sisters – a meaning that needs to be respected.

Among the work I do with some regularity with leaders of other faith traditions is the “Bearing Witness” program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. This initiative lifts up for Catholic teachers and other Christians the uniqueness of the Holocaust experience and why we must always be respectful of that memory.

In the course of preparing for those gatherings, I think of how much language plays a role in tearing down or in building up understanding and harmonious relations. This was certainly the case when people in the United States recognized that the use of the “n word” was demeaning and dehumanizing and invited contempt or even violence directed towards black people. The elimination now of disparaging and branding people who believe differently, in favor of a spirit of civility and basic respect for the other, would likewise be a step forward.

In the public square, we are bound to encounter people who are different from us. Under the banner of “justice for all,” we ought to be able to all live with our nation’s great diversity not just of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but value systems and styles of life that differ greatly. This is a big country, not simply in land, but in heart. There is room for many beliefs and values if we only learn to tolerate true diversity.