If tolerance is a virtue, why are so many people willing to be intolerant in order to enforce it?

During the Republican primary campaign in South Carolina, we heard a lot about Bob Jones University and its anti-Catholic religious beliefs. But it wasn't until a couple of weeks after the furor began that I finally got some idea, from comments in a magazine article about Bush, what those "anti-Catholic" beliefs consist of.

It appears the folks at Bob Jones believe that Catholics are going to hell.

They aren't trying to kill Catholics, or keep Catholics from voting, or make Catholic marriages illegal, or force Catholics to convert, or ban Catholics from attending public schools. They just believe Catholics are going to hell.

Now, I don't share their belief. In fact, it's Mormon doctrine that those who don't believe in our religion are not, per se, going to hell. In the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 9:26), it's made clear that the atonement of Christ provides mercy for all those who have not received the law. (Verse 27 suggests that disobedient Mormons are the prime candidates for eternal suffering--along with academics [v. 28]).

Still, I can't figure out how a belief that Catholics are going to hell is an example of "intolerance," and how giving a speech to people who have that belief is somehow "anti-Catholic." After all, if you believe somebody's going to hell, isn't it at least polite to warn them?

They aren't trying to kill Catholics, or keep Catholics from voting, or make Catholic marriages illegal. They just believe Catholics are going to hell.

All the old-time Christian religions believed that somebody was going to hell, and a lot of them believed that most people were going to hell, and some of them believed that everybody but them was going to hell.

But that didn't mean we all couldn't be friends.

Choosing Up Teams
It reminds me of Larry King's Christmas program, where South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Latter-day Saints church president Gordon Hinckley, and the Crystal Cathedral's the Reverend Robert Schuller were offering their insights into the meaning of Christ's life and work. Tutu and Hinckley were each respectful of the others' beliefs, recognizing that despite differences of doctrine, all were trying to serve the will of God as they understood it.

But Schuller kept sniping at Hinckley because of the LDS doctrine that ours is the only church today with the authority of Christ. Hinckley never asserted that doctrine or replied to Schuller's sniping, but Schuller couldn't leave it alone. He was going to ram home that message of tolerance until everyone saw that his was the only way to be truly Christian.

The words "intolerance" and "tolerance" seem to have lost all meaning. It's like a game of playground foursquare, and somebody on one team just put his toe in the middle and said, "From now on, tolerance means whatever people on my team do, and intolerance means whatever people on your team do, tip-tap no erasees."

So the people on one team--which consists, more or less, of people who don't believe in religion at all, plus the people who claim to be believers but don't think the actual beliefs make much difference--have decided that they're the tolerant ones. And the other guys, who think your eternal happiness depends on what beliefs and practices you adhere to during your mortal life, they're the intolerant ones.

Where Do You Draw the Line?
About 18 years ago, in the midst of the Equal Rights Amendment ratification fight, my wife and I sat in the home of some friends who were active on the pro-ERA side. Because we're Mormons who actually know other Mormons, we also had friends on the anti-ERA side. Well, our pro-ERA friends went off on a rant, and after a while I felt obliged to say, "It seems to me you're saying that anyone who opposes the ERA is either evil or stupid."

After a moment's thought, they replied, "Yes, that's about it."

"But I know several good and smart people who oppose the Equal Rights Amendment."

"Sorry, but either they're not that good or they're not that smart."

These friends were absolutely convinced that they were fighting for tolerance. Yet they felt they had such a complete monopoly on truth and virtue that the beliefs or desires of those who opposed them were not worthy of consideration. They might have been right, but were they tolerant?

If your opponents are evil or ignorant, then you're justified in trying to silence them so they don't mislead others, right? And when they still won't be silent, you have to punish them, don't you? When people have such monstrous ideas, finally you have no choice but to ruin them, imprison them, and, as a last resort, kill them. They brought it on themselves, by failing to see that you and you alone have the truth. They made you do it!

No matter how much you might hate what the other guy says, he gets to say it without being punished for his ideas.

Back when I had a column in the unofficial LDS magazine Sunstone, I wrote an essay that some people thought was intolerant. A champion of tolerance who worked for the company that distributed Sunstone sent a letter to the publishers stating that if Sunstone continued to publish my intolerant views, his company might have to cease distributing it.

I called the fellow and pointed out that when you disagree with someone, the tolerant thing to do is to state your own opinion and let others judge. But when you try to get him fired or deprive him of his forum, you're the intolerant one.

He just didn't get it. I was a bug. Of course, he could squish me.

Saving a Civil Society
People keep talking about tolerance as an abstract virtue. The more tolerant you are, the better you are, and the less tolerant, the wickeder.

But there's no such thing as a human community that is completely tolerant. People's desires are often mutually exclusive--to tolerate the one, you have to be intolerant of the other. If you insist on the freedom to own guns, you deprive others of the ability to live in a gun-free community, and vice versa. If you insist on the freedom to smoke, you deprive others of the freedom to breathe clean air, and vice versa.

The fact is, societies never make rules against things that nobody wants to do.

When people live together in communities, they make rules deciding which desires will prevail when desires conflict. They make rules protecting some things (the right of children to inherit their parents' property, for instance) and requiring some things (like the duty of parents to provide for their children's needs) and banning some things (like the practice of beating your children or spouse) and restricting or limiting some things (like smoking or making loud noises or discharging firearms or burning leaves).

Complete freedom for one team invariably means complete oppression for another. So we constantly negotiate, making rules, then making exceptions, so that we end up with a course of action that decent people on both sides of every issue can live with.

But that process of negotiation only works when people show respect for one another by remembering that there are good and reasonable people on the other side. And the foundation of the American experiment has always been this: No matter how much you might hate what the other guy says, he gets to say it without being punished for his ideas.

In fact, it's even OK to give a speech at the other guy's school without demanding that he improve by becoming more like you.

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