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Part I: Paul J. Griffiths

Proselytism is a topic enjoying renewed attention in recent years. This is largely because it is increasingly obvious that religious commitments and conflicts are and will remain central to the reconfiguration of global politics that began in 1989. Understanding the proselytizing impulse is an important element in understanding the part that religion is playing in this reconfiguration, and there has recently been significant scholarly attention to it, most notably by Emory University’s project on the problem and promise of proselytism in the new democratic world order. The events stemming from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will likely further focus attention upon the proselytizing aspects of religion.

But the desire better to understand the place of a resurgent Islam in global politics is not the only reason for closer attention to the grammar of proselytism in the U.S. Another is the parlous state of Supreme Court rulings on religion cases, a good part of which is brought about by confusion about the conditions under which proselytizing speech and activity are protected by the First Amendment, and, concomitantly, about whether there is any difference between religious and nonreligious proselytism.

We can begin with the now-archaic English noun “proselyte,” a calque (rather than a translation) of the Greek prosêlutos and the Latin proselytus. The Greek noun is derived from the verb “to come” with a prefix meaning “over” or “towards,” and so a literal etymological rendering of “proselyte” might be “one who comes over (from one location to another).” The term has a biblical use: there it always designates a Gentile convert to Judaism, or, more precisely, a Gentile who has begun to observe the Jewish law. In this case the “coming over” is from life as a Gentile to (or towards) life as a Jew.

The proselyte leaves an old community, whether of belief or practice, and enters a new one: in becoming one of Uncle Sam’s proselytes you leave the community of non-U.S. citizens and enter that of American citizens; in becoming one of Christ’s proselytes you leave the pagan community and enter that of the baptized; and in becoming one of David Hume’s proselytes you leave the community of those who think the argument from design valid and enter the community of those who judge it invalid. These examples are meant to underscore that the new community, the one entered by the proselyte, may be one of thought as well as of practice—one ordered principally to the acceptance of theoretical commitments as well as one ordered principally to direct action in the world.

The proselytizer acts in such a way as to help create proselytes. Usually, he will do this in favor of a community to which he already belongs: proselytizers for the community of those who oppose smoking will likely be ex-smokers and almost certainly nonsmokers; proselytizers for the community of those who think that George W. Bush ought not be regarded as the legitimate forty-third President of the United States will ordinarily already belong to that community—and so on. Proselytizers usually, that is to say, want to turn the alien into kin.

Often, proselytizers will be motivated by the thought that it would be good for those still alien to become kin. Those wandering in the foreign lands of nicotine-addiction would be better off if they became kin to the righteous ex-smokers—or so it may be thought. But this proselytism of benevolence, undertaken for the perceived good of the potential proselyte, is often also mixed with a proselytism of fear and even hatred, one that wants to make the alien into kin not only (and perhaps not even primarily) for the alien’s perceived good, but also for the protection of the home community. Thus, perhaps, those who proselytize the aliens who think that gay sex is an improper use of human sexuality on behalf of their kin who think it a good thing may be motivated by fear of what the aliens may do to their kin if they are permitted to remain alien. Proselytizing so motivated may usefully be called protective proselytism.

Particular proselytisms may also be further analyzed according to scope: Do they want to make proselytes out of everyone, or only out of a select few? I, for example, am likely to proselytize on behalf of the Chicago White Sox, but I’m interested principally in Cubs fans as potential proselytes. I won’t waste my time on English relatives who know nothing about baseball. That’s a limited proselytism. By contrast, I would like everyone to join the community of those who renounce the torture of children, and insofar as I proselytize on behalf of that community, my proselytism is universal.

Proselytisms may, finally, be analyzed according to the methods they prefer. Some coerce by use or threat of force, compelling the alien to come in as Augustine eventually decided was the only thing to do with the Donatists, or as the U.S. courts have decided it is constitutionally proper to do with Native American peyote-users; some attempt persuasion by argument; and some prefer to attract proselytes, if they can, simply by presenting to the world the life of the preferred community without persuasion or compulsion.

So much then, in brief, for the grammar and syntax of proselytism. It is important to see that the concepts informing particular proselytisms belong to the moral order. To engage in proselytizing implies a moral judgment of error (in assent) or impropriety (in action) on the part of the aliens being proselytized, and the consequent adoption of a course of action designed to bring the mistaken aliens into the fold of those who think rightly or behave properly. Particular proselytisms, then, imply (and are sometimes explicit about) the rightness or propriety of what they proselytize on behalf of, and, concomitantly, the wrongness or impropriety of what they proselytize against.

Proselytism, understood in this way, is virtually unavoidable: almost everyone is a proselytizer on behalf of something. Parents proselytize their children: indeed, parenthood is probably best understood as one long and usually unsuccessful attempt to create proselytes. Those with political or ethical or theoretical commitments almost always proselytize on behalf of them: every academic dispute is an instance of proselytism at work. And, of course, religious people often (but not always) find proselytism deeply inscribed into the grammar of their religious commitments. It may be possible for those almost or entirely without connection to others (hermits, those at the far end of autism or Alzheimer’s, long-term coma patients, and so on) to avoid proselytism completely; but otherwise we are all proselytizers. Being such is inseparable from having a social existence.

The grammar and syntax of toleration is in many ways the obverse of that of proselytism, and this is no accident because the modern understanding of the term developed in large part in self-conscious opposition to and rejection of particular religious proselytisms. By the late seventeenth century, certainly, it is common in English political and philosophical writing to find toleration opposed to proselytism, and to the detriment of the latter. But before turning to the attempt to reject proselytism in favor of toleration, a few words about the history and root meaning of the verb (transitive and intransitive) “to tolerate” and the substantive “toleration” will be helpful.

The transitive form of the verb has as its root meaning (as also is true of the Latin tolerare) “putting up with” or “enduring” or “bearing something unpleasant.” This meaning survives when we say that some trees tolerate drought better than others, or that some people can tolerate a surprising amount of suffering. A minor extension of this fundamental sense makes it possible to use the verb to denote the action of permitting or letting be something unpleasant or undesirable. I can, in this sense, tolerate your pipe-smoking so long as you don’t do it in my car. Or, I tolerate my allergies because I find that attempting to medicate them away is worse than allowing them free rein. In all these cases, what is tolerated is something unpleasant or incorrect or improper or otherwise difficult.

The substantive “toleration” then denotes the action (and the theoretical commitments that inform such an action) of putting up with or permitting or letting be some pattern of action or belief found by those practicing toleration to be false (if a belief) or improper (if an action). Like proselytism, toleration in this sense has no special relation to religious matters. But in the seventeenth century, in both England and America, “toleration” became a term of art in legislation designed to ensure that the state and its citizens would indeed put up with—let be—religious practices and beliefs they found objectionable. And while the broader senses of the term are certainly still in play, this special sense of application to religion is probably dominant in legal circles, and to some extent in philosophical ones as well. And even when restricted to religious belief and action (however such a restriction is understood), the root sense of enduring or putting up with something undesirable is clear. John Locke, for example, in whose writings on toleration may be found the classic defense of the topic as applied to religious questions, is abundantly clear that this is what it means to tolerate religion.

Those who tolerate and advocate toleration, like those who proselytize and advocate proselytism, do so for a variety of motives and with a variety of goals, but it would detain us too long to sort them through. I’ll note only, as a point to return to, that it is impossible coherently to advocate toleration of universal scope, and in this respect toleration is unlike proselytism, since the latter can coherently be advocated as an attitude of universal scope.

Toleration is like proselytism in being a concept of the moral order. Both imply the same judgment about the alien: that the alien’s beliefs are false, and/or that the alien’s practices are improper. But where the proselytizer wants to transform the alien into kin by making a proselyte of him, the practitioner of tolerance wants to let him alone in his error, to permit him to continue to do or think what he does or thinks.

“Toleration” generally denotes a good for early twenty-first-century speakers of American English. To say of someone that he’s tolerant is to praise him; to say of him that he’s intolerant is, generally, to attribute to him a moral fault of a deep and significant kind. “Proselytism” is no longer a lively word in current spoken English, but if it were there can be little doubt that it would have a negative connotation, and one that would be given to it in large part because it would seem that to advocate proselytism is precisely to be intolerant, to reject toleration. Proselytism and toleration have come to be approximate antonyms for us. This negative judgment about proselytism is evident, too, in our legal discourse, where proselytism still is a lively term. When the legislature or the judiciary is called upon to decide which activities cannot be supported by public funds, those that include proselytism are high on the list, usually because it is thought that supporting (religious) proselytism would offend against the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Activities that advocate or promote toleration, by contrast, are proper candidates for public funding.

There are historical reasons for the negative connotations borne by proselytism and the positive ones borne by toleration. Chief among them is the understanding of the European conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that had come to be widely held by European and American intellectuals in the eighteenth century. These conflicts were understood to have been caused in large part by an intransigence about particular religious commitments and a concomitant deeply rooted desire to make proselytes out of those with different particular religious commitments. It was such an understanding that in part motivated Locke to write in defense of religious toleration as the answer to such difficulties toward the end of the seventeenth century; such an understanding was present to the minds of many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution a century later, and it undoubtedly played its part in Jefferson’s advocacy of a wall of separation between church and state and in Madison’s objections to such things as the appointment of a chaplain to Congress. Religious toleration was seen as the principal answer to religious strife, the bringer of peace where there had been endless war; and proselytism was seen as one among—perhaps the chief among—the causes of religious violence. This is still the grammar of the thought of most Americans about toleration as opposed to proselytism.

Essential to the long-term rhetorical success of the project of religious toleration was its self-presentation as a view elevated above and related identically to all particular religious commitments and their accompanying proselytisms. This was important because if religious toleration appeared to favor some particular religious proselytisms over others, or, worse, appeared itself to be a form of religious proselytism, its professed goal of undergirding a political order in which rival religious proselytisms would no longer be destructive would be made more difficult to achieve. And on the whole, the presentation of toleration as a position above the fray of religious conflict has been successful, at least rhetorically. The form this rhetoric took in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been widely imitated, and the idea that the law should occupy a position neutral to all particular religious proselytisms is there especially clear, rhetorically speaking.

But this attempt to occupy a moral and cognitive high ground above the play of conflicting religious proselytisms fails conceptually. On closer examination, toleration reveals itself as just another proselytism, and the decision for or against it is therefore not different in kind from the decision for or against any other particular proselytism, religious or otherwise. The grammar and syntax of toleration propose as destination a place that cannot be arrived at, that no-place from which all particular religious proselytisms can be tolerated (endured, put up with, let be). The rhetorical advantage still enjoyed by advocates of toleration over advocates of particular proselytisms turns out, upon examination, to be without conceptual support.

The most obvious difficulty is that the grammar of toleration itself shows that it is not possible to maintain an evenhanded attitude of letting-be to every particular proselytism. Recall that it is intrinsic to that grammar that the alien should be permitted to continue in his error; this requires that he seem to the tolerationist precisely to be in error.

To illustrate the chief difficulty with advocacy of universal toleration, suppose that two clashing proselytisms are in the field. One wants to make proselytes for the community of those who think that a public education may not require religious believers to read any works that call into question in a radical way the teachings of their own religion. The other wants to make proselytes for the community of those who think that a public education may require religious believers to read just such works. (I draw upon Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education [1987], a classic and much-discussed Sixth Circuit Court decision for this example.) These are incompatible positions, based as they are upon strictly contradictory claims about what a public education may require. Short, then, of some deep psychological problems, active membership in both communities is impossible.

Can both proselytisms be tolerated? They cannot. It is not possible for the advocate of toleration coherently to maintain the judgment of error with respect to both proselytisms, for the judgments implied by the two are contradictory, and one cannot judge that two contradictories are identically erroneous. And since the judgment of error is intrinsic to the grammar of toleration, it is not possible to be tolerant of both.

It is possible (though difficult and unlikely) to act identically toward both: to refuse engagement with both, perhaps, and so to preserve this aspect of toleration for each. But even this limited toleration will not be possible for any community that has to decide which proselytism will be permitted to continue to have a voice, since not only are the claims made by each contradictory, but the courses of action proposed by each cannot be actualized. And in the Mozert case itself, the U.S. judicial system decided directly and unambiguously for the second view—that a public education may require religious believers under its care to read works that call into question in a radical way the teachings of their religion. In so deciding, of course, the U.S. judicial system became itself a particular proselytism, in this case for the so-called tolerant position that a child may be required by the state to read (though not to endorse) a radically critical alien work.

It is, then, not possible for the tolerationist coherently to commend toleration for every particular proselytism. Advocates of toleration will inevitably, like it or not, become proselytizers for (and against) some particular proselytisms. The reasons that make it virtually impossible for anyone with a social existence consistently and completely to avoid proselytism are just the same reasons that make it virtually impossible for anyone consistently and completely to be identically tolerant toward all particular proselytisms.

Toleration’s own grammar thus reveals it as a species or kind of proselytism. It is one more player in the field, one more competing proselytism among many. Toleration, we might say, is the proselytism that dare not speak its name.

The reverse, however, is not true. While the grammar of toleration makes of it a species of proselytism, the grammar of proselytism does not make of it a species of toleration. One can consistently be an advocate of a proselytism of universal scope—one can, that is to say, coherently want evenhandedly to make proselytes of all aliens, while one cannot coherently want evenhandedly to tolerate all aliens. This is at least a tactical disadvantage for advocates of toleration. It means that the rhetorical advantage gained by an attempt to occupy the cognitive high ground must be relinquished, and the particular proselytism that is toleration argued for on its merits, without sleight of hand.

If the Sixth Circuit in Mozert had taken the line I recommend, it would not have rejected the plaintiff’s claim that her religious freedom was being infringed by being made to read works in radical opposition to the teachings of her religion. The claim that her religious freedom was left intact by asking her only to read and not to agree with such works disingenuously (or blindly) attempts to occupy a high ground that isn’t there. It carries the implication that being asked to read something in radical opposition to what you believe can’t by itself conflict with what you believe. But of course it can conflict if among the things you believe is that I shouldn’t read things that radically question what I believe. The court should have simply acknowledged that the plaintiff’s free exercise was indeed being infringed, and that this was the result of a substantive and particular understanding of what good education is, an understanding held and proselytized on behalf of by the school board. Such a ruling would have acknowledged that American public education, shot through though it is with the rhetoric of toleration, is in fact a set of particular proselytisms, as it must be. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of all the practices of American public life, from the legislative acts of Congress to the judicial rulings of the Supreme Court to the regulations and syllabus decisions of the lowliest school board.

If this is correct, the grammar and syntax of proselytism are conceptually superior to those of toleration. This is principally because advocacy of toleration is itself a particular proselytism. It would be good for American public life if this were openly acknowledged. Among the causes of our present difficulties, both at home and abroad, is a deep sense (usually inchoate but not the less deep for that) on the part of religious people that the rhetoric of toleration is being deployed in a duplicitous and underhanded way to bring about legislative and social goals that are every bit as particular and every bit as contestable as those commended by any religion while simultaneously obscuring these facts.

It would also be good, I suspect, for America’s place in the world—where deep commitments to particular religious proselytisms are increasingly a public force—if those who speak publicly for the country were clearly to acknowledge the following. First, that the U.S. in its foreign policy does in fact act as an agency proselytizing for a particular understanding of what constitutes human flourishing, and for a particular understanding of the institutional forms that will foster such flourishing. Second, that the U.S. has in the past, is now, and likely will again use force or the threat of force to make proselytes, willing or unwilling, for the community of those who live under the arrangements it prefers. Third, that what the U.S. proselytizes for in these areas is no less particular and no less disputable than what, to take an important contemporary example in this time of trouble, conservative Wahhabi Muslims proselytize for. The decision for the former over the latter cannot be justified by using the rhetoric of toleration. If you prefer one over the other it will be because you judge the claims and practices of the one to be true and those of the other to be false. Anyone who thinks such judgments easy to make or easy to justify has failed to give them serious thought.

Paul J. Griffiths is Arthur J. Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Part II: Jean Bethke Elshtain

The standard version of the story goes something like this: mandated liberal toleration saved religion from its own excesses and absolutist demands. By forcing a regime of toleration on religion, liberalism in its constitutional forms demanded that religion act more tolerantly. And so it came to pass that both “sectarian” groups (meaning religion, of course) and nonsectarian groups (all others organized along the lines of the liberal mandate) would learn to live happily or, if not that, at least peacefully with and among one another. This truce is insistently represented as a fragile one by contemporary civil libertarians and militant secularists. If religion threatens to get out of hand, it must be beaten back. Often the Spanish Inquisition is trotted out in argument as if this were a serious historic possibility in twenty-first-century American society; as if, somehow, a resurgence in religious intolerance were the greatest danger we faced.

This is the regnant story. Of course, there are other ways to tell the tale. One would be to take note of the fact that were one to do something as unseemly as a body count of victims, the antireligious ideologies of the twentieth century would win that contest hands down. Murderous intolerance leading to a quest to silence or, worse, to eliminate those who challenge one’s own views is no exclusive purview of those with religious convictions. To this would be added details of the many ways that the regime of liberal tolerance has imposed real hardships on the free exercise of religion, operating, as it does, under the suspicion that intolerant religion is always something to be feared. One way or the other, this rebuttal would hold, religion per se is not the problem.

There was a worm in the apple from the very beginning of the move for toleration. If one traces that beginning from John Locke’s classic Letter on Toleration one discovers that in order for religion to be tolerated it must be privatized. There is a realm of private soulcraft, a realm of public statecraft, and never the twain shall meet. In the religious domain, one answers God’s call. In the civic realm, God doesn’t figure directly anymore. One’s fidelity is pledged to the magistrate. Should the magistracy egregiously overstep its bounds, there is always the “appeal to heaven” and the possibility of revolution. All religions—save atheism and Roman Catholicism—are to be tolerated. Constitutional scholar Michael McConnell observes: “Locke’s exclusion of atheists and Catholics from toleration cannot be dismissed as a quaint exception to his beneficent liberalism; it follows logically from the ground on which his argument for toleration rested. If religious freedom meant nothing more than that religion should be free so long as it is irrelevant to the state, it does not mean very much.” How so? Because religion has been privatized and its meaning reduced to the subjective spiritual well-being of religious practitioners.

This privatization, even subjectifying, of religion feeds into the bad odor surrounding any hint of proselytization. Proselytizing seemed at best bad manners; at worst, a way to try to force something on me that I do not want, am not interested in, but may be gulled or intimidated into accepting. The general animus against proselytizing flows from a conviction that those driven in that direction will, almost invariably, be persons of strong religious conviction: those, therefore, who, should they become dominant, would move to end the very toleration that has made their open proselytizing possible. So, in the name of preserving a regime of toleration, we must not tolerate unrestrained proselytization.

A whiff of this intolerance for proselytizing comes through in the comments of one of Alan Wolfe’s respondents in his book One Nation, After All. One “Jody Fields” is quoted as saying: “If you are a Hindu and you grew up being a Hindu, keep it to yourself. Don’t impose your religion, and don’t make me feel bad because I do this and you do this.” Embedded in this comment is an intolerance of public expression of religious pluralism. Telling a Hindu to hide being Hindu is scarcely a picture of liberal pluralism; or so, at least, one would think. One way or the other, the continuing privatizing of religion means that when religion shows its face it must not take the form of actually trying to persuade someone else of the truth of the religious beliefs being displayed. “Keep it to yourself.”

As if this weren’t enough to mull over, let’s add a more recent trend to the mix. I have in mind the attack on the very notion of tolerance and toleration emanating from a postmodern direction, from those most tied up in identity politics. The argument goes roughly like this: toleration was always a sham, a way to enforce a particular Eurocentric, patriarchal, heterosexist, Christian worldview. It was a cover for hegemony. (And, of course, there is always just enough truth to be found in such blanket charges that one cannot simply dismiss them out of hand.)

What atheists, or pagans, or non-Western religious devotees, those with once hidden sexual orientations, those who are “third world,” or nonwhite, seek is not toleration but equal acceptance. This equal acceptance will be attained only when the society—any society—refuses to make any normative distinctions between and among any and all comprehensive understandings of what makes a life good or worthy, or a belief true, or a way of structuring families better than some other, and so forth. Laws, public policies, the cultural ethos must all practice total nondiscrimination, in the sense of refraining from making any normative distinctions among modes of belief and ways of life. Sexual sadomasochism between consenting adults is not to be construed as a problematic way of ordering a human existence. Those pressing the anti-toleration argument see toleration as negative, a grudging thing. They want “validation” and approval. (Even, of course, as they want to claim the radical and dangerous nature of what it is they are saying or doing, as if one could have full social validation and yet remain a permanent voice of radical dissent—but that is another issue.)

Those who defend toleration point out that the alternative to it historically has not been a happy pluralism where we are all equally delectable peas in the pod but, instead, very unhappy, unpluralistic orders in which religious minorities and dissenters were exiled or tortured or forced to conform; in which political dissenters often faced similar assaults; in which any inkling of a sexual orientation other than that which is considered normal is grounds for imprisonment or worse, and so on. The defenders of toleration would argue that it is foolish to the point of suicidal for those who are a minority”in any sense”to undermine support for toleration. Toleration is their best bet, since the world of indistinguishable “differences” is a chimera. There never has been such a world and never will be.

This, of course, still leaves open the matter of just how tolerant of pluralism the defenders of toleration are. There are, after all, among some of our legal thinkers, theoretical arguments that favor increased government regulation of “sectarian” bodies in order to make them conform to standard liberal modes of representation and legitimation in internal ordering on the view that all associations in a constitutional order must sprout analogous forms of administration. Authentic tolerance based on a recognition of deep, not superficial, differences here gives way before an attempt to “normalize.” In this scenario, Catholic hospitals are forced to perform abortions on pain of punitive measures, or Catholic and Orthodox communities are required to ordain women.

The position noted above that sees toleration as just a puny thing, best exposed as bogus and done away with, construes any attempt to proselytize in negative terms because this is, by definition, an assault on someone else’s identity. The issue of toleration and the complexities of proselytization have been heavily psychologized in our time. Whatever makes somebody else uncomfortable is to be eschewed. But, of course, any strong articulation of a powerful religion or a powerful political position is going to make somebody uncomfortable. Does this mean we are all reduced to bleating at one another across a vast distance, but that any attempt to persuade is cast as bad proselytizing?

Let’s unpack this issue a bit. Somewhere along the line”certainly in the last thirty years or so”a view of power took hold that disdains distinctions between coercion, manipulation, and persuasion. If I change my mind about something after an encounter with you, or after having spent some time in your religious community, the presupposition is that I have been messed with: gulled or brain-washed or taken for the proverbial walk down the primrose path. It is an odd business, power, because when we say, as many do these days, that every encounter involves power, we make it harder to distinguish between instances of real intimidation and instances of authentic persuasion. In instances of intimidation there is an implied threat of harm unless you convert to my point of view. In instances of manipulation, I sneakily get you on my side. Neither of these views respects you as a moral agent who can freely weigh alternatives and make up his or her own mind.

Persuasion, by contrast, begins with the presupposition that you are a moral agent, a being whose dignity no one is permitted to deny or to strip from you, and, from that stance of mutual respect, one offers arguments, or invites your participation, your sharing, in a community and its rhythms and rituals. You do not lose something by agreeing. One never simply jettisons what one used to believe. But one may reject it. (And those are not identical.) Even among persons religious, however, proselytizing has come to have an unpleasant ring to it. Evangelizing sounds better. The picture of the proselytizer is of some latter-day Savonarola, severe and intimidating, or an Elmer Gantry-type huckster.

The upshot of all this would seem to be that both toleration and proselytizing are badly battered as concepts and as practices. Is there any way to redeem one, or the other, or both? I think there is. My example of redeeming both toleration and proselytization comes from Pope John Paul II’s recent pastoral visit to Kazakhstan. In his greeting, the Pope said, “Allow me to profess before you with humility and pride the faith of Christians: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God made man two thousand years ago, came to reveal to us this truth through his person and his teaching. Only in the encounter with him, the Word made flesh, do we find the fullness of self-realization and happiness. Religion itself, without the experience of the wonderful discovery of the Son of God and communion with him who became our brother, becomes a mere set of principles which are increasingly difficult to understand, and rules which are increasingly hard to accept.”

This statement is moving and it’s worth exploring why. Certainly the combination of pride and humility is a part of it. One places before another, in all humility, one’s most profound beliefs, beliefs one holds with pride—not boastful self-pride but with dignity—knowing that these beliefs may well be repudiated or ignored. Also powerful is John Paul’s recognition that turning God into a metaphysical first principle is not only “increasingly difficult to understand” but “increasingly hard to accept.” Here there is a fascinating dimension to his words to Kazakh young people, for he is also proselytizing those who are already Christians, reminding them of what their professions are all about.

During this remarkable pastoral visit, John Paul also offered an eloquent defense of toleration: “When in a society citizens accept one another [notice that what is being accepted is one another as citizens, in one’s civic status] in their respective religious beliefs, it is easier to foster among them the effective recognition of other human rights and an understanding of the values on which a peaceful and productive coexistence is based. In fact, they feel a common bond in the awareness that they are brothers and sisters because they are children of the one God.” This is a reference to toleration among religious believers. Unbelievers, presumably, have their own resources to draw upon to respect human rights, but the pontiff suggests that the bond of coexistence will have a different significance between believers and unbelievers than between believers and believers. He reminded his listeners that in Kazakhstan today there are “citizens belonging to over one hundred nationalities and ethnic groups” and they live—they have no choice but to live—side by side. Coexistence is a necessity. Building “bridges of solidarity and cooperation with other peoples, nations, and cultures” is an immanent possibility that should be realized even as the gospel in all its fullness is preached “with humility and pride.”

This isn’t overly idealistic. It is, rather, a filling out of what a commitment to authentic toleration entails. Toleration rightly understood permits more robust ties of civic sisterhood and brotherhood to grow and to flourish, perhaps between religious believers whose comprehensive understandings differ but whose anthropologies overlap. Toleration also permits more distance, if, for example, I simply cannot affirm your life choices and comprehensive views. I need not validate them at all. In fact, I may actively loathe them and argue against them. But, unless you threaten the civic order in a central way, I am not permitted to deny you your “free exercise.”

What it means to threaten the civic order in a central way is a topic for another time, but it derives from Justice Robert Jackson’s rueful recognition that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. What is one to do with groups that use freedoms, claim tolerance, then set out to proselytize for a future order that would destroy all religious tolerance, abolish constitutional protections, and establish a theocracy or a militant official atheism? Minimally, we must remind ourselves that we are under no obligation, as people who support constitutional guarantees of tolerance, to respect beliefs that deny the dignity of persons, preach hatred, and directly threaten individuals or the country as a whole. Tolerance here bumps up against a limit. That might make us uncomfortable, but there are worse things than discomfort. Like, for instance, the end of the regime of tolerance itself.>

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and author, most recently, of Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy.

Image by tamara_cox1 licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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