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A new book on religion came out recently, America’s Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us . Written by Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, along with David Campbell, the book is chocked full of data and charts, along with the Aunt Sue and Uncle John anecdotes that many put into popular sociology books these days in the hopes of following in the best selling footsteps of Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart .

I’ve got other things to say about American Grace , perhaps on Thursday in my regular column, but I want to flag a tendentious and unpersuasive assumption.

Putnam and Campbell come to the conclusion that religious faith tends to make believers better citizens. They are more fully involved in civic life. But Putnam and Campbell identify one civic vice among those who count themselves religious: intolerance.

They have data on a number of issues, some political, others moral. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with their statistics. It sounds right to me that churchgoers would be more inclined to support library censorship than non-churchgoers.

But I found myself thinking, why is tolerating pornography on library computers a sign of good citizenship? Or for that matter why is it a sign of civic virtue to be OK with racists teaching elementary school kids?

Tolerance is not, in itself, a virtue. On the contrary, tolerating what is vicious and wicked can be a sign of moral amnesia brought on by making a god of tolerance.

A friend of mine was a pastor in a small town in upstate New York, where he was on the local public library board. One board member wanted the library to buy and install filters to prevent library patrons from using library computers to view pornography. My friend thought: “Duh! Of course the library should do that.” But to his surprise and dismay the majority of the board voted against this measure. Why? Because it involved (horror of horrors) CENSORSHIP.

That decision and countless others have led to the degradation of public culture—a sign of misguided and bad citizenship, not good citizenship. To a great degree, urban public schools have been destroyed by tolerance of a bad sort. Gated communities and the segregation the rich from the poor—these are social phenomena reported with dismay, and rightly so. But why has this come about? Surely in part because of a permissive, overly tolerant mentality that allows the most violent, boorish, and disruptive citizen dominate public spaces.

I’m in favor of a wise and prudent tolerance. Indeed, I think it’s indispensable for life in a pluralistic society. But this good kind of tolerance is not unlimited. On the contrary, in our permissive age of enforced tolerance, a genuinely good citizen with a sense of responsibility for civic life needs to speak up for limits. Only a sane tolerance—one that knows its limits—can provide an enduring basis for a pluralistic society, and that’s what a good citizen endorse.

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