National Catholic Register


Is Tolerance a Virtue - or a Failure to Discern and Act?

BY Steve Michael

September 30 - October 6, 2001 Issue | Posted 9/30/01 at 1:00 PM


A Baptist theology professor has written a very Catholic book—and, though he couldn't have anticipated Sept. 11 when he wrote, it's a book that offers America much food for thought on the climate in which the Islamic terrorists' day of infamy took place.

According to A.J. Conyers, several 17th-century thinkers were seeking an end to religious wars when they sought to emphasize tolerance as a way to bring civil peace between Catholic and Protestant. But the emphasis on tolerance has indirectly weakened natural associations of people—particularly families, clans, craft guilds and towns—leaving only the individual and the state. The state has seized the vacuum and, as a result, as individuals we are all placed at the service of the state.

The author presents his complex argument by drawing out the consequences of those thinkers' justifications for tolerance. For Thomas Hobbes, in order to prevent brutal competition among one another, individuals contract among themselves to yield power to the state. But this argument has the unintended consequence of exalting the individual and the state. Only the individual has the power to contract to form the state, not natural associations.

Pierre Bayle, a French Huguenot, argued for tolerance because human reason corrupted by original sin is a poor judge of human action. Only conscience, informed by private faith, can be the ultimate judge. But, if conscience is supreme, and conscience is fundamentally private, then there is no place for public wisdom, expressed in experience, tradition or custom, and embedded in family, clan or culture.

John Locke posited that religious tolerance is expected from the state because matters of religion affect private salvation. By contrast, the state has the public task of preserving order. But, because religion explains the very purpose of human life, reducing religion to a private matter eliminates discussion of purpose from the public sphere, giving the state the task of preserving order without any conception of purpose.

If individuals are supreme, and public wisdom cannot be trusted, and religion is a private matter, then agreement on a purpose all humans share, such as salvation, becomes impossible.

And social arrangements to facilitate that purpose also become impossible. As the author summarizes: “Reducing, as far as possible, the legitimate realm of religion to that of the private life reduces the opportunities for conflict (at least on religious issues) in the public sphere. What is left to discuss in the public arena, therefore, is not the common good that creates society at the level of common affections and common goals, but merely the resolution of different material interests.”

And Conyers's startling practical conclusion is that this tolerance is not benign: Tolerance makes the world safe for power and profit, at the expense of the common good.

These are powerful and provocative ideas and, indeed, the book's strength is its careful treatment of ideas and intellectuals. How these ideas played out in political and economic trends is not as complete. Instead, a few well-chosen examples illustrate the effects of tolerance on power and profit.

One omission struck this Catholic reader as rather glaring. Like the other ideas discussed, the Protestant principle of private interpretation of the Bible strengthens the role of the individual at the expense of other groups, and indirectly strengthens the state. The Protestant principle might also be analyzed as contributing to the misguided tolerance of today.

The author does not offer any explicit political prescriptions, so policy mavens will be disappointed here. Catholic social teaching generally desires to strengthen natural associations, so principles such as solidarity and subsidiarity might yield prescriptions for the future.

With all this said, the book is worth a read, particularly for those interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the modern predicament. It is a creative, and highly Christian, exploration of political philosophy that has fruitful implications for politics, culture, and economics. And, indirectly, some interesting things to say to all Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

Steve Michael is a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.