The Glue of Tolerance


In a world of values rather than virtue, education is seen only as clarification, and tolerance becomes a political and moral absolute. The appeal to tolerance too often deflects us from the important task of examining the rightness or wrongness of our behaviour; thus, it really is no more than a claim for the primacy of Ill do as I please. In this respect, tolerance serves as a kind of moral prophylactic; it offers only a false sense of security from the real dangers to the social order.

Recently, The Economist devoted several pages to an essay on “American Values.” Reflecting on the role of family values in the current presidential campaign, the British publication argued that the key to the success of American society has been the “glue of tolerance.” Tolerance has allowed the diversity of America “to take coherent shape as a nation.” The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other “founding documents” nowhere explicitly refer to tolerance. Yet, according to The Economist, tolerance is “the essential underlying principle” in these texts: “tolerance of race; of religion; of neighbour, and of the other man’s point of view.” Appeals to “family values” which exclude widely divergent points of view about personal and social behaviour show “all too acutely the dangers that arise when a nation of many peoples, beliefs, races, and traditions keeps to rallying cries of liberty, equality, and happiness, but neglects the glue of mutual regard, attention, and respect.”

Historians might well disagree with The Economist’s analysis of what is the “essential underlying principle” of the founding documents; nevertheless, there has grown up in many circles in America the view that tolerance is not only the key to a well-ordered society, but an ultimate value in itself. Note the strange claim that, through the agency of tolerance, diversity takes “coherent shape as a nation.”

A nation held together only or principally by the “glue of tolerance” is not really a nation at all, but a patchwork of competing interests artificially joined. The “inalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are abstract ideals which require constant instantiation in the here-and-now of everyday life. Tolerance is a kind of practical disposition which enables debate to take place about the concrete realization of these and other ideals. Glue is a crucial instrument of unity; it is not one of the constituent principles of that unity.

The immediate occasion for the essay in The Economist and similar wide-ranging observations throughout the American press is the debate about “family values” made vocal, if not shrill, at the Republican National Convention in Houston in August. Patrick Buchanan, the failed challenger to the party’s presidential nomination, and Pat Robertson, the evangelical minister, television personality, and presidential candidate in 1988, addressed the convention with rhetoric particularly offensive to many of the special interest groups which have in recent years found their home in the Democratic Party. Gay rights, abortion advocacy, radical feminism, hiring quotas for minorities, pornography in the arts, and related issues served as red flags for a political convention which most of the press, in characteristic disdain for religious doctrine, referred to as “captured” by the “religious right.” Such a characterization was abetted by speakers who described a “religious war” between the forces of darkness and light.

Europeans are often bemused, if not confused, about the role of religion in American public life. In many ways, the proliferation of churches and sects in the United States serves a similar function to the proliferation of political parties in parliamentary democracies such as France, Italy, and Germany. Appeals to God — or the failure to make such appeals — play a powerful role in American political discourse. And from time to time such appeals have produced apocalyptic pronouncements, if not violent action; the debate over slavery in the nineteenth century, Prohibition and women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century and, more recently, abortion and feminism come to mind.

A telling feature of the current debate is the common language which all sides share. All agree that there is a clash of “values.” But what do we mean by “value”? If, as is generally the case, it means simply the conclusion a person comes to about the relative importance of a particular object, behaviour, or point of view, then all values are really equal; that is, a value is the subjective judgement of an individual. Values are as numerous and as diverse as the judgements of individuals. It is easy to see how such a view leads to the conclusion of the relativist: no value can really be considered superior to any other value. The very contradiction of such a claim has its source in mistaken discourse about values in the first place.

Informed discussion about human behaviour occurs in the realm of virtue, not value. It is an indication of the impoverishment of moral discourse in the United States that there is so little talk of virtue and so much nonsense about values. Where is the discussion of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, the classical virtues which have occupied the attention of the greatest minds in human history?

The real danger of the “religious right” is not some particular policy they urge for the country — although some of their proposals are ill-conceived — but rather the fideism which informs their arguments. An appeal to divine revelation as the benchmark for public policy is inappropriate for a democracy in which religious pluralism is a fundamental element. Reason, both theoretical and practical, ought to serve as the arbiter in disputes about the organization of society. God’s revelation does not destroy the order of reason; it completes and perfects it. The truth which reason discovers does not contradict the truth which faith affirms, since God is the author of all truth. Thus, a Christian ought not to fear the give-and-take of reasoned reflection; indeed, faith can help to illuminate the path of reason. But it is a path on which all can walk, regardless of faith. The antidote to a pervasive ethical relativism in the public arena is the reaffirmation of reason, not an appeal of faith.

Opponents of the religious right who exalt tolerance as an ultimate principle for society also distrust reason. Individual choice becomes the final court of moral evaluation. The pursuit of happiness, then, is nothing more than “I’ll do as I please,” sometimes joined by the caveat, “so long as I don’t harm others.” Happiness, in such a view, means individual pleasure rather than a life of virtue. Those who argue for a society of tolerance in which one person’s moral judgement is not imposed on another presuppose that such judgements are nothing more than individual preferences. Tolerance is thus only a code word for moral relativism. In so many of the current debates about abortion or homosexuality, for example, it has become especially easy simply to deny the role of reason in discovering the truth. Personal preference, misidentified as the pursuit of happiness, serves as the only sure guarantee of liberty. But proponents of tolerance apply the principle selectively, rejecting positions with which they fundamentally disagree.

Tolerance, of course, is not bad. It is not, however, the highest good. Rather, it functions in support of those goods which are absolute. Tolerance is not the same as civility, nor is it charity. Tolerance is an ideal of behaviour for those who share common first principles about the organization of society. With out such common principles — about the nature of justice, for example — tolerance loses its mediating role.

Tolerance, like glue, is no substitute for the foundation of a just and wise political order.

Unable or unwilling to recognize the first principles of a social order based on truth and justice, one uses tolerance as a cloak to cover intellectual nakedness. Tolerance thus becomes a kind of trump card in any argument; it serves as the ultimate justification of and protection for claims of morality, public and private, which often fail the test of reason. The abortion debate is instructive in this regard. That human life begins at conception and that it is unjust intentionally to kill an innocent human being are not the conclusions of a particular point of view which, in the name of tolerance, must respect opposing points of view. The call to tolerance by those who favour a woman’s “right” to have an abortion only avoids the central unsettling demands of a truly just society, a society which protects its most innocent members.

In a world of values rather than virtue, education is seen only as clarification, and tolerance becomes a political and moral absolute. The appeal to tolerance too often deflects us from the important task of examining the rightness or wrongness of our behaviour; thus, it really is no more than a claim for the primacy of “I’ll do as I please.” In this respect, tolerance serves as a kind of moral prophylactic; it offers only a false sense of security from the real dangers to the social order.


Carroll, William E. “The Glue of Tolerance.” The Canadian Catholic Review (November 1992).

Published with permission of The Canadian Catholic Review.

Copyright 1992 The Canadian Catholic Review

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