Many Americans regard religion, for all the good it does, as a source of conflict. They think of places like Northern Ireland, South Asia, or the Middle East and wonder if a little less religion might not be good for social peace. But as a recent Wall Street Journal article points out, they’re not looking close enough to home.
Naomi Schaefer Riley points to what she calls the “riddle of American exceptionalism.” How is it that “one of the most religiously fervent [countries] in the world” is, at the same time, “one of the most religiously tolerant”? As she puts it, “generally, societies are one or the other.”
She’s right. For example, Iran is very religious, but no one would call it “tolerant.” Likewise, Scandinavian countries are very tolerant but no one would call them “religiously fervent.”
So why is America both? Citing the work by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Riley credits what she calls “religious bridging”—that is, having friends and acquaintances of a different faith.
According to the data, among the average American’s five closest friends, between two and three “are of other faiths.” What’s more, half of all Americans are married to “someone of a different faith from the one in which they were raised.”
This “bridging” has the effect of changing people’s attitudes toward different religions. For example, simply getting to know a real, live evangelical, as opposed to the media caricature, increases a person’s positive feelings toward evangelicals in general.
According to Riley, “This finding bodes well for the health of American religion and for American tolerance.” She is encouraged that Americans seem more willing to overlook “abstract lessons we were once taught” in favor of “facts on the ground.”
But I think that Riley and the people at Pew have missed the real reason that Americans are both religious and tolerant. It’s because we remembered those lessons—we didn’t overlook them—the lessons, that is, that Christianity teaches about the dignity and sanctity of the person.
Unlike other religions, Christianity does not require a choice between fervor and tolerance. We believe that our God created us in His image and gave us a free will so that we could love Him. If we were forced to accept Him, it wouldn’t be love.
Free will is the very essence of what we believe as Christians, which makes tolerance a must. By “tolerance,” I don’t mean the mushy, politically correct way the word is used today. Not a license to do anything you want; but the real kind of tolerance that respects the deepest convictions of other human beings, and regards them as worthy of respect—even if we strongly disagree.
This irony—that it is America’s specifically Christian religious fervor that makes tolerance possible—is what’s missing from this story. It couldn’t happen in Islamic or even Buddhist societies, as recent events in Sri Lanka illustrate.
What’s more, Riley was wrong in claiming that overlooking “abstract lessons we were once taught” produces tolerance. That only produces indifference. And it’s hard to respect other people’s convictions when you don’t even notice them.
No, when believers apply those so-called abstract lessons about freedom and human dignity—that’s when we see true tolerance.