What Remains of Toleration?

By Wolfson, Adam | The Public Interest, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

What Remains of Toleration?


Wolfson, Adam, The Public Interest


In 1776 Thomas Jefferson set down in his journal what he thought of John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. He began by noting that Locke sweepingly denied toleration to those who entertain opinions contrary to the moral rules necessary for the preservation of society. As for those who teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics, or that kings, once excommunicated, forfeit their crowns, or that dominion is founded in grace, or that dominion is due to some foreign prince, well, they too, Jefferson observed of Locke's theory, were not to be tolerated. But that was not the end of it. Jefferson also took note that Locke would deny toleration to the intolerant and to atheists. With a touch of condescension (and perhaps some measure of eager anticipation?), Jefferson wrote, "It was a great thing to go so far ... but where he stopped short, we may go on."

I think it fair to say that Jefferson would not be disappointed (unless he would be aghast) by how far we have gone, at least if Alan Wolfe's recent survey findings on the opinions of middle-class Americans are to be believed. Generally, the middle class is thought to be a rather intolerant lot. "The strong permanent leaven of intolerance ... at all times abides in the middle classes of this country," complained John Stuart Mill of his England. The American middle class has been, if anything, considered much worse. In Nixon's day, they were the "silent majority" who favored a tough stance in Vietnam and opposed the Woodstock generation at home. In the 1980s, they were the "Reagan Democrats" who, with Reagan, believed the Soviet Union to be an "Evil Empire," and "welfare queens" undeserving of aid. Today, they are thought to be the "angry white males" who oppose affirmative action, multiculturalism, immigration, gay marriage, abortion, and pornography.

How astonishing then are Wolfe's findings! In his thoroughly documented book, One Nation, After All, he describes an American middle class in the 1990s which is remarkably more tolerant and liberal than anyone would have guessed. On a range of divisive issues that are said to make up the heart of the culture wars in America - from the place of religion in public life, to acceptance of postmodern families, to openness toward alternative life-styles, to teaching multiculturalism in the schools, to protecting a woman's right to choose - the American middle class is, Wolfe points out, extraordinarily nonjudgmental. They have, he reports, even invented an "Eleventh Commandment" to guide their thoughts and actions - "Thou shalt not judge." That's putting it too mildly: Wolfe's findings indicate that the American people's nonjudgmentalism relegates moral commands of any sort to the status of personal choices, good to follow, perhaps, but not to be forced on anyone against his or her will. So disturbing did Wolfe - who is a centrist or moderate liberal - find this picture of the American people that he wondered whether his fellow citizens did not need a good dose of Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy to stiffen their spines and steel their hearts.

Wolfe located the source of the American people's nonjudgmentalism in their commitment to toleration. Tolerance (along with moderation), Wolfe writes, are the "bedrock moral principles of the American middle class." But toleration is a "moral principle" that has apparently chased all other moral principles from the field. "A large number of those with whom we spoke," writes Wolfe, "fear that morality, if understood as a set of moral injunctions, can lead to intolerance, an outcome unacceptable to a people as nonjudgmental as middle-class Americans." Middle-class Americans are, reports Wolfe, "committed to tolerance to such an extent that they have either given up finding timeless morality or would be unwilling to bring its principles down to earth if, by chance, they came across it." Moreover, their mistrust of timeless moral truths has been accompanied by an embrace of "difference," as it is called today. …

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