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Is Tolerance a Virtue?

Society is presently suffering from “acute tolerance confusion”.  Feminists speak boldly about “zero tolerance” with respect to abusing women.  Then there are the latitudinarians who, believing tolerance to be a virtue, want to extend it to nearly everything.  The world came crashing down on Penn State University because people in key positions tolerated acts of pedophilia by doing nothing about it.  On the other hand, there are strong advocates who demand tolerance for abortion, same-sex marriage, surrogate motherhood, cloning, and other dubious activities.  Yet, tolerance need not remain an insoluble dilemma.

There are some things that are intolerable, some things that could be tolerated, and other things that must be tolerated.  Tolerance is not a virtue, though it must be combined with the virtue of prudence if it is to be exercised properly.  It is precisely this virtue of prudence, sometimes called “wisdom,” that enlightens us about how we are to undertake our responsibilities concerning tolerance in a particular situation.

Reinhold Niehbur, the distinguished American, Protestant theologian composed what has now become a universally accepted prayer.  This prayer can also serve as a model for tolerance: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  He exemplified these words when he denounced the Ku Klux Klan in 1925, urging people not to vote for their candidate who was running for mayor of Detroit.  Partly because of his influence, Catholic candidate, John W. Smith, won the election, though by a narrow margin.  “We are admonished in Scripture,” wrote Niebuhr in the Detroit Free Press, “to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments.”

Niebuhr had a strong influence on Martin Luther King.  In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Rev. King stated that, “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals”.  Like his predecessor, Pastor King had both the wisdom and courage to know what to tolerate and what not to tolerate.  Neither could tolerate bigotry.  Niebuhr, perhaps because of his own Protestantism, was even more intolerant of the Klan, realizing that it grew out of a corrupted form of Protestantism.  “I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time,” he wrote, “because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people’s sins. Let us repent of our own…..”

Virtue is pro-active.  It gets things started.  Being kind, courteous, and generous, for example, initiates friendships and helps build communities.  Tolerance is a response to something that preceded it.  “Acute tolerance confusion” exists either because people think it is a virtue and tend to tolerate more than they should, or because they do not possess the requisite virtues that help them to know when to be tolerant and when not to be tolerant.  If prudence tells us to be tolerant, we need patience;  if prudence tells us to be intolerant, we need courage.

Pontius Pilate was more concerned about being tolerant toward the masses than just toward the accused.  He is not remembered, however, for his tolerance, but, in the words of Jacques Maritain, as “a betrayer of the human race.”  His name is drenched in infamy.  He is not, by any means, a role model.  The person who is genuinely tolerant, on the other hand, does not turn his back on truth, as did Pilate, nor does he disparage others for not having already found it.  He retains his commitment to truth, justice, and respect for others as he lives in the hope that they, in their own individual way, will finally come to honor the truth that, for whatever reason, has eluded them.

In addition, tolerance can never advance a situation to its natural point of completion.  An artist should not “tolerate” an incomplete work of art, for example, but complete it.  Tolerance is not progressive.  It is the acceptance of the status quo until a better solution comes along. Tolerance is, at best, an interim strategy.  It is hardly an ideal.

There is no point in teaching tolerance if virtue is not taught along with it.  In this way, “acute tolerance confusion” will give way to “resolute virtue commitment”.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Amazon.com. Articles by Don: