Stanley Hauerwas Contra the Bad Idea of Religious Toleration

Stanley Hauerwas Contra the Bad Idea of Religious Toleration April 30, 2015

American Caesar tolerates you, but is that a performance Christians should put on? (Adolphe Yvon, Genius of America, 1870; Source Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100)

As Americans we are enjoined to religious tolerance as if it were the 11th commandment. Catholic arguments against changing the definition of marriage sometimes use religious tolerance to argue for retaining distinctively Christian practices of marriage as the law of the land. But is this an effective strategy?

Forget Tolerance: What's your performance record?
Forget Tolerance: What’s your performance record?

If we’re not tolerant, then we’re not playing nice. However, nice is not a theological category. What’s really hiding behind this American commandment?

In the video below Hauerwas argues “Tolerance is always a position for those who are in power.” In other words, it is a position takes on a perspective of demeaning condescension toward those who are outside the mainstream. It is a power-play, and therefore, when practiced, it is yet another sign of the Nietzschean “Death of God” as explained by Krzysztof Michalski in this post (also Hauerwas-related). 

What would a Christian-Catholic, instead of liberal or American, grammar look like instead? Hauerwas says, “Christians don’t need to be tolerant, they need to be humble.” In other words, what Hauerwas calls performing the faith should make people wonder about Christianity and attract them.

Unfortunately, a reader points out that the Hauerwas anecdote about cursing and the library is not literally true, as in it did not happen. Although, Hauerwas thinks it should have  happened.

Anyway, here’s the Hauerwas fireside chat:

For more in depth scholarship on this specific topic you might want to see The Myth of American Religious Freedom:

In the battles over religion and politics in America, both liberals and conservatives often appeal to history. Liberals claim that the Founders separated church and state. But for much of American history, David Sehat writes, Protestant Christianity was intimately intertwined with the state. Yet the past was not the Christian utopia that conservatives imagine either. Instead, a Protestant moral establishment prevailed, using government power to punish free thinkers and religious dissidents.

Sometimes a little demythologizing is a very good thing indeed.
Sometimes a little demythologizing is a very good thing indeed.

In The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Sehat provides an eye-opening history of religion in public life, overturning our most cherished myths. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, which had limited authority. The Protestant moral establishment ruled on the state level. Using moral laws to uphold religious power, religious partisans enforced a moral and religious orthodoxy against Catholics, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, and others. Not until 1940 did the U.S. Supreme Court extend the First Amendment to the states. As the Supreme Court began to dismantle the connections between religion and government, Sehat argues, religious conservatives mobilized to maintain their power and began the culture wars of the last fifty years. To trace the rise and fall of this Protestant establishment, Sehat focuses on a series of dissenters–abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene V. Debs, and many others.

Shattering myths held by both the left and right, David Sehat forces us to rethink some of our most deeply held beliefs. By showing the bad history used on both sides, he denies partisans a safe refuge with the Founders.

You might also want to take a look at my TOP10 world politics and religion book list.

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