Our world is escalating toward the sort of brutal intolerance of “the Other” that led to World War II. This time, though, the government and people of the United States are perilously close to embracing that brutality themselves.
In this post we review two books that add to our depth perception regarding tolerance and intolerance, though without offering solutions. Denis Lacorne’s The Limits of Tolerance traces the history and vulnerability of the Enlightenment value of tolerance. Robert Bartholomew and Anja Reumschussel’s American Intolerance indicts the United States for its terrible history of official and populist intolerance toward each new influx of immigrants.
In both reviews we pose questions for our readers: How do people of faith—any faith—transcend the brutality in their own human hearts and lead others to do the same?
The Limits of Tolerance: Enlightenment Values and Religious Fanaticism, by Denis Lacorne. translated by C. Jon Delogu & Robin Emlein (Columbia Univ. Press, 2019).
Denis Lacorne, author of the 2011 book Religion in America: A Political History, has now published The Limits of Tolerance: Enlightenment Values and Religious Fanaticism. The new book reviews the history of tolerance in civic culture and the effectiveness of present societies in managing toleration in Europe and the U.S. It recognizes the near universally acknowledged human goal of cohabitation in diversity.
Lacorne argues that toleration is growing, but that it is maintained on the basis of drastic cultural changes: general religious indifference, the needs of faith-blind commerce, the variety and multiplicity of religious creeds, the cultural breakdown of religious tests for public service, and the cultural shifting of religion from the public sphere into the private sphere.
Lacorne voices concern about the fragility of tolerance under the pressures of contemporary nationalism, reform government centralization, and population migrations.
In developing his argument, the author starts with Enlightenment thought leaders in Locke and Voltaire, followed by practical, stumbling examples of tolerance in America, Ottoman Empire, and Venice. He then focuses on the difficult issues of modern blasphemy crimes, self-censorship, Islamic veiling traditions, civic monuments, and the tolerance for enemies of tolerance.
Confusion about tolerance includes the equation of toleration with approval and permissiveness, the role of law in managing moral opinion, and the tensions between equality before the law and equal social prestige. Laws neither approve nor disapprove of belief, but people can approve or disapprove.
The limits of tolerance are constantly shifting, depending on the country and on historical circumstance. Current examples of the continuing struggle for public toleration include the 1989 Salman Rushdie fatwa,1 the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy2 and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks,3 French restrictions on public religious dress, hate speech, and religious exemptions from toleration.
The legal tools that can be effectively used against abuse and discrimination in managing tolerance include laws protecting speech, personal protection against abuse or discrimination, hate speech prohibitions, suppression of anti-constitutional political activity, and punishment of ethnic and religious violence.
These are universal human problems. Publics and governments respond differently. Some are successful in managing tolerance toward cohabitation in diversity and some are not.
Intolerance is sneaky and constantly corrupts tolerance. Toleration is not a thing, but toleration is a disposition in service to shared norms. Over-toleration is also a problem.
Quakers: Lacorne mentions Quakers with regard to their role in the gradual and bumpy history of toleration for religious minorities in British history.
It may be generally the case that, worldwide, Quakers are intolerant of diversity. American Quakers, however, may value tolerance more highly than Quakers in other countries. Some U.S. Quakers hold tolerance in an elevated status above that of most other public virtues. All of these positions reflect the cultures in which Quakers reside. All are infected with invective against others regarding how far to protect toleration.
The bottom line for the author is that people should permit and tolerate violence-advocating speech, despite the associated consequences in order to fully protect the principle of free speech. In the course of the book, the author narrates the history of Europe and American in coming to this conclusion.
This useful book is translated from French with a new introduction and epilogue. It is equipped with useful endnotes and bibliography.
- Is that of God in every person a sufficient basis for grounding toleration among Quakers?
- What resources do Quakers provide to identify and manage excessive toleration?
American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Anja Reumschussel (Prometheus Books, 2018).
Bartholomew and Reumschussel’s 2018 book, American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants, is a serious reminder of the history of shameful treatment of immigrants to the United States and an indictment of our inconsistent moral story as a nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty is a distracting falsehood.
Sadly, this book offers no balancing examples for the mitigation of U.S. intolerance, nor any suggestions for the cure or the management of U.S. intolerance going forward, in the face of our consistently dark past.
American Intolerance is structured in eight chapters, each of which addresses the history of U.S. intolerance toward a particular substantial group of immigrants: Catholics, Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans, Germans, Japanese, Jews, and Muslims. All were treated badly, violently and shamefully for long periods in the U.S. For each immigrant group, the public and the government together created an atmosphere of moral panic in response to each group of immigrants.
The book’s overarching message is that the U.S. has not learned from previous bad experiences of intolerance in managing the next wave of immigrants. With the partial exception of Japanese citizens, there is no suggestion of any apology ever offered for governmental and public bad behavior. Slavery is not included as a major chapter in the treatment of immigrants.
Bartholomew and Reumschussel cite the responsive concept of moral panic4 in each situation. The book leaves the reader uncertain if this series of moral panics somehow mitigates the associated intolerance. It is not clear if the authors see the moral panic and the associated intolerance as a universal human problem or as a chronic, distinctively U.S. disability.5
In any case, the U.S. did not show any distinguishing assistance or fairness toward these eight groups that would set U.S. experience apart from that of other countries. The contradiction between the U.S. story about what it stands for as a national community, on the one hand, and its repeated harmful behavior, on the other, is all that distinguishes U.S. experience.
Bartholomew and Reumschussel are silent about whether the intolerance that they so richly document is a spasmodic reality, a chronic U.S. cultural distortion, or a reflection of a universal human response to the immigrant other. Nor do they offer any creative proposals for solving our problem of violence and intolerance against immigrants, except the admonition to do differently in the future.
There are no suggestions for a domestic legislative framework for managing fair share immigration management in the U.S. Nor are there suggestions for international U.S. leadership to build an international framework for fair global management of population movements for a solution in which the U.S. could participate constructively.
American Intolerance is also silent on the responsive immigration roles of religious communities in general and Quakers in particular. Where are the books describing active historical leadership role of Quakers in opposing intolerance to each of these groups of immigrants to America? None are referenced in this book.
American Intolerance provides a useful index and extensive technical end notes, but it disappoints in providing few interesting end notes. The authors do not provide a summary conclusion.
Despite all of these omissions, the book is a sobering read. It is a description of a persistent pattern of failure by the U.S. government and citizens to respond constructively to immigration challenges.
- How do the testimonies of the Quaker tradition apply particularly to immigrants in the U.S.?
- Where can Quakers point to Quaker leadership in assistance to immigrants through U.S. history?
- How can Quakers best describe past Quaker responses to immigrants to the U.S.?
- What should be the Quaker role in addressing future immigration to the U.S.?
- How do Quakers tell the story of Quaker assistance to immigrants to the U.S.?
Notes & Image Sources
1 See “Thirty years on: the Salman Rushdie fatwa revisited,” by Index on Censorship: The Voice of Free Expression (2/13/2019).
On 14 February, 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to execute author Salman Rushdie over the publication of The Satanic Verses, along with anyone else involved with the novel.
On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed that its editors said they solicited as part of an experiment to overcome what they perceived as self-censorship reflected in the reluctance of illustrators to depict the Prophet….
Much of the outrage against the cartoons has been framed not in terms of tangible acts of discrimination, violence or harassment against Muslims, but in terms of disrespect for Islam itself and those who adhere to it and animosity toward the Muslim world. Some have questioned why many nations in Europe, which continue to have blasphemy laws protecting the Christian religion, do not similarly protect Islam, or why anti-Semitic speech has been suppressed as “hate speech” but not these cartoons.
3 See “2015 Charlie Hebdo Attacks: Fast Facts,” from the CNN Library (12/28/2018). For further discussion, see “A year after Charlie Hebdo, France is still searching for answers,” from The Conversation (1/7/2016).
Image: “Religious Tolerance Exhibit,” by Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC on flickr (8/25/2008) [Creative Commons – Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic ].
4 See the Wikipedia article on Moral Panic. For more discussion, see also:
- Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, 2nd Edition, by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
- “I am an American: Scenes from the Japanese internment resonate today,” by Ann Curry, photographs by Paul Kitagaki, Jr., in National Geographic (October 2018).
Regarding implicit Quaker involvement in anti-Catholic moral panic, consider The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones (Simon & Schuster 2016, p. 62).
5 To consider intolerance in other countries and cultures, see Randy Dotinga’s interview with Antonia Fraser, author of The King and the Catholics, in The Christian Science Monitor (8/14/ 2018).
Reviews contributed by Larry D. Spears