The Tolerance Paradox
This past spring, on assignment for Boston Globe Magazine, I spent some time getting to know a young couple from Texas who had recently moved to Boston to start a church in Revere. I followed up with them many times after we initially met — prying into their private lives, asking probing questions about their deepest held beliefs. They were gracious and obliging, at times answering several consecutive emails in the course of an hour. On Easter Sunday, I attended their church’s first service, which was held in a movie theater. I came to like them very much.
What none seemed to recognize was the irony of boasting about being tolerant while simultaneously exhibiting a completely intolerant attitude...
In the August 18th edition of the Globe Magazine, I told their story in a feature piece titled, “On a Mission to Save Godless Massachusetts.” In a follow up email from my editor the day after the story appeared, he told me that the online version of the piece had accumulated 49 comments, more than most magazine stories. As of this writing, it’s up to 79.
So, why would a story about a nice, young Christian couple from Texas who left their family and friends behind to move to Boston to start a church generate such a response? Well, it seems that a lot of readers think the couple should have stayed in Texas. The overwhelming response to the piece can be summed up by one of the earliest comments, “Texans, go home and take your bigotry, intolerance and ignorance with you.”
Many others agreed, insisting that Massachusetts is a progressive, tolerant place with no need for these missionaries nor their religion. “Please keep these idiots from my door,” another commenter volunteered. “Oh, lord, do save us from evangelicals,” yet another prayed. Many more extolled the virtues of Boston, as a socially liberal and enlightened city, in contrast to the ignorance of the Bible Belt. Still others saw a conservative conspiracy afoot.
What none seemed to recognize was the irony of boasting about being tolerant while simultaneously exhibiting a completely intolerant attitude toward evangelicals, and, to a surprisingly larger extent, anyone who lives in the southern half of the United States.
But I’m familiar with this irony. I grew up in an evangelical community — right here in Boston, if you can believe it. And though I maintain a Christian faith, I no longer identify as evangelical, but many of my family members and close friends are still very much within the evangelical fold. After reading the comments on my Globe story, many of them asked me about what I’ve come to call the intolerance of tolerant people. And then they tell me where else they’ve seen it.
One friend asked me, “Why am I supposed to be tolerant of gay marriage, when many gay marriage supporters are intolerant of my beliefs?” Others have been the victims of this kind of prejudice when they express questions about global warming, or suggest that they believe in a literal, six day creation.
The whole point of tolerance — literally tolerating views that we disagree with — is that you can maintain respectful conversation while both sides work out their beliefs.
"But how can you still believe that?" I’ve even heard myself ask. It’s all too easy to forget that I once shared some of their views on these issues and that I should, at the very least, be respectful of my friends who still do.
It’s a great paradox, indeed, that we’ve turned tolerance from a posture of acceptance into a rigid rule. If others aren’t open-minded about the same things as us, we feel we can be close-minded toward them. But the whole point of tolerance — literally tolerating views that we disagree with — is that you can maintain respectful conversation while both sides work out their beliefs. Without true tolerance, how can we expect those with whom we disagree to see things our way?
At least one commenter on the Globe story agrees: “The more Southern Baptists we can bring to Boston the better,” Thompson R writes. “Perhaps we can evangelize them into tolerance and a belief in equality for all, regardless of gender, race or culture!” The writer notes that he knows it’s possible because he grew up in the so-called Bible Belt. It seems that before we can be accepting of those we disagree with, we need to try to see things from their perspective rather than demonize them.
Perhaps true tolerance flows from empathy — and that’s a quality that us progressive Bostonians may still need to work on.
This program aired on September 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.