I Believe You’re Wrong: The Trouble with Tolerance

A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life revealed that America is conflicted over its reactions to Islam in a post-9/11 world. Favorable opinions of Islam have dropped over the last five years, though most Americans still see Islam as no more dangerous than other religions. And, while many believe Muslims should have the right to build mosques “in local communities,” most Americans oppose the proposed building of a Muslim community center and mosque near the World Trade Center.

The resulting conflict in the public square has often generated more heat than light on talk radio and television, on the Web or in print, revealing a population that has a long way to go in dealing with the messy realities of pluralism. Yet it also provides an opportunity for reflection on more appropriate forms of religious disputation.

When the highest religious ideals and the right order of the world is the subject of conflict, how do you treat those with different views? Americans have learned the best answer to that question; namely, they try to persuade the hearts and minds of their religious rivals to adopt their views. Without the pressure of legal sanctions for or against a particular religion, Americans have learned to allow all voices (that do not disturb the civil peace) to openly challenge each other in a great ongoing contest for the freely granted allegiance of the soul.

However, in recent years, Americans have been losing their habit of engaging in respectful contestation. We’ve lost track of the difference between hateful attacks and disciplined, sincere criticism. Happily, history has provided us with an example of someone who embodied this virtue: Roger Williams. The 17th-century firebrand preacher, linguist, diplomat, social critic, farmer, trader, husband, father, and charterer of the first government in history based on the liberty of conscience, was recently dubbed our First Founder by Martha Nussbaum.

Williams abhorred religious persecution in New and Old England, but enjoyed a vigorous persuasive fight over religious truth. He unabashedly proclaimed his religion true, but advocated for his religious opponents’ freedom of conscience to resist his arguments. He listened respectfully and carefully to his adversaries trying to elicit a similar response from them. If we are wise, Williams will become the hero of millions of twenty-first century religious and secular persuaders, both in the U.S. and worldwide. They will stand as ardent advocates of their beliefs and as adamant boosters of their adversaries’ freedom to challenge them.

In England, Williams had seen men imprisoned and tortured for their religious beliefs—beliefs Williams himself thought to be wrong. However, astoundingly for his time, he concluded both as a matter of faith and political order that all his opponents should be free by law to choose their way to “hell.” He could do no more than work to persuade them of the dangerous paths they were on and point toward the light that he hoped was to return. Punishing, silencing, ignoring, or exiling were out of the question.

Williams understood that we flourish when we engage—not when we persecute or disrespectfully tolerate. Williams famously claimed that coercion in religion on a good day makes for hypocrisy and, on a bad day, rivers of blood. However, he understood that we can only live together in respectful disagreement if we feel free to advocate and defend our beliefs through sincere persuasion.

So what would Williams do about the current conflict over building a Muslim community center and mosque near the World Trade Center? More than likely he would welcome the arrival of yet another venue where, after listening carefully to his opponents, he would be afforded the opportunity to persuasively preach his form of religion to anyone who didn’t get it right (that is, everyone but him). He would be less likely to think of the nearby crime scene as a beachhead for Islam, than as a place where—yet again in the name of a higher “good”—humans were willing to shed the blood of their fellows. He would have remembered all the bloodshed in the name of Christ during his lifetime and shaken his head at the impotence of force when it comes to changing the human heart. In short he would have made the case that religious freedom of expression and practice are more important than trying to avoid offending the feelings of his fellow citizens. He would have carried a sign in front of the mosque:

I will die for the freedom of these Muslim citizens to build their church here, and I will work my whole life to engage and persuade them that Christianity is the only true path to salvation.

We may be in our waning years as an empire, but America need not perish as a powerful force for improving the lives of men and women everywhere. After a couple of hundred years, it may be time to rededicate ourselves to the American ideal that celebrates the freedom of our trusted opponents to heartily resist or embrace our influence and vice-versa. We are free to the extent that we live in a trustworthy world. The new birth of freedom will grow as we can come see most of our opponents as men and women who, like us, dare to die for the future benefit of all—and who, like us, will rely on patient persuasion, not disdainful coercion to accomplish the good they desire.

We cannot say with any degree of confidence what motivates the builders of the Park51 community center, though I presume it is a mixture of laudable things. If they go forward, let them make the place so obviously hospitable that all will soon be persuaded of their sincere desire to improve the world. If they are acting in bad taste, let us assume that they have done so in good faith, and embrace them as Roger Williams would—as fellow wrestlers—in the great American dojo where we struggle over the tensions between our disparate religious loyalties and with our civic responsibility.

The people who live near Ground Zero will either hallow or sally the memory of the attack. The attackers meant to fire a new shot heard round the world, but they misfired. Now, America can carefully do something outrageously good—take that new shot itself that will have the lasting power to be heard round the world, making every good-hearted soul rejoice and the others scratch their bewildered heads. The people of New York City and the larger American citizenry have a difficult but heroic opportunity on their hands.