Tolerance: Locating the Boundaries

In The Nick of TimeSome societies have perished because of anarchy, and some have perished because of tyranny. A just society must avoid both. It must escape anarchy by refusing to tolerate at least some activities in which at least some people would like to engage. It must avoid tyranny by tolerating at least some ideas and activities that at least some people find objectionable.

How is a society to determine what ought to be tolerated? Some Christians have been tempted to answer this question by using biblical morality as a shortcut around reasoned discourse. They have presented the view that no violation of divine law ought to be tolerated. If their theory could be implemented, it would result in a theocracy. Short of Messiah’s presence, however, it cannot be implemented. Nor should it be. Christians are nowhere authorized to use coercion in order to impose biblical morality upon their societies. A society cannot establish the boundaries of tolerance simply by appealing to divine law. Theonomy is a dead end.

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Tolerance and Self‐Preservation

In The Nick of TimeEvery society, voluntary or not, must achieve some balance between tolerance and intolerance. Without this balance a society either sinks into tyranny or spins into anarchy. In order to preserve itself every society must find the requisite combination of a tolerance and intolerance.

For voluntary societies, this balance is essentially a matter of articulating a reason for being. At the point of its purpose, a voluntary society cannot tolerate divergence. A different purpose necessarily creates a different society.

Involuntary societies such as civil orders do not exist for the same purpose as voluntary societies. The main purpose of a civil society is to preserve order by providing protection against enemies outside and miscreants inside the society. Other functions may be assumed over time, but if this basic purpose is not fulfilled, the involuntary society will soon unravel or be overthrown.

The function of a civil society, and more particularly, a government, is to maintain order. Yet we have already seen that civil societies, in order to be just, must grant the maximum allowable degree of tolerance. Order must not be maintained at the expense of oppressing a people.

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Tolerance and Licit Authority

In The Nick Of TimeWithout some level of tolerance, all human society becomes impossible. Conversely, without some level of intolerance, anarchy reigns and society disintegrates. Without exception, every society tolerates certain differences and refuses to tolerate others.

This leaves every society in the position of discovering legitimate criteria for determining what should be tolerated and what should not. These criteria will change for different kinds of societies. On the one hand, involuntary societies must tolerate more, or else the society becomes tyrannical. On the other hand, voluntary societies must tolerate less—especially with respect to their distinctives—or else they will simply cease to function.

No single set of criteria can define the acceptable boundaries of tolerance for all societies. Someone has to judge which criteria are applicable to any given society. Determining who gets to make that decision is nearly as important as discovering the criteria themselves. Any discussion of tolerance eventually leads to the question, Who gets to define what is tolerated within any particular society?

This authority cannot simply be arrogated through de facto power. If tolerance reduces to brute strength, then the boundaries will be set by whoever is biggest, meanest, or craziest. The boundaries will be altered by whoever else can grow bigger, meaner, or crazier. The result will be either utter disorder or totalitarian oppression.

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Tolerance in Voluntary Societies

In The Nick Of TimeWithin involuntary societies, tolerance is generally a virtue. Not that every idea or action can be tolerated—far from it! Nevertheless, within an involuntary society, presumption should be on the side of tolerance. In any given instance, people who wish to deny tolerance must be required to provide clear and compelling reasons.

In the present discussion, society simply means a relationship between two or more persons. An involuntary society is one into which the persons do not choose to enter and from which they cannot readily choose to withdraw. The most obvious example of an involuntary society is a nation or other civil unit. For a nation to exert unnecessary control over the actions or ideas of its people is tyranny.

A voluntary society, on the other hand, is one into which people may freely enter, and from which they may freely withdraw. Voluntary societies are formed for all sorts of reasons. Some are professional, others are religious, yet others are directed toward avocations, and some exist purely for the purpose of providing people with an occasion to meet other people. Voluntary societies may be organized formally or they may be informal movements or associations.

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