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Coexist, or, Religious Liberty Considered by a Non-Lawyer

6:53 PM ET, 10/19/2010

In America, should we allow arbitration within religious groups? Under the Federal Arbitration Act? Do we allow Sharia courts? Yes? No? For some things and not others? “Of course, we shouldn’t mess with their practice of religion,” vs. “No, this is America, they should follow our laws even if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.” This is not really a new problem. As a kid I had a friend with a sister who was gravely ill but her family did not believe in using medical science, ever, due to their religion.

The recent state-religion conflicts are a subset of something larger, and a similar problem is: do we try 9/11 co-conspirators and their ilk in a civilian court? If you say “Yes, of course, they broke laws,” then it’s tempting for some to say, “No, this is plainly a war, just shoot them.” But you could say, “Then what kind of people would we be? Brutes. We can’t just toss our laws out the window like that. We are civilized.” And you would have a good point.

Both kinds of questions strike at something in our society that is a great virtue but comes with a great danger. It is possible that our society will only work when the large majority are willing to practice tolerance. (Please do not send email about individual jerks or nutcase groups. We are pretty tolerant as a nation, compared to many, many other nations and civilizations, past and present. We tolerate our intolerant nutcases, too).

Our enemies know how much we value tolerance, and they exploit that, all day every day. How do we fight that without turning into something truly ugly ourselves? Without becoming intolerant, which would also destroy the country?

Is there hope? There’s always hope. For one thing, the rise of the Tea Party brings some formerly turned-off and disgusted people back into politics. One reason they had stayed away was that they were turned off by the left/right wacky talk that passes for political dialogue on the cable news channels. Now that possible Tea Partiers are emerging and talking to one another, they are relieved to find that there are a LOT of common-sense people left in the world. We need many more common-sense people IN politics. I hope the Tea Party will bring them along.

For another thing, some of those who shape public opinion and policy are in academe, concrete-planted in their tenured enclaves; but one thing they can’t change is Time itself. As those among them who are useful idiots leave their professorial chairs, due to age, maybe, just maybe, we will all get a little intellectual fresh air in academe, and thus in public life. ‘Cause diversity should also extend to diversity of thought on campus.

Side note – ever notice how this group insists that we tolerate anything… except things they declare to be intolerable? How did they wind up as National Tolerance Arbiters? I’ll tell you how. We let them.

So this is why Elections Matter. The problem of “how does one tolerate the intolerable” is not simply solved. But society can manage, if enough common-sense people are in public life, writing, talking, and serving in elected office.

If you value tolerance, find the candidate who is tolerant AND shows common sense, and vote for that person.

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