What Liberals Think America Is Doing Right
America's in trouble, we're told.
Our politics is coarse and divided. The media have been driven mad by the need to break scoops first, leading to clumsy and embarrassing errors. Social media are turning us all into Narcissus, staring distractedly into digital pools, erasing our ability to think critically. The world's rising powers no longer fret over our might.
Doomsaying is prominent, but not all are saturnine. Haley Britzky of Axios recently tried to lighten the country's dark skies by listing "9 things America is getting right."
"With a number of natural disasters raging across the country this year, and political discourse at its peak, it's important to remember that there is good news out there," Britzky informs us. Her list, while optimistic, is broad and largely uncontroversial: higher economic growth, healthier kids, cleaner air, more charitable giving, better medical technology.
One item sticks out. "We're becoming more tolerant," Britzky notes, citing a rising acceptance, specifically among baby boomers, of the idea that two men or two women are capable of marrying each other.
Britzky includes "tolerance" without a hint of what the word means or why it's good that more Americans are loosening their views on moral strictures. That's not surprising. Tolerance has become a catch-all word that implies progress. But consider the form this progress takes. It is with increased tolerance that's we've become more accepting of broken marriages, sexual deviancy, alternative lifestyles, and drug use among minors.
More tolerance in some areas has certainly been a positive thing. The abolition of Jim Crow laws was a victory for both freedom and acceptance. That we no longer maim homosexuals and other sexual minorities in the streets with impunity is also welcome progress.
But tolerance qua tolerance is not a universal good, despite its cheery connotations. As with any virtue, there are moral limits to its application.
To better understand why, we must first understand the point of discussing the benefits of tolerance in society in the first place. What good does tolerance fulfill? How does it encourage behavior that benefits the collective as well as the individual? Does tolerance ever interfere with the rights and liberties of a people?
These are deep questions that get to the heart of politics. At stake in all political discourse is the kind of society we long to live in. Since the time when Plato and Aristotle discussed the governing principles of society, the essence of politics has been the supreme value around which we organize.
That value fluctuates depending on the society. For instance, the jihadists in the Islamic State designed their caliphate to usher in an apocalyptic struggle between holy soldiers and hordes of infidels. For a more familiar example, the Amish eschew individualism and modern technology to strengthen their communal bonds.
America was founded on an enlightened view of human nature that attempted to reconcile liberty with the collective good. While personal freedom was emphasized in the Bill of Rights' proscriptions against government interference, the Constitution itself formed a public-minded body within the federal government.
Underlying this balance was a higher vision, one that pointed toward Providence. The natural law tradition that influenced the Declaration of Independence was drawn from many sources, including the great theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas emphasized the necessity of submitting passion to reason and action to faith. By aiming our deeds toward God, and thus the greater good, we exercise liberty as it is meant to be exercised. "Freedom," George Weigel writes, "is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings."
Freedom that diverges from the greater good is not freedom at all; it's just another form of slavery. That brings us back to tolerance. In order for a value to be virtuous, it must comport with the dictates of reason, which, in turn, should be directed toward the divine.
Toleration is beneficial inasmuch as it bolsters our ability to live freely and righteously. It is not a value by itself – it is bound by shared ethical standards.
To understand the bounds of tolerance, ask yourself the following questions. Would it be OK to legalize pedophilia? Should incest be allowed? What about bestiality?
Only the most morally lax of liberals are undisturbed by such sexual practices. But is not acceptance of practitioners of pedophilia, incest, and bestiality a form of tolerance?
It is, which is why our judgment should always be filtered through the strainer of reason. In his 1931 essay "A Plea for Intolerance," Fulton J. Sheen wrote, "Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring[,] intolerance to the error."
Today's leftists take the opposite approach. On college campuses, it is people who aren't tolerated, while nearly every belief that isn't associated with conservatism is accepted. This is a misunderstanding of tolerance. It demonstrates a severe confusion over the spirit of the word.
Too often, tolerance is tied to a liberal belief to make it more palatable to the public. That was the unfortunate case of its inclusion on the Axios list of the best American trends. A rise in tolerance should not be blithely celebrated. Rather, it should be scrutinized to see if its application meets a noble standard. Otherwise we forfeit the gift of discernment given to us by our Creator and are left adrift in a sea of moral anarchy.