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Tolerance and Intolerance

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Studying the 17th century reveals a lot about modern conceptions of toleration.

Vision of harmony: people gather at a peace rally held in Birmingham, following the riots of 2011. Getty Images/AFP/Andrew YatesBritish politicians are fond of hailing tolerance as a national virtue at times of exceptional intolerance. In 2006, in the post-9/11 atmosphere of religious tension and concerns about rising immigration, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown called on Labour supporters to embrace patriotism, describing the union flag as a ‘British symbol of unity, tolerance and inclusion’. In 2007 David Cameron called for the ‘doctrine of multiculturalism’ to be replaced by a more unified Britishness, ‘a common culture defined by pluralism and tolerance’. In a speech later that year to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, the culture minister David Lammy said: ‘We need to explain to the young why tolerance, why freedom and why human rights are so important and how we arrived at this place today.’

These politicians are promoting a teleological narrative of tolerance, which begins in 17th-century Nonconformist resistance to persecution and culminates in modern religious liberty. This narrative is largely a Victorian invention. In the midst of the Puritan revival, the resurrection of the reputation of Oliver Cromwell and mass immigration, the late 19th century saw the construction of a patriotic genealogy of tolerance with its origins in the Civil Wars. As fascism swept across Europe in the early 20th century, the recovery of a tolerant past became ever more urgent: the 1930s saw the publication of three seminal works on the development of religious liberty, by W.K. Jordan, William Haller and A.S.P. Woodhouse.

In recent years, however, the celebration of British tolerance has carried a coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance, as in a 2006 speech by Tony Blair in which he warned: ‘Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here.’

Concerns about sectarianism, Muslim extremism and immigration seem to have reached a tipping point. In a speech last November, Sayeeda Warsi, minister for faith and communities, declared ‘a global crisis’ of religious persecution in which ‘we see religion turning on religion, sect upon sect’. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the liberal problem of how to tolerate the intolerant has become acute. In 2011 David Cameron argued that we need to be ‘a lot less’ tolerant towards Islamic extremists. The popularity of the term ‘zero tolerance’ is indicative of this sea change.

I edited a collection of essays, Religious Tolerance in Early Modern England: Historical and Contemporary Reflections (Palgrave, 2014), comparing contemporary religious tolerance – and intolerance – with that of the 17th century. While cross-period studies need to come with a health warning about avoiding anachronism, in this case the contrasts and parallels proved illuminating. 

It turns out that the notion of tolerance as an unequivocally positive virtue was a late 19th- and early 20th-century blip; the product of wishful thinking with a fake historical provenance. In reality tolerance is a profoundly problematic concept. It is grudging rather than generous and carries an implicit disapproval of that which is to be tolerated. It also serves as a patronising reminder to minorities of who has the power to be tolerant. As the historian Alexandra Walsham notes, 17th-century tolerance was far from liberal: ‘In a context in which truth was held to be single and indivisible’, toleration was regarded as ‘anathema, a recipe for chaos and anarchy’. Without historical context the insidious ironies of contemporary political rhetoric cannot be analysed. 

Tolerance tends to be regarded today as an abstract principle rather than the consequence of a particular relationship between faith and the state. But such structural concerns were of central importance to tolerationists such as Roger Williams, whose key text, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), is largely devoted to making a rather dry case for the separation of Church and state. Today’s politicians make airy statements about religious freedom but pay scant attention to the structural conditions necessary for parity and inclusion. 

During a speech in 2011 to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible David Cameron mounted a muscular yet slippery defence of the established church: ‘We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so. Let me be clear. I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong.’ In fact, he went on: ‘Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France. Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.’ Roger Williams would retort that identifying tolerance as a Christian quality and the state as a Christian space creates a provocative disparity.  

What we are seeing is the counterproductive ratcheting up of disavowed dominance on one side and, on the other, defensive identity politics: faith schools proliferate, hardline faith leaders fill the boardrooms of public institutions and gender segregation in British universities is proposed – all on grounds of tolerance and religious freedom.

In some respects our era resembles the confessional divisiveness of post-Reformation England. John Locke chose not to tolerate Roman Catholics for political rather than religious reasons: he regarded allegiance to the pope as a threat to the civil state. Debates about Shari’a law in Britain revolve around similar issues of loyalty and jurisdiction. In November 2013 the Coalition’s Extremism Task Force, set up in the wake of the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby, published a report on tackling extremism in the UK. It made a quixotic attempt to distinguish between religious and political versions of Islam, which many Muslims did not recognise and which may, perversely, result in a more emphatic application of Shari’a law.

As the historian John Coffey points out, far from being secularists avant la lettre, 17th-century tolerationists were at pains to provide scriptural justification for their position. Today liberal Muslims cite the precedent of Locke in making a similar case for grounding tolerance in the Qur’an.

These counter-intuitive parallels help to answer the question of why, in the 21st century, we are mired in religious disharmony. They question assumptions of progress and the myth that we are following the noble instincts of tolerationist pioneers. They remind us that 17th-century toleration was far from straightforward and neither is the tolerance we have inherited. Recognising our enduring problem with tolerance may paradoxically constitute real progress.

Eliane Glaser is senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

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