The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans need to rediscover the lost art of tolerance

A Black Lives Matter supporter and a supporter of President Donald Trump protest the presidential vote count outside of TFC Center in Detroit on Nov. 6, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
4 min

As the United States grows more racially, culturally and politically fractionalized, let’s acknowledge the obvious: Our diversity does not automatically make us stronger, as politicians and activists sometimes proclaim, but is a major contributor to our polarization. Our best hope for civil coexistence is rediscovering the lost art of tolerance.

Cataloguing all the examples of America’s sweeping multiculturalism is an impossible endeavor. We have enormous diversity of identity: White. Black. Hispanic. Asian. Native American. Straight. Gay. Trans. Nonbinary. More significant is our diversity of beliefs. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Conservatives. Liberals. MAGA Republicans. Democratic socialists. Never-Trumpers. Moderates. Libertarians. Gun enthusiasts. Gun-control advocates. Climate activists. Fossil fuel defenders. Christians. Jews. Muslims. Atheists. And more.

Many Americans occupy multiple groups, and other individuals don’t easily fit into any specific group. Significant numbers within certain groups will never accept the beliefs — or even the right to have a voice — of other groups. Too often, all they have in common is an unshakable moral certitude of the righteousness of their respective causes. Clearly, our diversity is a big reason for our national disharmony.

It’s not popular to say that, but most Americans know it. Just examine the opinions about our growing racial and ethnic diversity. In 2020, the Pew Research Center surveyed attitudes about the U.S. Census Bureau’s forecast that in a couple of decades, Black, Latino and Asian Americans will — combined — displace Whites as the majority population. Most respondents said the development was neither good nor bad. Eleven percent called it bad. Only 24 percent declared such a prospect a good thing — up from 14 percent in 2016, but far from an endorsement of diversity as, as then-candidate Joe Biden once tweeted, “our greatest strength.”

White people are, unsurprisingly, the least enthusiastic about the shifting population shares, Pew found. But interestingly, fewer than half of Black, Hispanic or Asian respondents called a more diverse population a good development, despite their projected growth. People of all races and backgrounds know diversity can be hard. The answer is not to “get the hell away” from each other, a cartoonist’s rant aside. The better path is to recalibrate our notion of what a functional multicultural society looks like.

Straight White religious conservatives — the group to which I can most relate — face the biggest adjustment, having long been in power. The expanding societal presence and influence of people of color and LGBTQ+ Americans should not be stubbornly resisted, but graciously accepted. There will be cultural changes with which many of us disagree, but that will provide us the opportunity to demonstrate the tolerance toward others that we increasingly plead for ourselves.

To untangle the destructive conflation of church and state, evangelicals — the most partisan religious incarnation of White conservatives — must rethink their approach and their objectives. They have every right as citizens to participate in government. But as disheartening as our increasingly godless society can be to many of us, neither Christian doctrine — despite its cultural dominance — nor any other religious creed was intended to be government policy. Besides, the Bible repeatedly reminds believers not to be so concerned with the things of this world.

But progressive Americans must adjust, too, by exhibiting tolerance for conservative social and religious beliefs rather than disparaging such views as bigoted or hateful. They must show more consideration for people who are asked again and again to reject beliefs and practices that their communities have sincerely held for generations.

Yes, when the practice of one set of beliefs impedes on the rights of others, courts must sometimes intervene, and all sides need to accept their decisions. But we all must be more accepting of things with which we disagree, even if they offend us.

We might occasionally experience moments of national unity when faced with external threats or national catastrophes, but that will be fleeting. Various polls show a substantial number of Americans believe that another civil war, once unthinkable, is a distinct possibility, thanks to the stubborn insistence from all sides on complete ideological capitulation. That must change.

The prospect of our escalating disparity need not be so bleak. If we try, we might discover that tolerance can lead to a respectful, peaceful and even fruitful community of multifaceted people and ideas over time. Let us pray for that — or, for the nonreligious, hope for it — politely tolerating one another’s right as Americans to choose either option.