What is wrong with American politics today? In fact, we might reasonably drop the qualifying adjective “American,” since the failing Dr. Boli is about to identify for you has infected the whole world. What is wrong with politics today is that we have forgotten the principle of toleration. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have repudiated it. We have approval, and we have disapproval in bucketloads, and we can sometimes manage simple indifference. But we cannot tolerate toleration.
Now, toleration was never a natural idea. Toleration is absurd, in fact. It just happens to be a necessary absurdity.
Let us take a concrete example. Suppose a very friendly and polite family moves into the house next door. You find them pleasant neighbors: they are quiet and tidy, and they always have a smile and a wave for you. Then one day you learn to your dismay and horror that they are Presbyterians.
You cannot possibly approve of Presbyterians. Calvinism is anathema to you. As a devoted Satanist, you have dedicated your life to the principle of free will.
We have established that you cannot be indifferent to your neighbors’ Presbyterianism. You can only disapprove in the strongest possible terms. They are wrong, and their wrongness affects the single most important thing in the world, which is our eternal destiny. It is absurd to continue to allow them to live in your neighborhood and expose your children to the filth and corruption of their Calvinist ideas. It is absurd that they should be allowed to live at all.
Yet that is precisely what must happen if we are to have civilized life at all. We must tolerate those Presbyterians. We must allow them to live in our neighborhood unmolested. We must even be friendly and polite to them. And we must do it knowing that they are not only wrong but evil.
We must accept the absurd principle of toleration because we cannot have civilization on a large scale without it. Take away toleration, and democracy is reduced to an angry mob slaughtering the heathen. Take away toleration, and our own security goes with it. Sooner or later, we will be the heathen, and the mob will be coming for us.
Well, you may say, the principle of toleration is built into the Constitution, having thus the force of law. But toleration as a legal principle is worth very little without toleration as a social principle. A man who is hounded and harassed by his neighbors, and whose every waking hour is made misery, will derive little consolation from the knowledge that his punishment was not officially decreed by a judge.
This is where we are failing. On the whole, we accept toleration as a legal principle. Put a repeal of the First Amendment on the ballot, and it will be soundly defeated, in spite of the significant minority of cranks and fools who would vote for it. But we make a quibbling distinction between the legal principle and the social reality. You may hold your own religious opinions, we say, but the First Amendment does not shield you from the most extreme expressions of disapproval from us. And we are perfectly correct in saying that. The First Amendment does not shield anyone from being bullied and insulted. In fact the First Amendment, by necessity, provides a stout shield for the bullies. Only good manners stand between the bully and his victim. Only the general agreement of society at large that certain things are not done can guarantee a civilized standard of behavior. Only a civilized standard of behavior can make it bearable to live in society at large.
None of this prohibits us from telling Presbyterians that they are wrong, and in the most vigorous terms. The Presbyterians enjoy the same privilege. They may spend as much breath as they like warning us that we have chosen the path of damnation, although how a Calvinist could say that is beyond the understanding of good Satanists like us. They may tell us that we represent a grave danger to everything that is good in our nation. They may print pamphlets warning the public that Satanism is second only to Anglicanism on the scale of wicked delusions. But then, when they meet us on the streetcar or in the hardware store, they must be as polite and cordial as if they thought Satanists were the very pattern of virtue. We Satanists must do the same for the Presbyterians.
You need not tell us that this is absurd. Of course it is absurd. It is practically mad, and probably wicked as well. It can be justified only on the grounds that there is only one condition under which the virtuous (meaning ourselves) can live lives of quiet virtue, which is that we accept that our neighbors may live lives of quiet vice. We may object to noisy vice, but quiet vice that causes us no personal inconvenience must be allowed. Not approved of, which is a different thing. If you are Evangelical Presbyterian and I am United Presbyterian, you have no right to expect me to approve of your heresy. But you do have a right to expect that I will treat you with neighborly politeness if you sit down at my restaurant, and that I will do nothing to prevent you from worshiping your twisted idea of the divine in your own heathenish way.
What has happened, in Dr. Boli’s opinion, is that we have begun to apply reason where what is needed is unreasoning faith. We know that certain things are right and other things are wrong: we very reasonably insist that only the right is acceptable. This is the only possible view if we use reason alone. But toleration, which is unreasonable, demands faith. Certum est quia impossibile, we must say. It is mad; it is wrong; it is impossible to justify; but we must tolerate vice, or we shall have no virtue.