An occasional correspondent by the name of “Occasional Correspondent” asks a very good question about toleration. You may recall that we had a whole essay on toleration a few days ago, and Occasional Correspondent wonders,

Faced with a group that declares itself your enemy, and whose tenets call for your destruction, at what point are you justified in acting BEFORE they kick in your door at two in the morning and you vanish into night and fog? That is, what evidence is required before one decides to act; and what actions are justified; and how does one calibrate a plan of action to a level of evidence? (I will grant that this is “Do unto others before they do unto you” morality.) This gets beyond the mere bandying of tenets. Is flight — exile or evasion — the only acceptable action? I was thinking of Hitler inviting labor leaders to a May Day rally, which they attended with enthusiasm; days later, arresting them, the first action by the Gestapo under the Gestapo nameplate. In human history, I’m sure such examples could be multiplied a thousandfold.

Take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing end them

but we know how that strategy worked out in the Danish troubles.

Now, this comment brings up several interesting questions. To it we should add an earlier comment from Arkadiy, another correspondent who has often given us things to think about:

Now let’s say that the main tenet of the Calvinism is that there must be no tolerance of satanists. Should we satanists still show tolerance?

Dr. Boli made a short reply to that comment three days ago, but consider this essay a longer reply to both comments.

First, we need not look very far for examples of the sort of thing both Arkadiy and Occasional Correspondent are talking about. It is pretty obvious that they had in mind groups like the Society of St. Pius X, which repudiates the idea of religious freedom, or the so-called Christian nationalists who believe that the United States should be legally designated a Christian nation, or perhaps even the Fox News commentators who rummage through the back corners of their brains for sophistical reasons why Islam should not be tolerated in this country. It is true that these people pose some social difficulties when they drink a little too much at your party and start telling your Indonesian friend what they think. This is where some hosting skills are necessary, but that would be a separate essay.

We should not, however, pretend that this is a new thing. Because the more mainstream Christian denominations have lately accepted religious freedom as a fine and dandy thing, we are inclined to think of that as a characteristically Christian attitude. It is probably the attitude of Christ and his Apostles, but it is not characteristically Christian. Not far from Pittsburgh are Harmony and Economy, two towns settled more than two centuries ago by the Harmonists. They were a religious society that came to this country because they were fleeing Lutheran persecution. You do not hear the words “Lutheran persecution” very often these days, but two centuries ago it was a thing to reckon with. The sects that you think of as respectable bastions of good citizenship today were, when they had the power of the state behind them, almost universally persecutors.

When the Bill of Rights was pasted on the end of the Constitution, this country was filled with dogmatically intolerant religions. Congregationalists whipped Baptists and hanged Quakers, and of course they did much worse things to good Satanists like us. Anglicans made Catholicism illegal, ending the Catholic experiment with religious toleration in Maryland as soon as the Anglicans became the majority. And the Catholics had proclaimed religious toleration only because they were English Catholics escaping from intolerance; the Catholic attitude to religious freedom was rather different in Spain or France or the Papal States. Among significant religious groups in our early history, only the Quakers dogmatically insisted on religious freedom rather than the reverse. Toleration is generally the plea of minority religions; intolerance is the weapon of a majority that fears the loss of its dominance.

The young United States had a unique opportunity. In any given state, one religious group might be dominant, but the radically different cultures in the different states made every religion a minority religion in the federation as a whole. Thus the First Amendment—which did not apply to the states at that point in our history—could be made to seem reasonable to everybody, because no one could count on being in a position to impose any single religion on the country.

So we have already come up with the answer to how far we should legally tolerate intolerant religions, and the answer is the First Amendment. You Puritans may continue to practice your religion. You may continue to believe that Quakers ought not to be allowed to live. You may print your incendiary pamphlets proving from Scripture that God demands the slaughter of the heathen (Deut. 7:2); you may preach your fire-and-brimstone sermons about what will happen to those people when an angry God gets his claws into them. What you may not do is interfere with our right to live peaceful lives. As long as your tenets remain tenets, we leave you alone. When they become actions, we enforce the laws against destruction of property or murder.

It is too bad, isn’t it? If I am absolutely certain that someone wants to steal my wallet, I still cannot have her arrested until she actually steals it. I cannot have her arrested if I know in the depths of my heart that she is the sort of person who is prone to double-parking, even though she has told me she would double-park if she could get away with it. Now, if she follows me with a megaphone and constantly shouts insults at me, there are laws to stop her, at least unless she is a member of Congress. If she fills my mailbox with death threats, there are laws to stop her. Quite a lot of legal theory has gone into calibrating a plan of action to a level of evidence: this is why there are laws against certain kinds of conspiracy, for example. Violating those laws is an illegal act of a certain kind, and it can be proved by evidence. But if she just sits there coveting my money or simmering with contempt for parking laws, I can do nothing until her mental disposition turns into action.

A threat has to be very specific in order to be actionable. “All Quakers should be hanged” is grossly impolite and unneighborly, but it is not a crime. Think how our prisons would swell if it were a crime to quote Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.”

We cannot punish people for crimes we are sure they were going to commit. That is a fundamental rule of justice. When we forget it, we get the Gestapo. That is precisely what the Gestapo was for: to round up the people who were going to commit crimes—because they were Socialists, because they were gypsies, because they were Jews, because they were Christian Democrats, because they were intellectuals, and you know what those people are like—before they actually committed them.

That is the legal aspect of the question. The social aspect is both easier and harder. It is easier because the principle is obvious; it is harder because the principle is not natural. We must treat people politely and even pleasantly even if we know that, in the abstract, they think we should be deported or killed. If a Christian nationalist walks into an Afghan restaurant, it will not do for the owner to shout at him and spit in his face. Even if he has just seen that Christian nationalist on television spouting the most egregious codswallop about Muslims, the owner of that restaurant is going to have to exercise some toleration. This is obvious, because the alternative is extreme unpleasantness, not just for both the owner and that one customer, but also for every other patron in the restaurant. It is not natural, however. The natural reaction would be to shout at him and spit in his face.

What Dr. Boli finds, to his sorrow, is that there are too many people these days who are willing to say that the natural reaction is the correct reaction. The intolerant person is wrong, they say. Intolerance cannot be tolerated, they say. That attitude makes civilized life impossible, and yet—here is the strange twist—it must be tolerated. It should be repudiated, but even intolerance must be tolerated. Our country was built on toleration for intolerance, because it was built by people who were themselves intolerant and members of intolerant sects.

We should note, by the way, that although “toleration” has become the usual term in these discussions, George Washington did not like it. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights,” he wrote to the Touro Synagogue in Newport. What he means is that there must be no correct standard of religion from which deviations are tolerated just so long as we choose to allow them: we must accept the principle that liberty of conscience can never be taken away (and we should note that this was not written to Christians, in case the question of whether our “founders” meant to have liberty only for different Christian sects comes up in debate). We do not have to like those religions; insisting that liberty of conscience is an inherent natural right takes our approval or disapproval out of the question entirely. We can assume that most people have wrong and probably dangerous opinions, but we don’t care. Instead, we judge our citizens by what they do as citizens, and if in practice they leave us alone, then in theory they can wish us all the ill they like.