Column: Navigating a new era of tolerance?

The other night I was at a formal dinner and had been asked to say the grace before meals, which I did. After doing this, I could feel a chill in the room and it was not a draft, it was fellow citizens who did not like grace being said. I began to wonder, how we respect a co-worker, relative, friend or associate in our current society. Was my presentation, which had mentioned God, was that so overpowering and the cause of such dislike? Have we come so far as to see our neighbor as a stumbling block to ourselves and our way of life? Do we see people in our community as either enemies or friends? It is baffling. Was I saying something problematic or undesirable other than exposing my Christian belief in a supreme being?

We are supposed to be in a new era of tolerance, at least that is what I thought. We pay lip service to tolerance, but reality is something else. Our current society seems to be lined up in two giant opposing lines, and one is forced to take sides or remain silent. To be honest, many people today are just afraid to say anything. Fear has become two tight lips and eyes that reveal nothing of the interior structure of moral life for fear someone will judge them as inferior beings.

I am not talking about opinion, but civility that makes community, community. When I go to a graduation ceremony, as this is the season, there is no prayer. This used to be called invocation. I was told that it would bother those who did not pray or hold a Christian background. If I were in another country, and they stood for a prayer. It may not be my way of praising the eternal, but I respect the culture and the society that it represents. Would it hurt anyone attending to bow their head? NO. I respect people’s belief systems; I am not hateful of other pathways or customs spirituality may take. It may not be my way of doing things but in the name of tolerance and community, I am respectful.

Our Founding Fathers had the wisdom not to make a Church-State religion in the United States. They spelled out Freedom of Religion in the First Amendment of our Constitution. This was to acknowledge the pluralistic society America was to become. Do you realize that many countries still have a church-state religion? The Church in some countries is supported by the state. England is a Christian country where the King is the head of the Church and Government. Did you know that all students in government-run schools in Britain must take religious education, it is mandatory. All of the Scandinavian countries are Lutheran in background and all but Sweden (who gave up its church-state relationship in 2000) have a church-state arrangement. People pay taxes to support the State Church and there is religious education in all state schools. In some of these countries, parents may opt-out. Interestingly, few families do. They live, respectful lives, tolerating each other’s choices.

I am not trying to demand the supremacy of any religion, but what I am saying here is that we must respect each other for a community to progress. What I find currently is the widespread judgment on anyone who has a different outlook or moral life, other than the group you identify with. No matter how small the communication is of one’s belief system; prayer at dinner, a cross worn as a necklace, the elimination of well-known Christmas carols from school holiday pageants. These are all symbols of a belief system, true, but should they be major social problems that fire disdain and rejection of others? They are not meant to divide causing mistrust and anger and oftentimes outright hatred. This is strange, for the times we live in are constantly reinforcing the idea of tolerance, diversity and inclusion.

However, you must list respect as well. It seems, however, that tolerance is to be practiced in theory and not in application. When we see others as the enemy, and it develops into dislike and distrust, powerful emotions are kindled that can override common sense and fire up injustice and other social problems.

How do we move forward as a society if we cannot respect one another? We all have to live on this planet. It is a kinder place and a more dignified way of life if we respect each other.

Kathleen Carlton Johnson, Ph.D., is a hospice chaplain.


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