Tolerance has become the defining virtue of our modern secular culture. But it is often a selective tolerance that is intolerant of a sincere faith commitment. Only a Sunday religion parked the rest of the week is socially acceptable. Such a limited concept of freedom prompted G. K. Chesterton to define modern tolerance as "the virtue of those who do not believe in anything."
Yet religion is permitted to further some agendas. Civil rights leaders are applauded when they quote Scripture, but Supreme Court nominees are cautioned against even an indirect reference. Some churches openly host political speakers while others are threatened with legal reprisals. We are encouraged to study Thomas Jefferson, but not Thomas Aquinas. Thoreau of Walden is honored as a model for a spiritual life, but not Therese of Lisieux.
Such contradictory standards promote a mere cosmetic diversity of people who look different but think alike, with creeds as demanding as most religions. All secular ideas are welcome but not those related to faith. Society is to be value-neutral, except in matters of faith where we are to be not merely religion-neutral but religion-free. Faith in secular humanism, however, is promoted.
Religious communities have also not practiced the tolerance they preached. The Second Vatican Council, conscious of past failures, sought to return to the ideals of Christian ecumanism as a guide for social tolerance. "Every person is bound to seek the truth. In what concerns God and the church, we are to embrace and cherish those truths as we come to know them. All people have a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that they are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups. No one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her own beliefs, whether privately or publicly."
Aware of historical abuses, the Council stated further, "Every response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith or any faith against his or her own will."
Radical religious zealots may have helped to spawn the present antipathy toward faith communities. Interreligious wars have damaged not only the integrity of the participants, but also the public image of their faith, providing fodder for the critics of religion. The failings of believers, however, is not a failure of their beliefs unless that creed endorses the wrong.
The freedom integral to the human person, so honored by critics of religion, is what is being exercised in the commitment to a life of faith. Embracing religious values as a guide to a moral and meaningful life has had a profound impact for good not only on countless believers, but also on society through community service, education and art. When secularists are intolerant of ideals inspired by a faith commitment they may be undermining their own values, "throwing out the baby with the dirty bathwater."