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Tolerating Americans

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | March 27, 2012

Given all the furor around “culture war” issues such as gay marriage, prayer in schools, affirmative action, funding of contraception, immigration, and bilingual education, you’d think that Americans were increasingly immersed in virulent intergroup hatred. And yet, over the long haul, the amazing trend has been the increasing tolerance Americans have expressed for group differences.

1844 anti-Catholic riot

1844 anti-Catholic riot (LC cph3a07031)

More Americans tolerating more Americans shows up with regard to religion, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. And it’s not just in words; it’s also in action. In this post, we’ll take a look at some numbers and consider what the tolerating trend means. Some might wonder if it is even necessarily “a good thing.”

Greater acceptance

For all the media coverage of arguments around religion, today’s fights are nothing compared to those of earlier eras. In the 19th century violent street battles broke out between Catholics and Protestants over differences ranging from job competition to beer gardens to which Bibles to use in schools (e.g., here and here). It is hard to imagine anything like that happening in modern America.

We can track public opinion on religious differences over much of the 20th century. Survey researchers often asked respondents whether they would be willing to vote for a candidate of their own political party if that person were a Catholic or if that person were a Jew. The percentage of “Yes” answers rose from about 50 percent in the late 1930s to almost 100 percent around 2000. By 2000, in fact, half of Americans said they were even willing to vote for an atheist — up substantially from decades earlier. Researchers also asked Americans whether they disapproved of people marrying across religious lines; the proportion who objected dropped substantially over the last several decades.

This is not just talk. Voters have been increasingly willing to elect Catholics and Jews to major offices. The issue has not disappeared, of course; Mitt Romney’s Mormonism matters for some voters; and we have rarely tested the issue of Muslim candidates (except here). But Americans increasingly vote for candidates of other faiths. And Americans increasingly marry across religious divides. Hardly any Americans born before 1900 married across the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish lines; but about 20 percent of Americans born after 1960 married someone not only of a different religious background but someone who still espoused a different religion. (These and similar data appear in Century of Difference.)

The longest opinion series I know of on religious tolerance comes from the classic Middletown studies — comprehensive research conducted in Muncie, Indiana in 1924, repeated in the 1930s, again in the late 1970s, and briefly in 1999. Each time, researchers asked a sample of high school students questions on various issues, including religion. One item asked whether they agreed that “Christianity is the one true religion and all peoples should be converted to it.” In 1924, 94% of the students said yes; in 1999, only 42% did (see here). The big change had occurred by 1977. The students’ growing tolerance was not the result of their losing faith. Students in 1999 were only somewhat less likely than students in 1924 to agree that “The Bible is a sufficient guide to all the problems of modern life” (60% v. 74%). So, today’s students tolerate other religious views even as they hold on to their own.

Tolerance across ethnic and racial lines also increased, as demonstrated in surveys (the major compendium is here) and in actions. For example, marriages across ethnic and racial lines increased greatly. Italian-Americans, to take one case, were about three times as likely to marry non-Italians in the last third as in the first third of the 20th century. Even black-white marriages, once rare and freighted events, have become acceptable in public opinion (see Gallup) and increasingly common in real life (see, e.g., here). And speaking of marriage, acceptance of gay marriage has increased from unimaginable about a generation ago to a majority view today (Gallup).

Tolerant to a fault?

4 immortal chaplains 1948 stamp

"Immortal Chaplains" 1948

In his study of Americans’ moral views, One Nation After All, Alan Wolfe described middle-class Americans at the end of the century as “tolerant to a fault”; almost the only people who attracted criticism in his interviews were people who were critical of other people. The notion behind the term “political correctness” (which, if memory serves, first emerged in Berkeley) was that one could be tolerant to the point of caricature. More seriously, we increasingly emphasize and teach tolerance as a central value. In the same Middletown studies, only 6 percent of parents surveyed in 1924 thought that “tolerance” was a top-three value to teach children; in 1978, 47 percent did (here).

To what end? The GOP’s 1964 presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, famously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” We — being post-1960s Americans — seem increasingly reluctant to insist on our ideas of justice.

The question can be raised whether tolerance is a soft-pablum value that undermines deeper values. If everything is tolerated is anything besides tolerance itself sacrosanct? Can one believe in the Bible (or other religious scripture) and believe that other religious views are OK? Can one be committed to one’s own culture and still believe that all cultures are just as good? Can one hold on to deep principles and tolerate those who violate those principles? It looks as if modern Americans are trying to answer those questions “Yes.”

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.