What Does Tolerance Mean?

Over the past ten years, “tolerance” has become a political buzzword. Many leftist politicians throw it around as both a threat and a rallying cry. “Be tolerant, or else.” “We must make the world safe for tolerance.”

What people usually mean by tolerance is agreement. If you disagree with a particular policy, idea, or system of thought, you’re “intolerant.” But where does this idea of tolerance come from?

America as a formally independent nation didn’t exist until 1776, but the idea of America actually began over 120 years earlier when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. In 1620, the king of England was James the first, a man whom no one particularly liked. His mother, Queen Mary of Scotland, had been bitter enemies with England’s Queen Elizabeth for many years, and England remained wary of him for a long time after his reign began. Many, including fringe religious groups such as Catholics and Separatists – who later became the Pilgrims – feared for their lives.

Sadly, their fears proved founded. Anti-catholic and anti-separatist abuses were allowed by James’ administration, because the groups refused to accept the king’s headship of their churches. The Separatists in particular believed that the state had no authority to control the church, and were persecuted for these beliefs.

In 1605, a group of Catholics attempted – and failed – to assassinate King James in the Gunpowder Plot. After the plan proved unsuccessful, James held interrogations to find the conspirators, threatening those he questioned with torture if they refused to comply. Trials were held, resulting in eight horrific deaths. The conspirators were hanged, taken down from the gallows while still alive, drawn, and quartered.

This was what the Separatists were hoping to escape when they sailed from Plymouth that fateful day in 1620. Their fear of the unknown lands before them was less than the surety of death that would await them if they remained behind. This was religious intolerance in England.

There are some countries today in which this sort of ideological terrorism persists, but in America we are fortunate enough to be protected from these abuses. Disagreement is not intolerance, and embracing alternative ideas is not tolerance.

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