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Why religious tolerance is fundamental 

"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Is this the heretical assertion of some misguided infidel? The feeble claim from someone who has become completely apathetic? The confused rant of an anarchist?

Actually, the source of that assertion is ... Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book Jefferson published during his lifetime, he makes this succinct case for religious tolerance.

Religious tolerance is a fundamental aspect of a democracy. It asserts an aspiring ideal: Each person should be free to make her or his decisions about religion without discrimination or oppression. It also requires a free market for religion in which no religious tradition benefits from government support.

That someone holds beliefs different from, even contradictory to my own, is not, by itself, harmful to me. This is not to deny the potential for great harm that could come from a person acting on his or her religious beliefs in some antisocial, abusive, or even violent way. Nor is it to deny the great personal and global harm that has actually been done in the name of religion. But, at its core, religious tolerance claims that simply holding religious beliefs at odds with someone else's or even at odds with everyone else's poses no inherent threat to anyone else.

Our nation's longstanding commitment to religious tolerance has fostered an environment of ultimate freedom. Each of us is free to hold whatever religious views we like. We're free to leave one religion and join another. Importantly, we're also free to affiliate with no religion at all and reject the notion of religion altogether.

This essential liberty has enabled religion in the United States to flourish with astounding variety and vitality. Is there a religious tradition in the world today that doesn't find some adherents here in our country? Each religion is free to make its own case and to garner whatever participants it can.

The Charlotte region now reflects this astounding potential for religious pluralism. Our Bible-belt town once dominated by Presbyterians and Southern Baptists now includes, among others, a well-established Baha'i community, various Buddhist sanghas, a thriving Hindu community, strong Jewish congregations, a range of Muslim masjids, huge Roman Catholic parishes, and a trio of Unitarian Universalist congregations. We're each free to participate in any of these traditions or to reject them all.

Is religious tolerance synonymous with religious relativism? By affirming religious tolerance, is one conceding that all religions are basically saying the same thing or that they are all equally true? Not at all. In fact, religious tolerance only matters when there is meaningful religious difference.

Clearly there are times when the religious perspective of one tradition conflicts with that of another. In such a case, religious tolerance doesn't require that we ignore this difference. It simply insists that no one religion can claim to have the religious truth for all people. All it can do is make its own claims and attempt to attract whatever adherents it can, aware that other religions will be free to do the same.

I earlier described religious tolerance as an aspiring ideal. The history of our nation reflects a reality considerably short of that ideal. And, our current environment continues to reflect more than a little religious intolerance. That doesn't undermine the ideal or deprecate the ultimate value of religious tolerance any more than the ongoing specter of racism and sexism renders our ideal of equality meaningless.

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop is cited as claiming, "The American ideal is not that we all agree with each other, or even like each other, every minute of the day. It is rather that we will respect each other's rights, especially the right to be different, and that, at the end of the day, we will understand that we are one people, one country, and one community, and that our well-being is inextricably bound up with the well-being of each and every one of our fellow citizens."

I think Thomas Jefferson would agree.

Jay Leach is the Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. For more information on UUCC services and activities, go to

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