A Tolerant Fourth

AS another Fourth of July nears, it's timely to examine one pillar of freedom that gets more than its share of nicks: tolerance. Social and economic tensions - in the United States and abroad - can chip away at that quality of respect for differences.

Ethnic holocausts in Bosnia and Rwanda present one extreme: hatred unleashed and tolerance banished. Elsewhere, the threats to tolerance are less obvious. In the political year ahead, the US will be challenged to show that public debate on issues like immigration and affirmative action can be civil, and not slide toward stereotype and epithet.

Tolerance has its victories, too. In the US, the Southern Baptist Convention recently apologized to African-Americans for its earlier support of slavery and segregation. In Rome that same week, a new grand mosque opened not far from the headquarters of Roman Catholicism. Various religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II, welcomed the new place of worship for Italy's 600,000 Muslims. Think of the history this confronts: centuries of Christian-Muslim friction.

Both these events were accompanied by calls for further proofs of tolerance - for white American Protestantism to back its words with actions and for Islamic nations to stop repressing religious minorities.

A yearning for release from persecution and intolerance impelled American democracy 219 years ago. The Founding Fathers couldn't have conceived how diverse their new nation would become, but the wisest of them certainly sensed the trials that lay ahead for the United States as it struggled to fulfill its ideals.

That struggle demands tolerance; without it a tendency to force conformity creeps in. Tolerance doesn't require agreement; it doesn't exclude judgment or discretion. It does require respect for shared humanity and shared aspirations. It strikes that keynote of American democracy: e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

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