Tolerance or liberty? We can certainly have both and should eagerly promote both. But there are times where the two conflict, and when they do, liberty is better.

If your boss says, “I don’t like your political opinion, but I have no right to tell you how to vote,” that’s far better than, “I don’t like your political opinion and I better not find out you voted for Smith,” even if your boss cannot really know how you voted.

Similarly, how much does any government have any right to control your religious decisions? Can Galveston County declare this is an atheist county but you’re “allowed” to be a Christian — or this is a Muslim county but you’re “allowed” to be an atheist?

Possibly the most famous preacher around when the United States was officially born, Baptist John Leland (1754–1841), vigorously opposed “toleration.” Leland is also credited by some as inspiring James Madison to write and support guaranteeing religious liberty in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Modern Americans are likely to be startled, at first, on learning that an historically important man disparaged anything like tolerance. Surely toleration should be encouraged in everyone, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist.

Here’s some of what Leland wrote in 1790:

“… religion is a matter entirely between God and individuals. No man has the right to force another to join a church: Nor do the legitimate powers of civil government extend so far as to disable, incapacitate, proscribe, or any ways distress in person, property, liberty or life, any man who cannot believe and practice in the common road.”

Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence.

Nor was Leland alone in such views. The Rev. John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence (president of Princeton, teacher to James Madison), declared, “Tolerance is not enough, since it implies superiority or condescension. The only religious principle worthy of adoption in a republic is the liberty to worship as one wishes, or not at all.”

Thomas Paine, crucial philosophical leader during the American Revolution, declared in the Rights of Man (1791) that “Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding Liberty of Conscience, and the other of granting it.”

John Adams, key revolutionary leader and second president wrote, “I will not condescend to employ the word toleration. I assert that unlimited freedom of religion, consistent with morals and property, is essential to the progress of society and the amelioration of the condition of mankind.”

All of us should prefer individual tolerance but not want governmental toleration — in short, we should trust in freedom, with liberty for all.

Ed Buckner is a former resident of League City, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


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(10) comments

Ed Buckner

Careful readers will realize that my essay is a bit more nuanced than the headline suggests. Adapted from a chapter in our book, "In Freedom We Trust" (2012).

Dan Freeman

The remainder of the title is: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty

Ed Buckner

Yes, that's the subtitle. What was your point? (Our first choice for subtitle was "This a Free Country, Not a Christian Nation"--but the publisher said books with the word "atheist" somewhere in the title sell better. Go figure.)

Ed Buckner

You're right, Dan Freeman--but what's your point? That was not our first choice for subtitle (we preferred "This is a Free County, Not a Christian Nation," but the publisher wanted the word "atheist" in the title because he said it helped sell books).

Ed Buckner

Obviously, I need to be more patient before concluding that I failed to press "post" after writing a comment. Dan, you can ignore whichever of those two comments you wish. The subtitle has confused a few folks, who sometimes think it means the book is only intended for atheists--not true. It just means it is a book about (and supporting) religious liberty from the perspective of atheists.

C. Patterson

Sage advice. I may not like what to have to say but I will defend your right to say it. The current political norm now is agree with what we say or we’ll label you, criticize you, shame you and sometimes seek to punish you. Identity politics is what is creating division in our society. You take the whole complexity of a person and throw it away when you judge them on an identity only and dismiss everything else and that opinion generally starts with something they’ve said that you didn’t agree with.

Ed Buckner


Gary Miller

Patterson > I'm starting to think you are someone we can trust.

Dan Freeman

This applies to Cancel Culture, book burners, attacks on those of non European origin, or attempts to control non-conforming life style. All are intolerant and oppose freedom.

Ed Buckner


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