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  • Hospitality as the Gift Greater than ToleranceG. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross
  • Ralph C. Wood (bio)

“Modern toleration is really a tyranny,” declares G. K. Chesterton. “It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent’s faith is to say I must not discuss it.”1 In a similarly barbed aphorism, Chesterton describes tolerance as “the virtue of a man without convictions.” Chesterton thus explains the pagan persecution of the early Church as oddly justified. Christianity, he says, “was intolerable because it was intolerant.”2 Such angular convictions often lead to the dismissal of Chesterton as an antediluvian reactionary seeking an ark whereon he might survive the flood of modernity, a comic curmudgeon vainly hoping to reinstate an idealized version of the Middle Ages.

Quite to the contrary, Chesterton was an unrepentant enthusiast for modernity’s chief accomplishment—the French Revolution and its democratic deliverance of the common man from his old feudal estate as serf and villein, elevating him to a social and political sufficiency heretofore unknown. At last the world had recognized, in Chesterton’s view, a fundamental teaching of the Church that the Church itself had often neglected. He affirms this teaching in his book on Dickens, that greatest of democratic novelists: “All men are [End Page 158] equal as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King.”3 With democratic equality comes an attendant pluralism in matters political and religious, since neither the Church nor the state can any longer exercise an externally imposed conformity to a single way of life. Instead, there are legitimate differences in both belief and behavior that the state must protect. The shorthand word for such a pluralistic political regime is liberalism, and it is noteworthy that Chesterton styled himself as a Liberal (albeit as a member of a particular political party) from youth to death.4 There are many kinds of liberalism, of course, but Judith Sklar describes the generic term quite adequately: “Every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every other adult.”5 As a man who had made such an “effective decision” in becoming a Roman Catholic, Chesterton embraced the pluralism that enabled his open and public act. He crossed the Tiber, at least in part, because he sought a faith that would provide both pith and heft for the making of his literary witness in a liberal democracy.

That the religiously indifferent Chesterton first became a devout Anglican and then a Catholic convert indicates his early discernment that the liberal project would not suffice unto itself. It had a canker at its core, and the worm eating at its heart was called “tolerance.” For, while liberalism could offer protections against common evils, it would have an increasing difficulty defining common goods. Chesterton was among the first to recognize that his own inherited liberalism would issue in an unprecedented secularism, rapidly displacing religion from the center of human life.6 The movement that began with the aim of setting people free would threaten, in fact, to empty the public sphere of those virtues that alone might prevent a return to the brute and slavish state of nature that Thomas Hobbes envisioned: the “war of all against all.” Hence the need briefly to survey the history of tolerance and to outline a Christian alternative to it before embarking on a reading of The Ball and the Cross. [End Page 159]


Toleration is a subject that, almost more than any other, preoccupies modern mentality. Baruch Spinoza, John Milton, G. E. Lessing, Pierre Bayle, Roger Williams, and William Penn all devoted themselves to it. Yet it is John Locke’s “Letter on Toleration” that still shapes the debate. Once the Protestant Reformation had finally exploded the already fissiparating unity of Europe, repression and even civil war soon riddled English life. Having been religiously exiled to the Dutch Republic, where a secular state had been founded in order to permit...


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pp. 158-185
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