verb (used with object), tol·er·at·ed, tol·er·at·ing1. to allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit; 2. to endure without repugnance; put up with: I can tolerate laziness, but not incompetence; 3. (medicine/medical) to endure or resist the action of (a drug, poison, etc.).
Cecil was indifferent to few things, least of all politics and religion. Odd that today those two topics are so inextricably linked; in the 70s and 80s it would not necessarily have been the default opinion.
In November 1980 Ronald Reagan (the principal reason I prefer to not be called “Ronnie”, thank you very much) was elected with 50.7 percent of the popular vote. Dennis Colliton, Elliott and I converged at the Tree Top restaurant/bar for drinks that Wednesday afternoon for commiseration. Surrounded by bloated gloating Chamber-of-Commerce downtown businessmen—the only women in the room were serving, not consuming, unless it was behind the scene—we may have been the only mourners in the room. [The Tree Top was a long-time dining establishment atop the US Bank in downtown Moorhead. Too bad it’s closed: the view of F-M from just six floors above grade made this place look pretty good, especially on a sunny fall evening.]
Napkins and felt-tips at hand, we began listing all those organizations that suddenly required our support, moral, financial and otherwise. Each of us made a “Top Five” and then compared. Organizations like the ACLU and Sierra Club got three of votes; others with only one showed our individual preferences and predilections. Memory does not always serve, but I recall check books coming out and several being written while we sat there eave-dropping on nearby conversations. I wrote a dozen in the next few days and have only increased that list during these last thirty-plus years.
On religion, the Gang of Three (that’s what Kathy Colliton called us) were also of similar mind. I append here a map from wikipedia showing religious tolerance around the world. In its scale of values, the U.S. fares pretty well: we are tolerant of all religions. Legislatively, that may been true; today I don’t believe it is in practice, given states like Alabama whose legislature introduced bills establishing Christianity as the state religion, and by that meaning the fundamentalist End-Days snake-handling speaking-in-tongues sort from “Elmer Gantry”. Look at this map, instead; a map of non-belief. For Elliott, “freedom of religion” inherently meant “freedom from religion”.
At a secular institution, which thirty years ago had significantly less racial and religious divergence than it does today, staff were inclined to roll out holiday decorations for the front office and library. And each year, CDE issued a department memo prohibiting such preferential displays. What he said was “When we decorate for Hanukkah, Ramadan and comparable Hindu and Buddhist celebrations, then we can decorate for Christmas”. What he meant was “Over my dead body!” Well, they got their wish.
It is one thing to be non-religious, to be indifferent to religion and its systems. It is something else to be tolerant of religion, to “endure without repugnance; put up with” religion as a cultural institution. And it is another thing entirely to be as anti-religion as Cecil was: he was downright hostile to its presence among us, in a Christopher-Hitchens Richard-Dawkins sort of way, though I suspect few of us experienced that attitude directly.
CDE was tolerant, in the dictionary sense, of few things: mediocrity, for instance, or indifference. He held a high standard of personal behavior and was willing to put himself on the line for it. How many of you knew, for example, that he volunteered as an escort at the Women’s Health Clinic? It is one thing to write a check, to hire cultural surrogates for our dirty work; quite another to put on a fluorescent green vest and hold your tongue.
Kathy calls me “the last man standing” of that “Gang of Three”, which I consider an honor, and of which I hardly feel worthy. Elliott’s and Colliton’s shoes are large ones to wear.