Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
July 2016

Tolerance is a view that people who differ from you in appearance, belief, or behavior should have the same rights as you — the right to speak freely, to practice one’s faith, to marry the person of one’s choosing, to vote, to congregate in public, to choose where to live, to attend public schools, to be employed, and more.1 Tolerance underpins democracy, and it is essential for a society that prizes individual freedom and opportunity.2 It may have additional benefits, such as fostering social harmony and cooperation, boosting economic productivity, and increasing happiness.3

Tolerance of religious diversity was one of America’s founding principles, and while we haven’t always lived up to this aspiration, the United States has, over its history, tended to be more tolerant of minority religions than many other countries. In the past half century we’ve made strides in extending that tolerance to other spheres, from race to sexual preference and beyond.

How tolerant are Americans? How much have we improved? Where do we still fall short of the ideal of a genuinely and fully tolerant society?

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The conventional strategy for measuring tolerance is via responses to public opinion survey questions such as the following.

  • “There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your city or town or community, should he be allowed to speak, or not?” (General Social Survey)
  • “Should such a person be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?” (General Social Survey)
  • “If some people in your community suggested that a book he wrote in favor of his views should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not?” (General Social Survey)
  • “There are some people whose views are considered extreme by the majority. Do you think such people should be allowed to hold public meetings to express their views?” (International Social Survey Programme)
  • “On this list are various groups of people. Could you please mention any that you would not like to have as neighbors?” (World Values Survey)

Figure 1 shows the share of American adults who give the tolerant response when these questions are asked about people of a different race, immigrants, homosexuals, religious extremists, communists, and other minority or controversial groups.

Figure 1. Americans’ tolerance
Data sources: Gallup, “Gay and Lesbian Rights,”; Gallup, cited in Chelsea A. Schafer and Greg M. Shaw, “Tolerance in the United States,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2009; General Social Survey (GSS),; International Social Survey Programme (ISSP),; World Values Survey (WVS), Gallup data are from 2006, 2008, and 2014. GSS data are from 2014. ISSP data are from 2004 and 2008. WVS data are from 2011.

The data suggest Americans are quite tolerant in some respects. Nearly all of us say we would be okay having a neighbor who practices a different religion, or is of a different race, or who is an unmarried couple. And nearly all favor allowing a person who is gay or lesbian to speak in public or teach at a university.

Yet in other respects the level of tolerance expressed in the responses to these survey questions is quite low. Only 80% of American adults say they are okay with having a neighbor who is homosexual or Muslim, or favor permitting someone who is anti-religious to express that view in public. Only 70% favor allowing a communist or a “militarist” to publicly express those views, or favor allowing an anti-religious person to teach in a university, or say gay and lesbian sex should be legal. Just 60% favor allowing a person who believes African Americans are genetically inferior to speak about that in public. Just 57% think gays and lesbians should be allowed to get married. And only half or fewer are willing to permit religious extremists to meet in public, or to allow anti-American Muslim clergy to speak about their views in public or teach in a university or have a book expressing their opinion available in a public library.

How tolerant are Americans compared to their counterparts in other rich nations? According to the data in figure 2, from the World Values Survey, we’re in the middle of the pack. These survey questions ask respondents whether or not they would mind having certain groups of people as neighbors.

Figure 2. Okay with having a neighbor who is a member of a controversial or minority group
Data are for 2005-2014. Question: “On this list are various groups of people. Could you please mention any that you would not like to have as neighbors?” Response options: mentioned, not mentioned, don’t know. “Don’t know” responses are excluded here. Data source: World Values Survey,

The responses suggest that Americans are among the most tolerant of religious diversity, with 97% saying they wouldn’t mind having someone with a different religious faith as a neighbor. This is especially striking given that a relatively large share of Americans are religious.4 We might expect greater tolerance toward people from other religious traditions in countries where few people care about religion.

We also appear comparatively comfortable living near someone of a different race. This doesn’t mean most white Americans want to live in a neighborhood that is majority African American or Latino, but it does tell us they don’t object to some degree of neighborhood diversity.5

We’re in the middle of the pack with respect to immigrants and persons who speak a different language. Yet the fact that only 91% of Americans say they are okay with having immigrants as neighbors is somewhat disappointing.

Half a century ago unmarried couples living together were relatively uncommon. Today they’re sufficiently common that they scarcely attract any notice. Yet there are still some Americans who object. According to the World Values Survey, only 92% of Americans are okay with having an unmarried couple as a neighbor — a lower share than in most other affluent countries.

Although Americans have become significantly more tolerant of homosexuality and homosexuals in recent decades (see below), we’re less tolerant on this score than people in most other rich nations. Only 80% of Americans say they’re okay with having a homosexual neighbor.

Another cross-country survey, the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), asks whether groups considered to be extremist should be allowed to hold public meetings to express their views. The results, shown in figure 3, differ from those about tolerance of neighbors in two respects. First, in all of the countries tolerance is much lower when it comes to allowing public meetings by perceived extremist groups. Second, on this aspect of tolerance the United States is at the head of the pack. Only half of Americans think religious extremists or racists should be allowed to meet publicly to express their views, but that share is larger than in any other rich country.

Figure 3. Extremist groups should be allowed to hold public meetings
Share saying extremist groups definitely or probably should be allowed to hold public meetings to express their views. Data are for 2004 and 2008. Question: “There are some people whose views are considered extreme by the majority…. Do you think such people should be allowed to hold public meetings to express their views?” Response options: definitely, probably, probably not, definitely not. Data source: International Social Survey Programme (ISSP),


It’s likely that tolerance among Americans increased in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, at least toward groups such as Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. Yet researchers who have attempted to assess trends in tolerance during that period have reached conflicting conclusions, with some finding a rise in tolerance and others finding no change.6 A key problem is that there is very little data on tolerance prior to the mid-1970s.

For the period since the mid-1970s we have a good bit more evidence, and it suggests that on the whole Americans have become increasingly tolerant.7 Figure 4 shows a steady rise in the share who approve of racial intermarriage. The General Social Survey has asked its speaking, teaching, and book questions since the early-to-mid 1970s. Figure 5 shows that Americans have become significantly more tolerant toward homosexuals, anti-religious persons, communists, and “militarists.” The World Values Survey has asked its neighbor question since the early 1980s. Figure 6 shows a sustained high level of tolerance toward persons of a different race and a rise in tolerance of homosexuals. Figure 7 shows data from Pew, Gallup, and GSS questions about whether homosexuality should be accepted by society, homosexuals should have equal job opportunity rights, gay and lesbian sex should be legal, same-sex marriage should be legal, and gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt children. It too suggests an increase in tolerance.8

Figure 4. Approve of black-white marriage
Question: “Do you approve or disapprove of marriage between blacks and whites?” Response options: approve disapprove, no opinion. “No opinion” responses are omitted here. Data source: Frank Newport, “In U.S., 87% Approve of Black-White Marriage, vs. 4% in 1958,”, 2013.

Figure 5. Speech, teaching, and books by controversial groups should be allowed
The lines are loess curves. Questions: “Now, I would like to ask you some questions about a man who admits he is a [person who is against churches and religion (“anti-religious”), communist, homosexual, person who advocates doing away with elections and letting the military run the country (“militarist”), person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior (“racist”), Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States]. (a) Suppose this admitted […] wanted to make a speech in your community. Should he be allowed to speak, or not? (b) Should such a person be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not? (c) If some people in your community suggested that a book he wrote in favor of […] should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series spkath, colath, libath, spkcom, colcom, libcom, spkhomo, colhomo, libhomo, spkmil, colmil, libmil, spkmslm, colmslm, libmslm, spkrac, colrac, librac.

Figure 6. Okay with having a neighbor who is a member of a minority or controversial group
Question: “On this list are various groups of people. Could you please mention any that you would not like to have as neighbors?” Response options: mentioned, not mentioned, don’t know. “Don’t know” responses are excluded here. Data source: World Values Survey,

Figure 7. Tolerance toward homosexuals
Equal job opportunity rights question: “As you may know, there has been considerable discussion in the news regarding the rights of homosexual men and women. In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?” Response options: yes should, no should not, depends, no opinion. “Depends” and “no opinion” responses are excluded here. Data source: Gallup, “Gay and Lesbian Rights,” Gallup Historical Trends. Homosexuality should be accepted question: “I’m going to read you some pairs of statements that will help us understand how you feel about a number of things. As I read each pair, tell me whether the first statement or the second statement comes closer to your own views — even if neither is exactly right. ‘Homosexuality should be accepted by society’ or ‘Homosexuality should be discouraged by society’.” Don’t know responses are excluded. Data source: Pew Research Center. Sex legal question: “Do you think gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?” Response options: should be legal, should not be legal. Data source: Gallup, “Gay and Lesbian Rights,” Gallup Historical Trends. Marriage legal question: “Do you agree or disagree: homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another?” Response options: strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree. The line shows the share who strongly agree or agree. Data source: General Social Survey,, series marhomo. Adopt children question: “Do you think gays and lesbians should or should not be allowed to adopt children?” No opinion responses are excluded. Data source: Gallup, “Gay and Lesbian Rights,” Gallup Historical Trends.

Tolerance toward racists hasn’t increased, according to the General Social Survey data in figure 5. One possible reason is that race, racial prejudice, and racial discrimination are particularly sensitive in the context of America’s history. Another is that racism is viewed as more “politically incorrect” than other controversial views, even communist, militarist, or anti-religious beliefs. Or maybe this is because the group “racists” is defined by an incorrect factual belief (“Blacks are genetically inferior”) rather by a preference (against religion, for having the military run the country, and so on).

Tolerance toward immigrants hasn’t increased either; indeed, it appears, in figure 6, to have declined somewhat. About 11 million immigrants in the United States are here illegally, and the question of how to deal with illegal immigration has gotten considerable attention from politicians and the media since the 1980s. This surely has played a role in the evolution of Americans’ tolerance toward immigrants. Donald Trump’s campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with his promise to immediately deport all illegal immigrants and to build a giant wall along the entire US-Mexico border, may weaken this tolerance somewhat further.

Muslims are a third exception to the rise in tolerance. Given the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by radical Islamists, it isn’t surprising that figure 6 shows a decline after 2001 in the share of Americans who say they would be okay having a Muslim neighbor.9 In figure 5 the level of tolerance for anti-American Muslim clergy is flat, but the data are only available since 2008.

These three exceptions to the increase in tolerance may have distinct explanations. But in the case of racists and Muslims, there might be a common thread: Americans may be decreasingly tolerant toward groups that are seen as intolerant.10 This pattern — tolerance toward most “out-groups,” but not toward groups that are themselves intolerant — may also account for the low levels of tolerance toward racists and religious extremists that we see in all rich nations in figure 3 above.

Tolerance is expressed not only as beliefs but also via behavior. Indicators of tolerance might therefore include the frequency and intensity of hate crimes, membership in hate groups, letters to newspapers or elected politicians arguing for curtailment of rights for particular groups, student movement attempts to block controversial speakers from giving talks at their campus, and so on. Unfortunately, we have less systematic data on these types of behavior.11

Since the mid-1990s, the FBI has compiled reports of hate crimes from state and local police offices. Because many hate crimes aren’t reported, these data understate the frequency of such crimes. But they may give us a reasonably accurate picture of trends, because the degree of underreporting isn’t likely to have changed much over time. Figure 8 shows the patterns for eight target groups — Jews, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, whites, and disabled persons. The incidence of hate crimes against the last four of these groups has been quite low over the two decades. For Jews, LGBTQ Americans, and blacks it is higher, but the trend has been down. Hate crimes targeting Muslims jumped temporarily in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and have been flat since then.

Figure 8. Hate crimes
Per 100,000 persons in the victim group. Data sources: The hate crime victim data are from FBI, “Hate Crime Statistics,” Uniform Crime Reports, various years, table 1. The population data are from the Census Bureau and Gallup.

What’s caused the overall rise in tolerance in the United States during the past generation? One possibility is that it’s a consequence of growing affluence. Tolerance tends to be higher in richer nations. With greater income, people feel more economically secure, which allows them to attach greater weight to freedom, fairness, and opportunity for persons in less advantaged or less mainstream groups.12 America’s per capita GDP has nearly doubled since the mid-1970s. On the other hand, much of the rise in income from this economic growth has gone to a small slice of households at the top of the income ladder, and economic security has decreased for some, maybe many, households on the middle and lower rungs.13 It thus isn’t clear that we should expect the country’s growing affluence to have been a key driver of the rise in tolerance.

Education is another candidate. People with more educational attainment tend to be more tolerant, and the average number of years of schooling completed by Americans has risen in recent decades.14 Yet the increase in educational attainment hasn’t been especially large. Moreover, the group among whom tolerance has increased the most, according to one recent study, is those with the least schooling — persons with less than a high school degree.15

Religiosity has declined over the past generation.16 While that may have contributed to the rise in tolerance toward gays and lesbians, it isn’t clear why it would have had much impact on tolerance toward other groups. Also, as with education, the link between religiosity and tolerance of homosexuals has weakened; even the highly religious are becoming more tolerant.17

A popular hypothesis holds that tolerance increases when there is greater interpersonal contact between groups.18 This might be part of the story. For instance, in 1985 only one-quarter of Americans said they had a relative, friend, or coworker who they knew to be gay or lesbian. By 2003 the share had grown to approximately half, and by 2013 it was up to three-quarters.19 However, increased contact is unlikely to account for much of the trend we observe in figure 5, since most Americans probably didn’t increase their contact with, for instance, communists or militarists during this period. And given the large increase in immigration since the 1960s, it’s very likely that contact with immigrants has increased, yet tolerance toward immigrants appears to have declined.

The most likely cause of the rise in tolerance is a cultural shift that began in the 1960s or 1970s. This shift includes greater appreciation for individual rights and opportunities and embrace of fairness for traditionally disadvantaged groups. Its spread has been abetted by the media, including television.20 Some presume this is a generational phenomenon (“cohort effect”),21 but a recent study finds that the rise in tolerance has occurred among all generations, not just younger ones.22


Tolerance is vital for a democratic society dedicated to individual freedom and opportunity. The principal evidence we have for assessing tolerance in the United States is responses to survey questions. Those responses suggest that Americans are quite tolerant in some respects but surprisingly intolerant in others. Relative to our counterparts in other rich nations, we are either middle-of-the-pack in tolerance or at the high end, depending on the type of question that’s asked. The good news is that in recent decades tolerance toward most groups has been increasing.

  1. Tolerance isn’t the absence of prejudice; you can believe that members of a particular group are inherently inferior and yet want them to have the same rights as other groups. Nor is tolerance the same thing as moral acceptance; you can insist that fascists or homosexuals have equal rights even while viewing their beliefs or practices as morally wrong. It doesn’t even necessarily imply understanding or empathy; you can favor granting Sikhs or Haitian immigrants the full complement of rights even if you know little about their religion or country of origin. The “Declaration of Principles on Tolerance,” ratified by the United Nations in 1995, states that “Tolerance is respect, acceptance, and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression, and ways of being human…. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others.” 
  2. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859; Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” American Political Science Review, 1959. 
  3. Richard Florida and Gary Gates, “Technology and Tolerance: The Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth,” Brookings Institution, 2001; Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson, and Christian Welzel, “Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2004. 
  4. Lane Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society. 
  5. David Card, Alexandre Mas, and Jesse Rothstein, “Are Mixed Neighborhoods Always Unstable? Two-Sided and One-Sided Tipping,” Working Paper 14470, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2008. 
  6. J. Allen Williams Jr, Clyde Z. Nunn, and Louis St. Peter, “Origins of Tolerance: Findings from a Replication of Stouffer’s Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties,” Social Forces, 1976; Chelsea E. Schafer and Greg M. Shaw,” Tolerance in the United States,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2009. 
  7. Schafer and Shaw, “Tolerance in the United States”; Jean M. Twenge, Nathan T. Carter, and W. Keith Campbell, “Time Period, Generational, and Age Differences in Tolerance for Controversial Beliefs and Lifestyles in the United States, 1972-2012,” Social Forces, 2015. 
  8. We observe similar increases in the share who say homosexuality isn’t wrong. See Kenworthy, “Inclusion: LGBTQ,” The Good Society. 
  9. Linda J. Skitka, Christopher W. Bauman, and Elizabeth Mullen, “Political Tolerance and Coming to Psychological Closure Following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks: An Integrative Approach,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2004. 
  10. Dennis Chong, “Free Speech and Multiculturalism In and Out of the Academy,” Political Psychology, 2006. 
  11. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 784 active hate groups in the US in 2014. See Mark Potok, “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Southern Poverty Law Center. 
  12. Ronald Inglehart, “Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006,” West European Politics, 2008. 
  13. Lane Kenworthy, “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “A Decent and Rising Income Floor,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Stable Income and Expenses,” The Good Society. 
  14. Julianne Ohlander, Jeanne Batalova, and Judith Treas, “Explaining Educational Influences on Attitudes Toward Homosexual Relations,” Social Science Research, 2005. 
  15. Twenge et al, “Time Period, Generational, and Age Differences in Tolerance.” See also Michael J. Kozloski, “Homosexual Moral Acceptance and Social Tolerance: Are the Effects of Education Changing?,” Journal of Homosexuality, 2010. 
  16. Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society. 
  17. Kozloski, “Homosexual Moral Acceptance and Social Tolerance.” 
  18. Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, 1954; Samuel A. Stouffer, Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties, 1955. 
  19. Gallup, “Gay and Lesbian Rights,” 
  20. Jeremiah J. Garretson, “Does Change in Minority and Women’s Representation on Television Matter? A 30-Year Study of Television Portrayals and Social Tolerance,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, 2015. 
  21. Pew Research Center, Millenials: A Portrait of the Next Generation, 2010. 
  22. Twenge et al, “Time Period, Generational, and Age Differences in Tolerance.”