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Posted on Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 11:25 a.m.

Tolerance: Is it 'endlessly increasing' in America?

By Wayne Baker

Social Trends in American Life.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing tolerance in America.

Would you allow an atheist to give a speech at your public library? Or hold a faculty position at your college? How about a Communist?

If these seem like quaint questions, it’s because attitudes about such issues have changed a lot over the last six decades. In many ways, Americans have become more tolerant.

Back in 1954, only 38 percent of Americans would have allowed an atheist to give that speech, and only 12 percent would have allowed the person to teach in a college. There was even less tolerance for Communists (after all, this was the Cold War).

Now, more than three-quarters of Americans would allow an atheist to speak, and more than six of 10 would allow the person to hold a faculty position. We’re still a bit less tolerant of Communists—but large majorities would still allow a Communist to speak at a public library or teach in a college.

Americans have become a lot more tolerant of many different types of people and activities. How do we know? Sociologists have been tracking these trends for decades. One of the main treasure troves of data is the General Social Survey (GSS), which has surveyed Americans since the 1970s. Today and all week, we report findings about American trends, relying on Social Trends in American Life: Findings from the General Social Survey since 1972. It’s a new, authoritative compendium of trends based on the GSS data.

Why have Americans become more tolerant? James Davis, author of the chapter on increasing support for free expression, says it’s because of increasing education and the relative liberalism of younger cohorts of Americans. There appears to be what he calls “endlessly increasing tolerance.” Yet, he thinks that tolerance might be hitting a ceiling. “The steady increases in education and arrival of more tolerant cohorts both hit plateaus” in recent years.

Do you see endlessly increasing support for tolerance around you?

Is there a ceiling for tolerance and free expression?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.