By H. Lynn Gardner
Living with our differences is a constant challenge. Understanding two rival definitions of tolerance guides us in knowing when to be tolerant and when not to be tolerant. Traditionally, tolerance has meant respect for those who hold differing views from one’s own. However, a new definition of tolerance has emerged implying that all viewpoints are equally valid because no view is actually true.
If no ultimate standard of truth and justice exists, then the issue of tolerance becomes a matter of opinion and choice. If God has spoken, then we must understand tolerance and intolerance in the light of his love, truth, and justice. As thinking Christians, we need to know when to be tolerant and when not to be tolerant.
A Time to Be Tolerant
Traditionally, tolerance of other beliefs and practices meant that, though we personally reject those views or practices, we respect the right for others to hold views differing from and even contradicting our own. We can allow others to hold opinions different from our own without compromising our convictions.
This understanding of tolerance in western civilization grew out of the Christian view of human beings. Each person has worth and deserves respect because he or she has been made in the image of God. Love that acts in the best interest of others provides the context for the virtue of tolerance.
Tolerance does not exist in a moral vacuum. God’s love and his truth provide the standard to guide us in how to act in love toward others. We reject injustice and prejudice because they are morally wrong, not merely because they are offensive.
If God is the sovereign of the universe, then it is not intolerant to believe that God’s truth is universally true. Affirming truth, rejecting falsehood, and refusing to compromise one’s convictions do not make one intolerant. It is wisdom, not intolerance, to agree with what God states is true (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
Truth, held with humility and kindness, is not incompatible with tolerance. Truth, however, when presented in a rude, harsh manner violates love as well as tolerance. Truth directs us in how to show respect and be sensitive to others.
Many accuse Christians of being intolerant and judgmental. Rather than being defensive, we need to evaluate our attitudes and relationships with others. If we have violated the virtue of tolerance, we need to repent and change. However, if the accusers speak from the new definition of tolerance, our response will be different.
Demeaning behavior based on race, gender, religion, or culture violates the virtue of tolerance. Arrogance, self-righteousness, selfishness, social snobbery, and economic injustices all express intolerance. Holding truth without love and grace leads to harsh legalism.
Originating in the sinful human heart, intolerance is a human problem, unique to no society. Biblical teaching that all have sinned warns that we are all capable of being abusive and intolerant. We must express our beliefs to others with respect, grace, and sensitivity (Matthew 7:12; 22:39). Jesus treated the woman at the well with tolerance but he did not approve her adulterous lifestyle (John 4:1-42).
A Time Not to Be Tolerant
The Enlightenment thinkers questioned whether humans could know anything with certainty. This loss of confidence in truth contributed to the new view of tolerance. The industrial revolution undermined tradition and community contributing to the belief that each individual has the right to believe and live as he or she chooses. When truth is unattainable and the self becomes sovereign, any belief or practice becomes acceptable.
Several terms relate to the new tolerance—political correctness (PC), multiculturalism, and relativism.
Political correctness claims we should not say or do anything that another group finds offensive. During the Gulf War, Brown University officials asked students who flew the American flag to remove the flag because it might offend students who did not support the war. Ironically, today’s political correctness is intolerant of anyone whom they consider intolerant. Political correctness insists we must keep our convictions to ourselves since others might find them offensive.
Political correctness emphasizes being inoffensive; multiculturalism stresses being inclusive. Traditional tolerance seeks to avoid being offensive and to understand and be sensitive to others.
Multiculturalism is flawed when it makes sensitivity and inclusiveness its ultimate goals. Our goal should be to treat all people with love. We must reject the multiculturalism that holds to a relativism accepting all beliefs as equally valid and acceptable. This view does not distinguish between truth and error. For example, the new tolerance says those who say homosexuality and gay marriage are wrong violate inclusion and are intolerant and guilty of hate speech. Tolerance without truth results in hatred for those who believe in unchanging standards based on the nature of man and the truth of God. This pseudotolerance perverts tolerance, becoming intolerance in the name of tolerance.
“Tolerance,” according to G. K. Chesterton, “is the virtue of the man without convictions.” Charles Krauthammer, a non-religious Jew, wrote, “Chesterton needs revision: tolerance is not just the virtue of people who don’t believe anything; tolerance extends only to people who don’t believe in anything.” State your beliefs publically today and you will be attacked as intolerant.
A Florida first-grader spoke with a classmate about their mutual faith in Jesus. The teacher reprimanded them, forbidding them “to talk about Jesus at school.”
In 2010, the University of Illinois fired an adjunct professor after a student accused him of hate speech because he said he agreed with the Catholic Church’s teaching that a homosexual act is immoral. The New York State Regents adopted a policy requiring, “Each student will develop the ability to understand, respect, and accept people . . . and their values, beliefs, and attitudes” (Italics added). The new tolerance accepts the views they agree with but is intolerant toward those they reject. When a society will not accept moral standards, power will rule. The new tolerance is disguised authoritarianism which will lead to tyranny—the absence of toleration.
Religious relativists view religion as a matter of personal preference. One person likes lemon pie and another pecan. Neither is right nor wrong—just one’s preference. They view religion and morality as personal values unrelated to objective reality. Someone observed, “Religion was once a conviction. Now it is a taste.”
Relativists do not accept all views as true when counting money, when the pharmacist fills their prescription, or when the pilot lands the plane they are riding. They reject two plus two equaling five or three, insisting on four. Truth about reality has an intrinsic exclusiveness—it denies what is false. True religion is rooted in reality. It includes true statements describing reality that contradict and deny false statements.
The new tolerance says each individual has the right to believe, say, or do whatever he or she chooses because all values, beliefs, truth claims, behaviors, and cultures are equal. They insist we agree that what others believe and do is as valid as what we believe and practice. They deny any objective standard of right and wrong that applies to everyone. However, all values, beliefs, truth claims, behaviors, and cultures are not equal in value
What rational person would claim that the hateful and murderous actions of the Nazi leaders is equal in value to the compassionate help of thousands of volunteers who came to Joplin, Missouri in the summer of 2011 after a tornado devastated the city? And yet some people, indoctrinated by the new tolerance, say they don’t like what the Nazis did but that they had a right to their preference.
All religions do not advocate the same teachings. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the eastern religions all disagree on the belief that Jesus is the only way to God. Christianity claims to give facts and truth claims describing the real world as it actually is. If this explanation of the universe is not true, it should not be believed. If it is true, every honest person would want to believe it. It is not arrogant, immoral, or intolerant to affirm a truth claim. We express truth with tolerance when we seek to understand and respect those with whom we disagree.
When Tolerance Is a Virtue
Tolerance is no virtue when it accepts all views and practices as equally valid and acceptable and considers intolerant anyone who claims to know unchanging truth or who says a belief or practice is morally wrong.
Tolerance is a virtue when we treat others with sensitivity and respect as persons made in the image of God, being motivated and guided by our commitment to truth, justice, and love.
H. Lynn Gardner is a freelance writer in Carl Junction, Missouri.
When Tolerance Is No Virtue: Political Correctness, Multiculturalism & the Future of Truth & Justice
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(InterVarsity Press, 1993)
The New Tolerance: How a Cultural Movement Threatens to Destroy You, Your Faith, and Your Children
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The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars
by Brad Stetson and Joseph G. Conti
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The Intolerance of Tolerance
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Honest Questions, Honest Answers
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Eats With Sinners
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