Tolerate verb \ˈtä-lə-ˌrāt\
2 a : to allow to be or to be done without prohibition, hindrance, or contradiction
b : to put up with <learn to tolerate one another>
synonyms: let, permit, allow
One of the most highly overused buzzwords in American culture today is tolerance, along with its antonym, intolerance. According to many people, intolerance has become the greatest evil. Anyone who disagrees with abortion, homosexuality, universal health care, gun control, open immigration, or welfare is intolerant; anyone who supports the death penalty, big business, or public expression of religious belief is intolerant. The list could go on ad infinitum.
It’s interesting to note that the words tolerate, toleration, and intolerant, do not appear anywhere in the United States Constitution, nor in any of its amendments.
What is Toleration?
What does it really mean to tolerate something or someone? According to the dictionary definition, toleration involves allowing or permitting things with which one does not agree. It means that a person puts up with ideas and practices they may disagree with or find offensive. For example, I am personally offended by the odor of fish; I despise eating fish, and the smell is disgusting to me. To me, the odor of fish is about the same as the odor from a gym shoe that has been left in a locker for far too long. However, I tolerate other people who eat fish in the lunchroom at work. I don’t ask them to leave because they are violating my right to a fish-odor free work environment. If the odor becomes too offensive to me, I simply find someplace else to eat.
When the word tolerate is used in most political or religious discussions, it means something very different. When the argument is made that Christians are intolerant of gays, what is usually meant is that Christians disagree with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) lifestyle. The meaning of the word “tolerate” is shifted from “to allow to be” to mean “to agree with and endorse.” If a person believes the LGBT is immoral, they are labeled as “intolerant.” If a person does not agree with and endorse the beliefs of others, they are labeled as intolerant.
Is it Always Wrong to be Intolerant?
There are times when it is obviously wrong to tolerate certain beliefs or behaviors. For example, if a 2-year-old wants to play in the middle of a busy street, it should not be tolerated. Nearly everyone would agree that rape, child abuse, and armed robbery should not be tolerated. These things should not be permitted or allowed under any circumstances. Clearly, tolerance of child molestation would be immoral; therefore, intolerance is not always a bad thing.
The problem arises in the fact that our culture does not have a universal standard for defining morality and ethics. Most people, regardless of their political or religious persuasion, would agree that society should not tolerate immoral and unethical behavior. Where we disagree is in defining what is immoral and unethical. In general, liberals consider abortion and gay marriage to be basic human rights; conservatives consider them to be abhorrent. Conservatives generally consider gun rights and competitive capitalism as basic freedoms; liberals consider these things repugnant. Americans do not have a consensus on the morality or ethics of most issues, and as a result, the divisions between Americans have never been greater.
The Consequences of “Tolerance”
Judges 17:6 (NKJV) 6 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
In Israel, the king stood for an absolute standard. When there was no king, or when the king tolerated it, the people always chose to do whatever they felt they could get away with. They worshipped idols, murdered each other, raped the women, and committed other atrocities. When they had a king who followed God’s Word and refused to tolerate open sin, the people lived in peace.
In American culture today, there is no absolute standard, and people are doing whatever they think they can get away with. Crime has skyrocketed; the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer; teen pregnancy, drug addictions, child abuse, poverty, and many other evils are at or near their all-time highest levels. The economy has tanked, hatred has risen, and there is no peace.
Because in America we have come to view tolerance as our supreme value, we are suffering the consequences. America was founded on Biblical values, and the country thrived. However, now that we have largely abandoned those values, America is a land of discord and upheaval. We have reaped what we have sown.
What bothers me most about the entire “tolerance” movement is the hypocrisy. Let me give an example. At a recent National High School Journalism Convention, journalist Dan Savage, who is gay, was scheduled to give a speech on tolerance and bullying. What he gave was an intolerant, mocking rant against Christians and the Bible. When students walked out on his speech, Savage publicly called the students “pansy-assed” for leaving. Apparently it’s intolerant and bullying to believe homosexuality is a sin, but perfectly acceptable to publicly mock and verbally bully Christian teens.
There is a modern myth that believes that true tolerance consists of neutrality. It is one of the most engrained presuppositions in a society based on relativism. In reality, however, there is no neutrality; the presupposition of relativism is itself a non-neutral bias. In effect, the doctrine of tolerance leads to the view that all beliefs must be accepted – except the belief that some things are absolutely right, and others are absolutely wrong. It’s OK to be intolerant of intolerant people. The logical silliness of this position is that, by being intolerant of intolerant people, one becomes an intolerant person. It’s a self-refuting, unworkable, hypocritical belief. All worldviews, beliefs, and behaviors should be permitted and embraced – except those that disagree with this position. Such incredible hypocrisy!
The Christian Response
As a Christian, how should I respond to the issue of tolerance? In the Romans 12:18, Paul exhorts the Christian: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Those who follow Jesus Christ are called to love all people, despite their lifestyle, sexual orientation, or beliefs. However, we are not to accept or endorse sin. It sounds cliché, but Christians truly are called to love the sinner, but hate the sin. God hates sin; but, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Unfortunately, some who call themselves “Christians” haven’t gotten this through their thick skulls yet. Idiots like Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist “Church” are even more evil and hypocritical than people like Dan Savage. Both ignore God’s call to love your neighbor as yourself , but if one claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet still hates people, I can’t help but doubt that they’re actually saved. Jesus said we would know the true believer by their fruit; when a “Christian” is full of hatred and intolerance, their fruit says they aren’t true Christians.
How should a Christian engage the political process regarding the issue of “tolerance?” I think it’s important to oppose abortion, poverty, homosexual marriage, euthanasia, corporate greed, and similar moral issues. It’s also important to stand up for our rights under the United States Constitution to believe as God has directed, and to publicly express those beliefs. Ultimately, however, we need to realize we cannot create moral behavior through legislation. The only way to restore the Biblical values that America was founded on is to change people’s hearts and minds, one person at a time. It is only by the saving power of Jesus Christ that sinners’ hearts and minds can be changed; it is therefore the Christian’s prime responsibility to share the Gospel. America can only be restored when Americans once again turn to God as the foundation for their worldview, and this will only happen when individual Americans receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Yes, we need to continue to influence the political process with Biblical principles and practices, but our true impact will be to see people come to Jesus Christ.
Evangelical Christians also need to be very careful that they do not embrace un-Biblical beliefs simply because they are “conservative.” Because we hold to conservative moral beliefs, there is a tendency to uncritically adopt other conservative principles without searching the Scriptures to see if they are valid. The words of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are no more the Word of God than the words of Dan Savage or Barack Obama. Christians must base their beliefs on the Bible, not the ideas of men, or else they will end up just as hypocritical as any non-Christian.