A society that celebrates virtually anything would have to make tolerance a virtue.
Tolerance for the right things and in the right amounts is a virtue. No decent or democratic society can exist without it. To respect individuals you disagree with is Christian; however, to tolerate evil as a Christian drains society of virtue. C. S. Lewis made clear the nature of evil- it is predatory; it will devour virtue. And when there is nothing of virtue remaining, it will devour itself. To allow evil where it could otherwise be eliminated is to consent to the death of virtue. Given the insatiable appetite of evil, and its propensity to feed on the young and old alike, you and I simply cannot tolerate the intolerable in society. We cannot hope to remain a decent society if we adopt a relativist, truth-is-what-you-want-it-to-be- attitude toward sin and evil in society. To stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places requires more from us (Mosiah 18: 9). Our voices and sensibilities must inform public policy. In this segment, I will discuss how relativist meanings of tolerance are being used to attack our faith, destroy the virtue in our nation, and silence our dissent.
The New Tolerance
Relativism is the belief that man is the author of truth; one man cannot tell another man what is true for him. Truth is individually defined not externally imposed- as if truth could ever be imposed on anyone possessing agency. To the relativist, one man’s truth is just that- one man’s truth; it can be nothing more, unless agreed upon by society or enforced by law. These relativistic values have advanced in society because the majority of Christian America has silently assented to the death of ethical theism. In the book The New Tolerance by Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler (1998), ethical theism is defined as the belief that right and wrong are absolute, unchanging, and that they are decided (and communicated to men and women) by God (p. 33). This view of truth and morality formed the basis for much of Western civilization; it stems from the belief that certain truths are self-evident, among them, is the uniquely American tradition that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
These beliefs are grounded in biblical understandings that shaped Western civilization and the formation of our nation. The Founders knew what Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles knew about truth. They had, according to David F. Wells (1993):
A certainty about the existence, character and purposes of God- a certainty about his truth- that seems to have faded in the bright light of the modern world. They were convinced that God’s revelation, of which they were the vehicles and custodians, was true. True in an absolute sense. It was not merely true to them; it was not merely true in their time; it was not true approximately. What God has given was true universally, absolutely and enduringly (pp. 259-260).
These notions were essential to the Founders in 1776, and still are- or at least should be to us in 2003.
Ethical theism died a quiet death in America. It died, according to Pat Buchanan (2002), author of The Death of the West, because Christians fell asleep and the nation changed; President Benson also said this. Relativism replaced ethical theism as the explanation of morality and reality. Along with new explanations came new definitions of relativist truth in America. Those who resisted these definitions were thought to be intolerant, judgmental or hateful. Those who embraced the new ideals of the shift towards relativism were called tolerant. The new definition of tolerance, then, is agreement. The more tolerant among us express that agreement through participation; this shows support for the beliefs of others. For example, attendance at Gay Pride parades by non-homosexuals is evidence of the new meaning of tolerance; it is an affirmation that some straights recognize the rights of gays to coexist in relativistic and legalistic (marriage) equality. In fighting for the rights of diverse others to be as they self-determine, so-called tolerant Americans also defend their own right to autonomous self-definition. It is as if they are saying:
Tolerance is the crowning virtue among those who honor difference as the desired norm. To tolerate is to affirm. I don’t judge you, you don’t judge me; neither of us has to feel bad. Neither of us has to change. We’re both just fine. In relativist America, diversity is the freest expression and tolerance is the finest attribute.
This postmodern or relativist view of truth gradually eclipsed ethical theism in America. Today, postmodernism or relativism is seen in such comments as: what I do or believe cannot be separated from who I am- thus, if you reject what I do or think, you reject me. How absurd and cowardly are such claims, for they excuse improvement and absolve us of the need for important introspection and useful change. The new tolerance is also reflected in the following statements that I often hear even among some LDS faithful (see McDowell and Hostetler, 1998):
· No one can tell you what is right or wrong.
· I can’t tell you what is right or wrong; you must decide for yourself.
· It’s wrong to try and impose (as thought one really could) my morals on someone.
· I have the right to do whatever I want so long as I am not hurting anyone.
· You have to do what you think is right.
· Those may be the values your parents taught you, but my parents taught me differently.
· Look…that’s your opinion.
These kinds of so-called tolerant comments argue against truth as an absolute, and- given their source, intentionally deny our Christian obligation to warn and be witnesses. Christians who use these arguments affirm relativist truth- that there really is no truth; and they avoid offending the devil in the process of showing relativists that they are equally tolerant in response to endless and fierce accusations of Christian intolerance. I am not saying that we should be obnoxious about our beliefs, but neither should we be ashamed of them- or of being different, even peculiar. For the sake of our faith, families, and freedom, we simply cannot afford to be too tolerant of sin or error- or of relativist attempts to make us irrelevant. Besides, we are commanded to open our mouths, with a promise that God will fill them (D&C 100: 5-8). We may not think that we have much to say about what is going on in the world today, but God may have much to say through us.
The Limitations of Tolerance
Since tolerance now means agreement, prepare to be called intolerant if you disagree with someone’s “sinful” of “errant” choices or relativist arguments- or if you seek to intervene in the choices they make or changes they advocate. Today, name-calling, as a tool for silencing criticism, is as common as it is silly. It stifles the beneficial dialogue that stems from disagreement, and silences those with better argument and truth on their side. Simply put, it empowers stupidity; besides, calling someone intolerant because they disagree with you is intellectually dishonest illogic. Imagine someone is watching you walk near a cliff. You are getting dangerously close- you may not appreciate how at risk you are. They do, but may be reluctant to say so because they do not wish to appear judgmental or overly aware of your business. They may reason that you know what you are doing. They may conclude that you want to fall from the cliff. Then they remember what their teachers taught them in school, that no one has the right to tell another person what to do or think. So they watch with ambivalence as you fall from the cliff.
This is the danger of demanding agreement or consent in tolerance, especially when the consequences of our personal choices can be so personally and socially damaging. Without a value system, I can watch the lives of others collapse around me with no more concern than the outcome of a golf tournament; personally, I am indifferent to golf. Tolerance, then, robbed of the virtue and benefit of absolute truth, becomes indifference. Why should I care what someone does? What is that to me? I absolve myself of your stupidity, but I support your right to be stupid. I might even jump with you to show my agreement as tolerance- and my equal stupidity.
I am being absurd to illustrate the absurdity of the new tolerance.
Love and Tolerance
Somewhere in the chaos of the 1960’s and 1970’s we lost the concept of the golden rule- do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This concept demands more of us than mere tolerance. It has at its core the commission to love one another; love requires effort and involvement on our part. It requires us to invest in one another. It requires of us to change and grow, for love may be unconditional, but relationships are not. To relate to others, we have to be willing to be changed by one another in right ways. Love, then, is the greatest of all virtues- including tolerance.
True love will not allow you to watch someone step off from a cliff. It will motivate you to at least try and intervene in their behalf. If that intervention is done in love, it sometimes saves us from ourselves. In my life, I am more indebted to those who have reached out to me in love than tolerated me in agreement or disinterest. I am a better person today because love won out over tolerance at critical times in my life when those motivated by higher virtues spoke the truth to me. These individuals demonstrated the truth of unconditional love. Unconditional love is not to love someone the way they are, but to love them despite the way they are. It is to see something better in them, and to encourage it when moved upon by love and spirit. Those who merely tolerate absolve themselves of the thorns, but they never help to grow the rose.
I will conclude with this comment on the power of true love. In the book of St. John (21: 15-18), Jesus thrice asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter would respond in the affirmative, and Christ would say, “Feed my sheep/lambs.” Not once did he ask Peter if he loved the sheep or lambs. Christ never said, “If you love them, feed them.” We do for one another because we love Christ. And as we do, our love for one another increases. Whom we love, we serve; whom we serve, we love. Love, then, is service. Service and love are greater than tolerance.
Our investment in reaching out to those who would otherwise be our political or ideological opposites is the fulfillment of a commandment to love all others- even our (ideological) enemies- in a manner of speaking. It is to do good to those that would spitefully use or ridicule us. And it would silence our critics. How, for example, could homosexuals accuse us of being hateful if we provided weekly comfort to sorrowing souls at an AIDS clinic? How could we be viewed as superior if we worked along side other faiths in promoting good causes in the world, as our Prophet has asked of us? The love that would develop between the giver and the receiver would change us both, recapture the vision of the Founders, and honor the principles of Christ.
We could melt much of the wax that encrusts love in these days by turning up the warmth of our love. We have no choice if we are serious about our covenants. We have no choice if we are serious about saving America. Tolerance will not save this nation. Love can- and if necessary, tough love; loving more also includes loving God more. Besides, we can ill afford to be the most tolerant of people in a nation ripening in iniquity- don’t confuse my argument of love with tolerance. We must become more loving of people, but less tolerant of sin. Sin depletes the nation of virtue. A nation that lacks virtue will not have much tolerance for Christians.
In my next article, I will discuss how relativism has turned to government and law for validation and protection. This has changed legislation and litigation in the past 40 years. Accordingly, we must be more vigilant about the direction our government and courts are taking, which is, toward the relativist’s utopia often referred to today as democratic socialism. I will argue that our leaders must do more to ensure virtue in American culture; this will not be easy. Too many of them are behaving in ways that Alexis de Tocqueville warned us against in his profound and careful writings entitled Democracy in America. By extending the Entitlements of Liberty to some in the name of equality, our leaders are further dividing the nation and increasingly driving us down the socialist path. This is intolerable.
Buchanan, Pat (2002). The Death of the West. New York: St. Martins Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1970). God in the Dock. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans Publishing.
McDowell, Josh, & Hostetler, (1998). The New Tolerance. Wheaton, ILL: Tyndale House Publishing.
Wells, David F. (1993). No place for truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.