Tolerance is our culture's supreme virtue. Whether it is Glee plot lines about homosexual children or battles about the role religion may play in the public square—from Christmas trees to Catholic Charities—the buzzword is "tolerance."
Casual observers might note, however, that tolerance has undergone a change in meaning. What once meant recognizing other people's right to have different beliefs and practices now means accepting the differing views themselves. Vestiges of the old tolerance—conscience protections for medical professionals, religious liberty, and open discussions—are on the way out. Nowadays, conscience protections are frowned upon, threats to religious freedom prompt Congressional hearings, and "glitter bombs" replace meaningful debate.
This shift from accepting the existence of different views to believing that all views are equally valid is "subtle in form, but massive in substance," explains D. A. Carson in his new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Eerdmans). And it comes with a huge caveat: Under the "new tolerance," it's a sin not to accept the new definition. Sanctions can and will be imposed.
"What the new tolerance means," Carson writes, "is that the government must be intolerant of those who do not accept the new definition of tolerance." In this vein, tolerance becomes an absolute good with the power to erode moral and religious distinctives. Or, as the United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance puts it, "Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism." Leave it to the U.N. to come up with a dogmatic and absolutist rejection of dogma and absolutism!
Take, for example, the growing phenomenon of campus policies requiring student organizations to allow practicing homosexuals to be leaders. Efforts to enforce inclusion result in excluding groups that, as a matter of conscience, can't submit to the secular doctrine. Complex moral issues can't be discussed when everything is mapped on the tolerant/intolerant axis.
But the tolerance mandate only applies selectively, in protection of certain secular values. Adherents of the new tolerance, thinking themselves free from any binding ethical, moral, and religious systems of thought, assume the secular frame of reference to be morally neutral. On this understanding, imposing their values cannot possibly impose upon anyone. In the name of tolerance, Carson writes, the secularists assert that "they have the right to control the public sphere because they are right—completely unaware that they are trying to impose their worldview on others who disagree with it."
Carson shows the structural flaws and inconsistency of modern tolerance and its fixation on opposing traditional Christianity. By tracing its path through civic institutions, public discourse, academia, the government, and finally the church, Carson demonstrates "how controlling the discussions of tolerance and intolerance can be, precisely because there are no other widely agreed categories for right and wrong."
The Intolerance of Tolerance is not a political jeremiad so much as a call for Christians to fight for the value of truth. He shows how Christianity doesn't fit into the world of new tolerance and, when it tries, ends up paying too high a price. The result is a dumbed-down, diluted, and minimized gospel.
While the book is bracing, Carson ends on a hopeful note. He gives Christians 10 suggestions for dealing with intolerant tolerance, from simply exposing its arrogance and internal inconsistencies to speaking truthfully and civilly. He reminds Christians that they should be prepared to suffer in defense of the faith, before ending on a joyful note about trusting in God over government.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a contributing writer at GetReligion.org.
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The Intolerance of Tolerance is available from Christianbook.com and other retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on tolerance include:
Proselytizing in a Multi-Faith World | Why mutual respect and tolerance require us to witness for Christ. (March 28, 2011)
The Sin of Tolerance | Billy Graham's 1959 radio address. (October 28, 2008)
This Samaritan Life | How to live in a culture that is vaguely suspicious of the church. (February 7, 2008)
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