Tolerance: The Shifting Definition

The eminent New Testament scholar D. A. Carson has a new book out called the Intolerance of Tolerance and as the title suggests it tackles an interesting subject. Although I haven’t finished the book yet, I think I’m on safe ground saying that the author’s primary point is that the definition of tolerance has changed over the past couple of decades and that shift has major repercussions on both our public and religious life.

The older meaning of tolerance was that people were able to express their beliefs and opinions and argue for their validity while respecting (tolerating) the rights of people who held contrary beliefs and opinions to do the same. This kind of tolerance led to this quote often attributed to Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

The new tolerance has shifted the focus from your right to state your beliefs to your right not to be offended. According to the old definition of tolerance there is objective truth but the new definition says that all claims are equally true. To be tolerant is to not claim that your beliefs are truer than any others.

Carson spends an entire chapter cataloging examples of this new tolerance and how it has stifled public conversation. Suffice it to say that while this shift has affected everyone, it has especially affected Christians who believe that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). And this is where the new tolerance has become intolerant. Christians are pushed out of the public square for the simple fact that they aren’t willing to say that all religions are equally true and all moralities equally valid. It seems that those who advocate the new tolerance are intolerant of those who believe differently than they do.

One of the repercussions of this new line of thinking is that those who are involved in public life are encouraged to keep their religious views private. In other words it is fine to hold religious views as long as you don’t bring them into the public discussion. Along these lines Carson raises the issue in the recent past of Roman Catholic politicians who say that they are personally pro-life but that they will vote in a manner that favors the pro-choice movement. In doing so they often appeal to the separation of church and state. Regardless of their rationale, these people are following the demands of the new tolerance in that they are keeping their religious beliefs separate from their public actions.

In response some Catholic bishops have refused to serve communion to those politicians because they have publicly and flagrantly rejected the church’s teachings. This has driven much of the media to shock and incredulity. How could the churches break down the separation between church and state and how could they be so intolerant? Note that the church is deemed intolerant for the simple fact that it dares call abortion wrong.

Carson argues that only very recently in America has it been considered wrong to articulate or vote on moral beliefs that are grounded in religious teaching. He then quotes a passage from a speech given by Abraham Lincoln in which the president was addressing those who were personally against slavery even while they would not want slavery to be denounced as wrong.

“But those who say they hate slavery, and are opposed to it,…where are they? Let us apply a few tests. You say that you think slavery is wrong, but you denounce all attempts to restrain it. Is there anything else you think wrong, that you are not willing to deal with as a wrong? Why are you so careful, so tender of this wrong and no other? You will not let us do a single thing as if it was wrong; there is no place where you will allow it to be even called wrong! We must not call it wrong in the Free States, because it is not there, and we must not call it wrong the Slave States because it is there; we must not call it wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics, and we must not call it wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion…and there is not single place, according to you, where a wrong thing can be called a wrong thing!”

(Speech at New Haven, Connecticut in 1860)

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