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Restoring True Tolerance

by Marty Clapp, James Umber, and Amanda Umber, 10.28.14 (updated 10.28.16)

     The examples of intolerance in our society are numerous.  There was the interview with Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy, on the Ken Coleman Show, in which Mr. Cathy said, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage'.  I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."[1]  People were so outraged by this that even Philadelphia councilman Jim Kenney wrote to Mr. Cathy, saying, "As an American, you are legally entitled to your opinion, regardless of how insensitive and intolerant it may be, but as a fellow American and an elected member of Philadelphia City Council, I am entitled to express my opinion as well.  So please – take a hike and take your intolerance with you."[2]  You also have the interview in

which the Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson was asked what is sinful, and Mr. Robertson replied: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.  Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."[3]  His comments offended the gay community to the point that A&E suspended Mr. Robertson and GLAAD representative Wilson Cruz stated, "By taking quick action and removing Robertson from future filming, A&E has sent a strong message that discrimination is neither a Christian nor an American value."[3]  Or there was the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that was trying to convert people of the Jewish faith in Chicago.[4]  The Jewish community was incensed.  In fact, on an episode of Larry King Live completely devoted to this controversy, Rabbi Schmuley Boteach had a message for the SBC: "I would advise you to embrace tolerance, because clearly your belief system that you have now adopted is leading you to be intolerant.  You want to convert your Jewish brethren to a spiritually totalitarian system."[5]

     I see intolerance all around.  But, you might be surprised to discover that, in each of these cases, I don't think that it was the Christian who was being intolerant.  It doesn't matter if I disagree with the Christians in these examples or not.[6]  My opinion of their comments does not matter.  Either way, I actually think it was those who were calling for tolerance that were being intolerant.  Sound confusing?  Well, I think the whole issue can be cleared up by simply defining the word "tolerance."
     Let me explain.  In each of these cases, it was because of their unaccepting views that the Christians were labeled "intolerant."  If Dan Cathy and Phil Robertson were more accepting of homosexuality, they would be allowed to join the ranks of the tolerant.[7]  If the SBC was more accepting of other faiths, they would be seen as tolerant.[8]  So tolerance, on this reckoning, is about accepting other views as equally valid.
     However, there is a major problem with this definition for tolerance – it’s self-contradictory.  Those promoting tolerance expected others to accept same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and other religions as equally valid moral and religious ideas.  Yet, Councilman Kenney did not accept Mr. Cathy's opinion as equally valid.[9]  Mr. Cruz did not accept Mr. Robertson's view as equally valid.[10]  And Rabbi Boteach did not accept the SBC's religious view as equally valid.[11]
     As it turns out, if tolerance means accepting all views, then no one can be tolerant since that view itself doesn't accept anyone who disagrees with it.  It’s like writing the English sentence, "I can't write in English."  The written sentence invalidates itself - it proves itself wrong.  Similarly, if tolerance requires accepting all views as equally valid, then we must accept intolerance as equally valid.  It is a contradiction and cannot be lived out consistently.
     May I suggest a better definition for tolerance - the classic definition?[12]  Tolerance is being respectful and civil toward those with whom we disagree.  So, we treat other people as equal in value, but not necessarily their ideas.  Some ideas and opinions are going to be better than others,[13] but no person is better than another.  So, we respectfully hear out those with whom we disagree.
     One thing I'd like you to notice is that when we adopt the classic definition of tolerance, not only do we avoid the contradiction, but we recognize that tolerance requires disagreement.  If we are in agreement with someone, there is nothing to tolerate.  Bringing this back to the examples of Councilman Kenney, Mr. Cruz, and Rabbi Boteach, it is because I disagree with them, that I have the opportunity to tolerate their intolerant attitudes by showing respect and civility toward them.  This is a much more robust form of tolerance than the self-contradictory form of tolerance common in our society today.
     If someone accuses you of intolerance, this is a good opportunity to ask him what tolerance means.  If he says that tolerance means treating all views as equal, take note that he is not treating your view as equal.  He is saying you are wrong.  Take the time to point out the contradiction, but do it in a respectful way, lest we be guilty of true intolerance.

Put your new knowledge into action...



  1. "What Dan Cathy Said." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (July 26, 2012) Retrieved September 11, 2014

  2. Wigglesworth, Alex. “Councilman Jim Kenney Tells Chik-fil-A President Dan Cathy To ‘Take A Hike’ For Anti-Gay Marriage Comments.” Metro (07.25.2012)

  3. Mr. Robertson also made some comments about anatomy that offended many in the gay community, but were not included above for the sake of any young people that might be reading this article. See: Goldberg, Lesley. “’Duck Dynasty’s’ Phil Robertson on Indefinite Hiatus Following Anti-Gay Remarks.” The Hollywood Reporter (12.18.2013)

  4. To be clear, the Southern Baptist Convention organized a large group of Christians to share their beliefs with people of all worldviews across Chicago. Because the Christians were likely to encounter adherents of Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, the SBC produced a prayer guide specific to these religions. These prayer guides were then handed out to the large evangelistic team. See: Bloom, Linda. “Chicago Religious Leaders Make Plea Against Proselytizing.” United Methodist News Service (11.20.1999){53582E44-C6DC-4D75-8C72-F57D38C28891}&mid=3368

  5. McDermott, Jim. “The Letter U.S. Congressmen Sent The Southern Baptists.” (01.15.2000)

  6. The reason I think they were not intolerant has nothing to do with whether I agree with them and it has nothing to do with the fact that they are Christians. They could be Jewish, Hindu, Atheist, or any other worldview and it would have nothing to do with whether they are intolerant.

  7. According to Councilman Kenney, the tolerant approach would be to “embrace all our differences and diversities…” Mr. Cruz suggested that the tolerant attitude would be to “support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples.” In both cases tolerance is understood as accepting other moral perspectives.

  8. In fact, Rabbi Boteach equates tolerance with inclusivism. He says, “I would advise to you to turn back to your Jewish roots, and embrace that kind of inclusivism. I would embrace -- I would advise you to embrace tolerance…” He then goes on to label the attempt to convert others as intolerant, saying “because clearly your belief system that you have now adopted is leading to you be intolerant. You want to convert your Jewish brethren to a spiritual totalitarian system.”

  9. In fact, Councilman Kenney’s letter went on to state (in the fourth paragraph) that he condemns Mr. Cathy for his opinion.

  10. Mr. Cruz was commending A&E for firing Mr. Robertson from the show. Oddly enough, Mr. Cruz was praising A&E’s actions as a stand against discrimination, while the action itself was an act of discrimination (discrimination against Mr. Robertson for thinking that homosexuality is a sin).

  11. Throughout the show Rabbi Boteach describes the SBC’s religious view as nefarious, insipid, barbaric, totalitarian, and even compares them to the Nazis.

  12. In American history, “tolerance” has typically entailed disagreement. More specifically, it entails permitting others to disagree, while maintaining respect. The Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 defined “tolerance” as, “The endurance of the presence or actions of objectionable persons, or of the expression of offensive opinions; toleration.” See “Tolerance (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913).” American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language Project (The University of Chicago)

  13. For example, to avoid being struck by lightning, the idea of crouching in a hole is better than hiding under a tree. Nevertheless, the people suggesting these two ideas are both equal in value.

Recommended Resources:

"The Intolerance of Tolerance"

article by Greg Koukl


The Beauty of Intolerance

book by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell


The Intolerance of Tolerance

book by Dr. D. A. Carson


Anchor: Tolerance Footnotes
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