The Shifting Definition of Tolerance
Until recently in our national history, tolerance referred to racial and religious non-discrimination. It meant civility in the political arena; in other words, respecting the right of others to express their views, even if we do not agree with them. It meant treating all people with decency and respect. Such tolerance is an important and vital part of our American heritage.
Today, however, the world is in danger of abandoning all sense of absolute right or wrong, all morality and virtue, replacing them with an all-encompassing “tolerance” that no longer means what it once meant. An extreme definition of tolerance is now widespread that implicitly or explicitly endorses the right of every person to choose their own morality, even their own “truth,” as though morality and truth were mere matters of personal preference. This extreme tolerance culminates in a refusal to recognize any fixed standards or draw moral distinctions of any kind. Few dare say no to the “almighty self” or suggest that some so-called “lifestyles” may be destructive, contrary to higher law, or simply wrong.
When tolerance is so inflated out of all proportions, it means the death of virtue, for the essence of morality is to draw clear distinctions between right and wrong. All virtue requires saying no firmly and courageously to all that is morally bankrupt.
Curiously enough, this new modern tolerance is often a one-way street. Those who practice it expect everyone to tolerate them in anything they say or do, but show no tolerance themselves toward those who express differing viewpoints or defend traditional morality. Indeed, their intolerance is often most barbed toward those of religious conviction. But let there be no misunderstanding or deception: the First Amendment right of free speech applies to religious speech as well as to other kinds of speech. Believers of all faiths have every right to participate in and share their convictions in the public arena.
Now let us go one step further. Even in its original and correct connotation, tolerance is surely a secondary virtue in comparison with the far higher virtue of love. Certainly it is good to be tolerant of those who are different than we are, treating them with kindness and civility. But love, or charity, is the highest of all, and it is far better to genuinely love those with whom we differ. When we truly love all of God’s children in a Christlike way, we will desire to bring them unto Christ, the fountain of all happiness. This means proclaiming the truth, defending that which is right, and in a mild voice inviting all to walk the path of Christ. By defending the traditional family, Latter-day Saints bless all people whether others recognize it now or not.
So perfect and exalted was Christ’s love for God’s children that He took upon Himself the penalty for their sins, descending below all things in the Garden of Gethsemane and dying for us on the cross at Golgotha. Yet He never compromised virtue nor tolerated sin in the slightest degree (seeD&C 1:31). He treated the woman taken in adultery with love and respect, putting her accusers to shame; nevertheless He said, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). The Master abhorred sin, because sin is the enemy of the human soul.
God’s love is sometimes described as unconditional. It is true that God loves all of His children on earth no matter how often or how far they may stray. But while God’s love is all-encompassing, His blessings are highly conditional, including the very blessing of being able to feel and experience His love. The further human beings stray from the path of righteousness, the less they will be capable of feeling divine love, because it is conveyed into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that God loves us less when we stray, only that we, by our choices and actions, have distanced ourselves from His love. How wondrous, then, is the gift of repentance, by which we can be brought back into accord with His will and feel again of His love.