September/October 2002

Truth & Tolerance

by Josh McDowell with Bob Hostetler

Today's definition of tolerance goes beyond respecting a person's rights; it demands praise and endorsement of that person's beliefs, values and lifestyle.

My son Sean was a high school senior when I asked, "Son, in twelve years of public school, were you ever taught any absolute truth?"

"Sure," he said.

Surprised, I asked him what absolute truth he had learned.

He shrugged. "Tolerance," he said.

I have since discovered that Sean's experience is common. Tolerance has become the cardinal virtue, the sole absolute of our society, and our children hear it preached every day in school and from government, media and their friends. Yet few of us understand what our society really means today when the word tolerance is used.

One Word, Two Meanings

The traditional definition of tolerance means simply "to recognize and respect (others' beliefs, practices, etc.) without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing" with them. This attitude -- that everyone has a right to his own opinion -- is what tolerance means to most of us.

But today's definition is vastly different. This new tolerance means to consider every individual's beliefs, values, lifestyle and truth claims as equally valid. So not only does everyone have an equal right to his beliefs, but all beliefs are equal. The new tolerance goes beyond respecting a person's rights; it demands praise and endorsement of that person's beliefs, values and lifestyle.

I believe that fundamental change in meaning -- and thinking -- represents one of the greatest shifts in history -- and most people are missing it.

In our book, The New Tolerance, my co-author and I outline ten dangerous implications of the new tolerance. I will not mention all ten here, but I will state my belief that unless Christian churches and families recognize and respond to the new tolerance, the beginning of the next millennium is likely to be marked by:

The repression of public discourse. For decades, I have addressed millions of high school and college students about Jesus Christ and the historical evidence for his life and resurrection. As might be expected, I would often get heckled by people saying such things as, "Prove it!" and "I don't believe you." But recently I have witnessed a startling shift. Now my attacker invariably says, "How dare you say that?" "Who do you think you are?" The issue is no longer the truth of the message, but the right to proclaim it. In the new cultural climate, any unpopular message can be labeled "intolerant" and, therefore, repressed.

The privatization of convictions. Because the new tolerance declares that all beliefs are equally valid, Christians will face increasing pressure to be silent about their convictions -- in school, at work and in the public square -- because to speak out will be seen as an intolerant judgment of others' beliefs and lifestyles.

Shannon Berry, a first-grader at Bayshore Elementary School in Bradenton, Florida, began talking to a classmate at recess one day about their mutual faith in Christ. A teacher, overhearing the conversation, drew both of them aside and reprimanded them, telling them that they were "not allowed to talk about Jesus at school" (And Nothing But the Truth by Jay Sekulow and Keith Fournier Atlanta: Thomas Nelson, 1996, p. 82). The rise of the new tolerance makes the sharing of our faith an increasingly dangerous proposition.

The new wave of religious persecution. For years I puzzled over why a crucifix, a Christian symbol, suspended in a jar of urine is considered art, yet displaying a homosexual symbol in a jar of urine would be decried as a hate crime. That paradox reflects our society's shift from a Judeo-Christian culture to an increasingly and aggressively anti-Judeo-Christian culture. As the new tolerance permeates our culture, a new wave of unpopularity -- and even persecution -- is likely to be encountered, not only by Christians, but also by observant Jews and possibly Muslims, because these faiths profess to be based on divine revelation.

What Does the Lord Require?

It is not too late, however, to avoid such a scenario, but I believe doing so will require effort in three areas:

We must humbly pursue truth. It may be difficult to speak the truth in today's climate, but Jesus said, "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Pursuing truth (in this context) means countering the new doctrine of tolerance. It means teaching our children to embrace all people, but not all beliefs. It means showing them how to listen to and learn from all people, without necessarily agreeing with them. It means helping them to courageously, but humbly, speak the truth, even if it makes them the object of scorn or hatred.

But we must always remember that when the apostle Peter told us to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have," he added, "But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15).

We must aggressively practice love. Everyone loves love, it seems, but few recognize how incompatible love is with the "new tolerance." Tolerance simply avoids offending someone; we must help our children live in love, which actively seeks to promote the good of another person.

Tolerance says, "You must approve of what I do." Love responds, "I must do something harder; I will love you, even when your behavior offends me."

Tolerance says, "You must agree with me." Love responds, "I must do something harder; I will tell you the truth, because I am convinced that 'the truth will set you free.'"

Tolerance says, "You must allow me to have my way." Love responds, "I must do something harder; I will plead with you to follow the right way, because I believe you are worth the risk."

Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks. Tolerance glorifies division; love seeks unity.

Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.

I believe the dreadful potential of the "new tolerance" can be averted, but only with a renewed commitment to truth, justice and love. And, as it happens, that powerful trio of virtues can do more than prevent disaster; it can bring about true community and culture in the midst of diversity and disagreement. 

Josh McDowell is a speaker, author and traveling representative for Campus Crusade for Christ. His books include Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter.

Bob Hostetler is an award-winning writer who lives in Hamilton, Ohio. His books include the best-selling Right From Wrong (co-authored with Josh McDowell) and They Call Me A.W.O.L.


Countering the New Tolerance:
Practical Pointers for Parents

  • Remember: you are in charge of your children's education, not their teachers, principals or school board. Know what they are being taught. Express any concerns graciously, but firmly.
  • Similarly, remember that you are in charge of raising your children, not Hollywood, Madison Avenue or the toy companies. No matter how much your teens may object, it is your responsibility to say "no" to games, music, movies or other forms of entertainment that undermine or compromise Christian standards.
  • Be careful not to delegate the Christian education of your children to the church; take an active role, using the principle shown in Deuteronomy 6:6-9.
  • Strive to exalt truth instead of power, fact over fiction, documentation rather than speculation. Learn to ask politely, "Can you tell me how you know that?" "Where did you learn that?" "Can you offer any support for your view?"
  • Help your children understand, as early as possible, that words have meaning-and actions have consequences.
  • Help teens distinguish between thoughts and feelings; avoid saying "I feel" when you should say "I think."
  • Learn critical reading, viewing and listening-and teach it to your children. Learn to:

Understand (what is the book/show/song saying?);

Evaluate (how is the message presented? Are all sides shown? Is the author's/reporter's/performer's agenda evident-or hidden? How does the message compare with the truth of God's word?);

Respond (does my evaluation recommend accepting or rejecting the message?).

  • In confronting the culture, let your speech be "always full of grace, seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6). Make sure that, if you are persecuted or your freedoms are infringed, it is for righteousness' sake-and not because you have acted rudely or cruelly.
  • Pray (1 Timothy 2:1-2). It's easier to love and influence someone for whom you've been praying.
  • Build strong relationships with school board members, city council members, county commissioners, state representatives, members of congress and especially those politicians or activists who oppose you.



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