Gregory Koukl

Probably no concept has more currency in our politically-correct culture than the notion of tolerance. Unfortunately, one of America's noblest virtues has been so distorted it's become a vice.

There's one word that can stop you in your tracks. That word is "intolerant."

This idea is very popular with post-modernists, that breed of radical skeptics whose ideas command unwarranted respect in the university today. Their rallying cry, "There is no truth," is often followed by an appeal for tolerance.

The tolerant person allegedly occupies neutral ground, a place of complete impartiality where each person is permitted to decide for himself. No judgments allowed. No "forcing" personal views. That all views are equally valid is one of the most entrenched assumptions of a society committed to relativism. And it's a myth.

For all their confident bluster, the relativists' appeal actually asserts two truths, one rational and one moral. The first is the rational "truth" that there is no truth, a clear conflict. The second is the moral truth that one ought to tolerate other's viewpoints. Their stand, contradictory on at least two counts, serves as a warning that the modern notion of tolerance is seriously misguided.

The Tolerance Trick
As it turns out, by the modern definition of tolerance no one is tolerant, or ever can be. It's what my friend Francis Beckwith calls the "passive-aggressive tolerance trick." Returning to the classic understanding of tolerance is the only way to restore any useful meaning to the word. Let me give you a real life example.

Earlier this year I spoke to a class of seniors at a Christian high school in Des Moines, Iowa. I wanted to alert them to this "tolerance trick," but I also wanted to learn how much they had already been taken in by it. I began by writing two sentences on the board. The first expressed the current understanding of tolerance:

"All views have equal merit and none should be considered better than another."

All heads nodded in agreement. Nothing controversial here. Then I wrote the second sentence:

"Jesus is the Messiah and Judaism is wrong for rejecting Him."

Immediately hands flew up. "You can't say that," a coed challenged, clearly annoyed. "That's disrespectful. How would you like it if someone said you were wrong?"

"In fact, that happens to me all the time," I pointed out, "including right now with you. But why should it bother me that someone thinks I'm wrong?"

"It's intolerant," she said, noting that the second statement violated the first statement. What she didn't see was that the first statement also violated itself.


Gregory Koukl

Gregory Koukl is founder and president of Stand to Reason, an organization devoted to a thoughtful and engaging defense of classical Christianity in the public square. He is also a radio talk show host and author of Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.

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