Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Is Tolerance a Virtue?

David T. Koyzis


April 20, 2012

By David T. Koyzis

Is tolerance a virtue? This question cannot be addressed without an adequate understanding of the meaning of the word “tolerance,” on which there is some confusion at present. Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own.” To tolerate means to recognize and allow that others hold convictions or follow certain practices with which one disagrees.

Tolerance is closely connected with those basic personal liberties guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. We may hotly disagree with those arguing for loosening or tightening environmental regulations, but we nevertheless permit our opponents to express such viewpoints for the sake not only of enabling us to live together in a pluralistic society, but also of helping our political office-holders properly to weigh policy alternatives before acting on them.

However, many North Americans erroneously assume that tolerance implies approval or affirmation. Therein lie the seeds of a heavy-handed form of intolerance that would try to secure uniformity through the apparatus of government or public education. This is most obvious with respect to religious freedom. On the surface, it seems the height of tolerance to affirm that all religions are equally valid; however, no existing religion could possibly accept this statement without denying its own tenets. Christians believe that God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, apart from whom there is no salvation. A religion is not merely a cultural artifact like architectural styles or musical forms, among which there is a legitimate diversity. To be a Jew means to believe that God has entered into a covenant relationship with his people centered in the Torah. To be a Muslim entails belief that God has revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the five pillars of Islam.

To the contrary, genuine tolerance means to accept the legitimacy of different people believing that God has revealed himself – or the gods have revealed themselves – in different and mutually incompatible ways. To assert that all religions are equally true is simply a nicer way of saying that all religions are equally false. Yet to tolerate religious diversity means that we must accept that different faith communities are bound to specific confessional and behavioral standards, with which not everyone will agree.

This is where context plays a central role. Flesh-and-blood human beings are members of multiple, overlapping communities of different kinds, each of which sets different outer boundaries. Thus, a conviction appropriately tolerated in one context might not be properly tolerated in another.

The gathered church community is open to all comers, but membership therein is limited to those who confess that Jesus is Lord. On the other hand, citizenship in the American republic belongs to all who are born in the United States or are naturalized later in life. There is no religious test for citizenship. For purposes of citizenship in the political community, we properly – perhaps even virtuously – tolerate both those who confess that Jesus is Lord and those who cannot in good conscience make such a profession of faith. In the gathered church, however, to tolerate the denial that Jesus is Lord can scarcely be virtuous, because such a denial places one outside the fold.

Nevertheless, church members may legitimately disagree on a variety of policy options, even if they agree in general that God calls political authorities to do public justice. Will raising the minimum wage genuinely help the working poor, or will it produce a steep unemployment rate? Church bodies must be prepared to tolerate a certain diversity in political beliefs among their members.

The only way to determine when and where tolerance is and is not appropriate is to recognize the respective norms governing state and church. A general appeal to tolerance will not take us very far. North American Protestantism in particular features church denominations that permit all sorts of confessionally heterodox views, yet take firm, seemingly nonnegotiable positions on highly contestable social and political issues. This represents a general failure to grasp the norms most applicable to the institutional church and can only produce a skewed tolerance scarcely to be labeled virtuous.

Is tolerance, then, a genuine virtue? Yes, but only if we understand it as a communally differentiated and normed tolerance.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has just completed a second book on authority, office and the image of God.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”