By Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler

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

“Sure,” he said.

Surprised, I asked, “What absolute truth have you learned in public schools?”

He shrugged. “Tolerance,” he said.

I have since discovered that his experience is common. Tolerance has become the cardinal virtue, the sole absolute of our society. Yet many of us don’t understand what our schools and society—and sometimes our own teenagers—mean when they talk about tolerance.

In recent years, the meaning has changed drastically.

New Definitions

Many parents don’t realize that their children are speaking a different language. To some extent this has always been true; the slang and speech of youth have baffled generation after generation of parents. But the language differences between parent and child today are much more dangerous than youthful slang, for even when the words we use sound the same, our children don’t always mean the same as when Mom and Dad use those words.

The traditional definition of tolerance means “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—the concept our children are being taught in schools and through the media—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. All values are equal. All lifestyles are equal. All truth claims 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.

We are already feeling the effects of this “new” tolerance. It is why a Christian who objects to pornography in the neighborhood convenience store is dismissed as “intolerant.” It is why a Christian who espouses the Biblical view of homosexuality is denounced as “intolerant.” It is why a Christian who distributes pro-life leaflets near an abortion clinic is labeled “intolerant.” Such reactions are the logical and necessary result of this new definition of tolerance.

New Dangers

I believe that fundamental change in meaning and thinking represents one of the greatest shifts in history—we dare not miss it. We must instead prepare our children and teenagers for a culture totally different from the one in which their parents grew up, one which will be marked by:

The Repression of Public Discourse

I have addressed millions of high school and college students over the past three decades about Jesus Christ and the historical evidence for his life and resurrection. When I began touring and lecturing, I would often get heckled. I even welcomed it at times, because the heckler would respond to the substance of my message, saying such things as “Prove it!” and “I don’t believe you.”

But recently I have witnessed a startling shift. In the past few years that has changed. 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.

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, in the workplace, and in the public square, because to speak out will be seen as an intolerant judgment of others’ beliefs and lifestyles. This explains the ruling of Judge Samuel B. Kent of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, who decreed that any high school student mentioning the name of Jesus in a graduation prayer would be sentenced to a six-month jail term! He wrote:

“And make no mistake, the court is going to have a United States marshal in attendance at the graduation. If any student offends this court, that student will be summarily arrested and will face up to six months incarceration in the Galveston County Jail for contempt of court. Anyone who thinks I’m kidding about this order… [or] expressing any weakness or lack of resolve in that spirit of compromise would better think again. Anyone who violates these orders, no kidding, is going to wish that he or she had died as a child when this court gets through with it.”

Our children today face a culture that commands us to be silent about our Christian convictions. Silence, which will increasingly force a choice between obeying man and obeying God (Acts 5:29). The proponents of the new tolerance argue that we are free to believe whatever we like; we should just keep it private. But as sociologist S. D. Gaede says, “I cannot be mute about my convictions…it is precisely those convictions that committed me to truth and justice in the first place.”

The New Wave of Religious Persecution

Some years ago, I asked my daughter whether she feared being called any names or labelled in any way at school. I was surprised at her answer. She responded immediately that she was afraid of being called “intolerant.” That label was enough to strike fear into the heart of my teenage daughter, because the accusation alone is enough to invite retribution and persecution, all in the name of tolerance.

The danger is not confined to those in large cities or public schools. One fourteen-year-old girl ran into trouble in her parochial school history class. The class was instructed to write a constitution for a pseudo-country. The discussion turned into a debate when the girl politely objected to a suggestion that the constitution include freedom of sexual preference and maintained that sexual preference didn’t deserve special mention in the constitution. Almost immediately, a classmate erupted, saying, “You’re a bigot!” The teacher intervened to prevent further name-calling, but the damage had been done; that fourteen-year-old’s parents had to help her cope with the undeserved label her classmates had given her.

Such incidents as these reflect our society’s shift from a Judeo-Christian culture to an increasingly and aggressively anti-Judeo-Christian culture. The claims of Jesus are considered too narrow by today’s definition, and the cross is viewed by many as the ultimate symbol of intolerance and bigotry, because the Gospel represents a direct and formidable challenge to the “new tolerance.” As the new tolerance permeates our culture, a new wave of unpopularity—and even persecution—is likely to be encountered by Christians…including our youth.

New Directions

The dangers and damage of the new tolerance are daunting, but we may take heart; there is hope. It is possible, not only to understand, but also to expose and counter the agenda of the new tolerance. It is possible, not only to keep our youth from being fooled by the new tolerance but also to instill within them a “more excellent way,” a way for them to “take [their] stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11b). It will not be easy, but I am confident that doing so will require a bold and concerted effort in three areas:

We Must Train Our Children to Pursue Truth

It may be difficult to speak the truth in today’s climate, but Jesus said, “the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). We must recover, without embarrassment or apology, the basic belief in truth that characterized Jesus Christ’s message and ministry. This means embracing all people, but not all beliefs; it means listening to and learning from all people, but not necessarily agreeing with them. Even if it makes us objects of scorn or hatred, we must courageously speak the truth in a “sympathetic, kindhearted, and humble” spirit, knowing that those who oppose the truth “are perishing…because they [refuse] to love the truth and so be saved” (1 Pet. 3:8, NASB; 2 Thess. 2:10, NIV).

We Must Train Our Children to Promote Justice

The prophet Micah once said, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to exercise loving-kindness” (Micah 6:8, author’s paraphrase). Justice used to be a dominant virtue in Western culture, but it has been supplanted by tolerance, because justice and the new tolerance cannot coexist; they are antithetical to each other. That is because justice requires a moral basis for discerning right from wrong; with tolerance, there is no right or wrong (except the sole virtue of tolerance). Yet God has called us to act justly, and the more Christians identify with and promote justice, the more we will discover that the moral principle of justice still resonates with believer and unbeliever alike.

We Must Train Our Children to Practice Aggressive Love

God also calls us (in Micah 6:8) to exercise loving-kindness. Christians are subject to a much higher standard than tolerance. We are called to follow the way of Christ, who accepted Samaritans and Phoenicians (Jn. 4; M.k 7:24-30), and treated even prostitutes and tax collectors with dignity (Lk. 7:36-50; 19:1-10). The Christian imperative exceeds tolerance, which simply avoids offending someone; we are commanded to “do everything in love” (1 Cor. 16:14), 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”—the repression of public discourse, the privatization of convictions, and the new wave of religious persecution—can be averted, but only if we train our children to exercise truth, justice, and love in their homes, schools, churches, and communities.

The odds may seem stacked against us, but we must do what God calls us to do. We must discern, teach, and choose right over wrong, truth over error, justice over injustice, and love over tolerance. Only then will we turn the tide from tolerance back to truth.

Please note: This article was the second place 1992 Article of the Year as selected by The Christian Communicator.

Photo by Moyan Brenn via Flickr