How do we rehabilitate this word?
First, we must insist that tolerance does not mean agreement, nor does disagreement mean intolerance. Tolerance actually suggests disagreement, for when you agree with someone, you do not merely tolerate him, you agree with him and welcome his opinions. We must patiently explain that disagreement or disapproval of one another’s opinions and actions is expected in a secular society where we have been thrown together through the involuntary forces of birth and economics. Peace is preserved by tolerating the other person’s opinion, and even action, though we may, and should be permitted to, voice public disagreement or disapproval.
Second, we must distinguish between private intolerance and public intolerance. Private intolerance may be disassociating with someone, switching off the radio or closing the browser window, refusing to purchase or sell somewhere, or refusing someone admission to your home. These intolerances are part of the freedoms of individuals. For a government to mandate or forbid these freedoms for the society at large, or for individuals to call for such, is tyranny. I cannot expect a secular society to outlaw what I refuse in my own home or private company, if such is not destructive to the society at large, nor can I insist they mandate all that I tolerate or choose. Conversely, unless my speech or activity is physically destructive to persons or property, no government should outlaw what I tolerate in my private capacity. We must maintain a clear distinction between the private freedom to disagree and disassociate, from what governments get to do through force.
Third, public intolerance (for that is the kind people are really talking about) can only be enacted by human government. What a society deems to be intolerable to its existence (murder, theft, treason) can only be removed by the rule of law. Human government is established by God for the preservation of order in human society. However much Christians feel the evil of abortion, no Christian is authorised to enact some form of public intolerance: harming doctors performing abortions, blocking access to abortion clinics, or sabotaging the private property of such places. Vigilante justice only increases the chances of anarchy, which is always followed by tyranny. In times of confusion, Christians of all people should make it clear that public intolerance belongs to the civil authorities.
Finally, Christians should do their utmost to urge that civil law be based upon natural law. As societies abandon transcendent moral principles, they flounder to judge what is genuinely tolerable and intolerable to a society. At such moments, rulers are susceptible to popular opinion, particularly the increasingly vocal opinions of the liberal left. If enough people claim that Christian orthodoxy is hate-speech, rulers may imagine a real threat to society where there is none, and make publicly intolerable what ought to be a matter of private intolerance. People don’t have to listen to Christian radio stations or read Christian books, but Christians should have the freedom to state Christian ideas in public. As long as those ideas (whether implemented or merely considered) do not incite violence – i.e. public intolerance – the society should tolerate their expression. Natural law will consider whether ideas and their expression harm the public good, by considering if those ideas and expressions are good or evil, not if they are popular or current with the prevailing political correctness.
As long as Christians accept the way the word tolerance is currently used, we will become slowly strangled by its anti-Christian meanings. Let us graciously challenge error with truth.