I was doing some research on Christians and tolerance and came across an old Billy Graham essay, “The Sin of Tolerance.” It appeared in Christianity Today in 1959. I wonder if he would stand by it today. It’s worth revisiting because I think many Christians today still think tolerance is a sin.
Graham takes Jesus as his model of intolerance, pointing out that Jesus was intolerant of hypocrisy, selfishness, and sin. Jesus, of course, thought all of those things wrong, and he spoke out against them, and he worked to eradicate them. But he did not persecute, kill, or crusade for laws against hypocrites and sinners. He didn’t avoid them, not rent housing to them, or bomb their countries.
It’s one thing to think something is wrong and to work to change it–according to Christian belief, his method of change was to die for our sins. It’s another not to tolerate it.
But maybe Graham misunderstood tolerance. He writes:
One of the pet words of this age is “tolerance.” It is a good word, but we have tried to stretch it over too great an area of life. We have applied it too often where it does not belong. The word “tolerant” means “liberal,” “broad-minded,” “willing to put up with beliefs opposed to one’s convictions,” and “the allowance of something not wholly approved.”
Tolerance, in one sense, implies the compromise of one’s convictions, a yielding of ground upon important issues. Hence, over-tolerance in moral issues has made us soft, flabby and devoid of conviction.
We have become tolerant about divorce; we have become tolerant about the use of alcohol; we have become tolerant about delinquency; we have become tolerant about wickedness in high places; we have become tolerant about immorality; we have become tolerant about crime and we have become tolerant about godlessness. We have become tolerant of unbelief.
What he describes here is not tolerance, properly understood, it’s indifference.
Graham concedes it’s a good word, so let’s see what’s good about it. Tolerance, from the latin tolerare, means to bear or endure. So something needs to create a burden, something needs to be endured. And what creates a burden is fundamentally different beliefs and practices. The virtue of tolerance is called upon to resist our natural tendency to despise, shun, harm and even kill those who have fundamentally different beliefs and practices. This is the good word of tolerance.