Becoming Less Tolerant


I’m going to challenge you to do something a little scary and maybe even a little controversial. I’m going to challenge you to become less tolerant.

Less tolerant? But don’t we live in a pluralistic society that requires us to be tolerant of other people’s values, religions and even political views?” Yes, we do. And yet I’m still going to ask you to stop being tolerant.

Because maybe we need to replace tolerance with something else.

Tolerance and low expectations

If I simply tolerate you, it implies that I can barely stand to be around you. Tolerance is really just a short step away from loathing and hatred. We encourage tolerance because our expectations are too low. Social scientist Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, suggests that we “talk about ‘tolerance’ because we have low standards.”

In a recent discussion on the TED Radio Hour, Brooks explains that we don’t need more tolerance in our society. Instead, we have to recognize that we actually need people who are different from ourselves — ideologically, religiously and politically. We need to move beyond tolerance to respect, and the only way to do that is to be in relationship with people who are not like us. Believe it our not, being with people who are different actually helps us move towards the peace and unity we crave.

Tolerance and politics

Brooks’ concern with tolerance and respect is motivated by the current political environment. He refers to “political motive asymmetry” in politics. Essentially, that means both political sides believe their ideologies are based in love, while the opposing party’s’ ideologies are based in hate.

This type of misperception creates serious problems when it comes to tolerance, let alone respect. How can we respect an ideology or a person who we (wrongly) believe is motivated by hate? Unfortunately, we see how this type of thinking has impacted presidential politics. People are villainized and denigrated just for affiliating with the opposing party’s ideology.

Brooks says that the solution to political motive asymmetry is to recognize the value our presumed enemy brings to the table. For example, Democrats need to respect what Republicans bring to the discussion when they champion free markets, and Republicans need to respect the Democratic voices that remind us to care for the poor. Respecting — not tolerating or accepting — each other’s views can lead to cooperative efforts instead of conflicting ones. Common ground can be found, but not when we believe that the other person is motivated by hate.

Tolerance and the church

I suppose we expect politicians to act intolerant because they have a clear agenda. But what if this same type of “asymmetry” is at work in the church?

I live in a very curious place theologically. My faith journey and my profession have caused me to create relationships and friendships with people along the entire theological spectrum. I can honestly say that I have friends and colleagues who represent the best that conservative evangelicalism, liberal mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholic, and unaffiliated Christians have to offer. But walking in these many circles I can also tell you that there’s plenty of “religious motive asymmetry” to go around.

Christians of various doctrines and labels tend to view other Christian groups with suspicion and even judgement. Believing that the other camp’s ideology, theology or doctrine is wrong, the tendency is to create distance. Each group stays within the religious enclaves where people share their beliefs, values and worldviews.

This distance only makes it harder to experience the love and respect that comes from developing real relationships with people who are different from us. And without relationship, love and respect can never grow. We simply tolerate. Or maybe we don’t even do that.

The problem is that we can’t hope to have unity when we are unwilling to acknowledge that an authentic faith journey requires interactions with people who are different from us. Scripture describes our need for other people this way: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” Proverbs 27:17 (NRSV).

If you’ve ever sharpened a knife, you know that it only gets sharp from friction. Working and being in relationship with people who are different isn’t easy. There are conflicts and friction. But if we avoid those types of conflicts, we shut the door on what could be a transformational experience for everyone involved. It could have the power to transform not only us, but the church.

You’ve heard it said that no person is an island. Humans don’t do well in isolation. And if Proverbs and Arthur Brooks are right, we especially need people who are different from us.


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