Can Intolerance Be A Virtue?

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Recently, Newsnights Emily Maitlis discussed a report that had been published by the independent cross-party think-tank Demos as part of their At Home in One’s Past project. The title may sound fancy, but in a nut-shell it was trying to gauge public opinion about how people viewed modern British Society and culture by inviting people to reflect upon a series of typical statements (sometimes provocative) heard in modern society. The focus groups in question contained a diverse mix of citizens by age, socio-economic status and ethnicity. However, the vast majority of participants were white British people over the age of 55 and although the survey covered a wide range of areas those relating to cultural identity were particularly interesting. The common view was that all participants wanted to be treated with decency and fairness and took great pride in the fact that Britain was on the whole a fair and just society. However, participants also reported (and I quote) “feeling that British politics and the media now focus too heavily on the rights and needs of minority groups, and that there is an absence of ‘fair exchange’ of tolerance between minority groups and dominant White British, Christian Culture – which is expected to constantly adapt” (end quote). The report stated that Political Correctness was widely seen as having been overextended to such an extent that it was now not only hindering free speech and open debate but quickly changing British culture to the regret of our older citizens. One of the interviewees on the television programme reminded us quite rightly that we should be careful about the things that we say because our words have consequences, but another argued that the mood had changed to such a degree that people were reluctant to speak their mind because they were afraid of the backlash that their ‘out-of-step’ and perhaps traditional views might create. In other words, the ‘fair exchange of tolerance’ wasn’t working towards those who had suddenly discovered that their traditional values weren’t currently popular or mainstream.

So, what is tolerance and to what extent can it be described as a Christian virtue? The Cambridge Dictionary describes tolerance as ‘the willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them’, but Don Carson in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance has noted how in recent times there has been a subtle shift from defending the rights of those who hold different beliefs to affirming all beliefs as equally valid and correct in which case it becomes increasingly difficult to say, ‘I disagree with you’.

Many would applaud such Christian values as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10.27) or ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6.31) which would seem to support a mutual sense of love and respect for one another, but statements such as these can’t be used to imply that anything goes or that there is no difference between right and wrong. In fact, most people including Christians should be prepared to passionately defend what they believe even if this appears on the surface to be intolerant to those who assume the cultural norm – not just in matters of fairness, social equality and justice but in matters of faith such as ‘salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4.12). People have every right to disagree with this statement but they have no right to suggest that it shouldn’t be viewed or aired for that would be equally intolerant and contrary to free speech, our traditional British values and Christian heritage.


“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Timothy 4.2


Published by

Stephen Thorp

Rector of Necton, Holme Hale, North & South Pickenham with Houghton on the Hill

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