Jesus Christ demonstrated the proper attitude towards tolerance for others when he rescued the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery. He told her he did not condemn her—because final judgment comes after death, not during life—but he also told her not to sin further.
Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spoken often on the subject of tolerance.
On the surface, it seems like an easy concept. In actual practice, however, it is not. Openly tolerating anything at all would throw the world into chaos. It would make legislation impossible, since we’d be required to tolerate any behavior at all, including murder. It would endanger everyone’s safety and put children at risk. As a society, we understand this and so we have laws.
Some laws come easily. Few people believe we should tolerate another person’s desire to commit murder or burglary, for instance. Other areas of behavior, however, have ever-growing supporters who want to change traditional understandings of behavior to set minimal standards for the world.
Elder Oaks recommends a balance between tolerance and truth. This protects society from the evils of the world while making it possible for people of differing standards to live together.
Unlike many today, Mormons believe in absolute truths, rather than moral relativity. This means they believe some things are always true, regardless of whether or not they are currently fashionable. Absolute truths must be defended by people of faith. God has promised blessings for honoring them and penalties for ignoring them, and these blessings and penalties are often applied to all nations.
Elder Oaks notes that people who believe in moral relativism have an easier time in life—at least on the surface—when it comes to tolerance:
“The weaker one’s belief in God and the fewer one’s moral absolutes, the fewer the occasions when the ideas or practices of others will confront one with the challenge to be tolerant. For example, an atheist has no need to decide what kinds and occasions of profanity or blasphemy can be tolerated and what kinds should be confronted. Persons who don’t believe in God or in absolute truth in moral matters can see themselves as the most tolerant of persons. For them, almost anything goes. This belief system can tolerate almost any behavior and almost any person. Unfortunately, some who believe in moral relativism seem to have difficulty tolerating those who insist that there is a God who should be respected and that there are certain moral absolutes that should be observed.”
Boyd K. Packer, a Mormon apostle, points out that such people often demand tolerance but seldom offer it to others who disagree with their views that there are no absolute truths. Their calls for tolerance usually only go one way.
Elder Oaks suggests that tolerance and truth need to be balanced in order for people of differing beliefs to co-exist. Believing people must never advocate for immorality, but they can choose what and how they carry out their beliefs. He begins with three absolute truths—truths that are always true, regardless of their popularity status:
- All people are children of God and this makes us all brothers and sisters. Most faiths teach love for God’s children, giving us a common foundation regardless of doctrinal details. President Gordon B. Hinckley, a previous Mormon president, said that we must not just tolerate, but respect those of other faiths.
- As children of God, we must live with people who have differences in doctrinal details. Jesus warned that the number of people who follow Christ—really follow Him—will always be small and the faithful will always experience persecution for their faithfulness. We need to fight for the religious freedom to carry out the practices of our faith in a world that might not respect them. We also need to be prepared to honor the good we see in others and to respect practices that may be different from our own, but still good.
- This respect does not cause us to support actual wickedness, as opposed to mere differences of opinion.
“Our tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs does not cause us to abandon our commitment to the truths we understand and the covenants we have made. That is a third absolute truth. We are cast as combatants in the war between truth and error. There is no middle ground. We must stand up for truth, even while we practice tolerance and respect for beliefs and ideas different from our own and for the people who hold them.”
Elder Oaks differentiates between tolerance for opinions and tolerance for practices. He says we must defend the rights of others to explain and express their beliefs, but that we don’t have to allow everything anyone believes to become legal. This, of course, is why we have laws that most people agree with. You can advocate many practices legally without actually being allowed to carry them out.
“…for persons who believe in absolute truth, tolerance for behavior is like a two-sided coin. Tolerance or respect is on one side of the coin, but truth is always on the other. You cannot possess or use the coin of tolerance without being conscious of both sides.”
This is the principle Jesus Christ used in handling the woman accused of adultery.
Elder Oaks then explains how we put into practice these principles. He begins by saying we must not be tolerant of our own sins. We who know what is true and moral must hold ourselves to the higher standard of behavior. We must also hold to the moral laws in teaching our children or others under our stewardship.
We have to decide when to speak out and when to remain silent when it comes to dealing with people in our own personal world. He suggests our decision there rests with how personally involved we are. We don’t, for instance, have to allow people to behave immorally in our own homes. Nor do we have to allow others to swear in our presence, since that impacts our own thoughts and access to inspiration. However, we do have to react in polite and respectful ways to those problems.
In the public square, the rules are a bit different. Here we have to pray and use inspiration to decide which issues need legal intervention. “Generally, they should refrain from seeking laws or administrative action to facilitate beliefs that are distinctive to believers, such as the enforcement of acts of worship, even by implication. Believers can be less cautious in seeking government action that would serve principles broader than merely facilitating the practice of their beliefs, such as laws concerning public health, safety, and morals.”
Believers also have to fight for religious freedom, since that freedom is necessary in order to carry out God’s work and to ensure our own eternal well-being. However, they need to advocate their case in a loving and respectful way—no name-calling or personal attacks.
They should not accept accusations that they are trying to legislate morality, since our legal system is largely based on Jewish and Christian values and always has been. The prohibition of murder is found in the Bible, long before modern governments made it a law. Nations cannot exist without some form of morality.
Elder Oaks concludes with the advice of Gordon B. Hinckley:
“Let us reach out to those in our community who are not of our faith. Let us be good neighbors, kind and generous and gracious. Let us be involved in good community causes. There may be situations where, with serious moral issues involved, we cannot bend on matters of principle. But in such instances we can politely disagree without being disagreeable. We can acknowledge the sincerity of those whose positions we cannot accept. We can speak of principles rather than personalities.”