By Ryan Francis
Twenty-first century America is a society rich in diversity. However, that diversity proposes many challenges, not least of which is religious tolerance. The need for a plan of action in this area of society is clear when we see the FBI reporting religious bias as the second highest hate crime motivation. Notable religious leaders, such as Randall Terry, founder of the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, are also sounding off with such sentiments as, “I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…Our goal is a Christian nation. We are called by God to conquer this country” (Newberg). In response to the problems of violence and hatred, Americans today tend to believe in a tolerance that ascribes equal validity to many religions. A recent national poll showed 70% of Americans believe “many religions can lead to eternal life.” This form of tolerance seeks pluralistic religious dialogue that appreciates all religions and what they can contribute to “enrich” an individual.
However, this stampede to promote tolerance and peace has excluded essential Christian beliefs from the landscape. Christianity proclaims Jesus Christ as the exclusive Savior of the world. The new tolerance denies the possibility of an exclusive religion. Christianity teaches that one must be converted to Christ to receive eternal life. The new tolerance rejects both the effort to proselytize, and the notion that conversion is necessary for eternal life. It believes that no religion should be held higher than another. In an effort to stop hatred, we have twisted the notion of tolerance to the point that it is no longer acceptable to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only way to eternal life. The very life of our Christian faith is at stake.
How shall we, as American Christians, frame the relationship between Jesus Christ and religious tolerance? We should renounce all means of violence and forced coercion to spread our faith. We should promote equality among all religions, philosophies, or world views as they strive to influence our culture. And we should lovingly point out errors in other faiths that are accurate representations of what the sacred texts or spokesmen espouse to believe.
This brand of tolerance is essential to the Christian gospel. It promotes a God-centered tolerance that makes room for non-Christian faiths, including atheistic beliefs. This is not because a Christian form of tolerance proposes that all religions are equal. Instead, it accommodates the central Christian doctrine that conversion is a supernatural miracle of divinely given faith that can never be forcibly coerced. Since conversion is not a forcible event, all religions are accepted in a free democratic society and open religious dialogue ensues. Christianity openly proclaims to be an exclusive message but no forced coercion is utilized. Instead of force, the message is spread through individual lives of love and service, so every other religious faith may coexist (Piper).
Proponents of the new tolerance will probably argue it is not loving to tell anyone he must convert to a particular religion. However, if we really believe Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, then it would be an intense act of hatred to not tell others about Him. Furthermore, it is a misconception to blur the line between criticism of belief and personal mistreatment. The Christian message does not permit any form of mistreatment of individuals who do not accept Christ.
Many postmodernists will also object to the very nature of the idea of proclaiming an exclusive message. They will certainly see it as arrogance. In response, we must make clear that Christianity is not the triumph of the best argument among religions, but a trusting faith in the person of Jesus Christ. We must also demonstrate that we are not people possessing superior intellect to find the only way, but sinful people in desperate need of a crucified and resurrected Savior.
In sum, then, in order to respond to the problem of religious hate in our day, Christianity must assert itself firmly in favor of religious tolerance. Not a tolerance that ascribes equal validity to all beliefs, but one that is willing to die to spread our faith before we would ever kill.
If you liked this article, check out The End of Faith: Does Religious Tolerance Make Any Sense?
Ryan is a student at Illinois College and will graduate in 2011 with a degree in Mathematics. He is the President of the campus ministry Brothers and Sisters in Christ and plans to go to Seminary after he graduates.