On Tolerance – Part 6 (Conclusion)

Elder Oaks: Three Principles on Tolerance

Elder Oaks recently spoke to the young adults of the Church about tolerance, and proposed three principles to guide them. The first is that all people are children of God, and so should be treated courteously. The second is that “living with differences is what the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us we must do.”[1]

The third principle is vital, however:

We do not abandon the truth and our covenants. 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.

While we must practice tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs, including their constitutional freedom to explain and advocate their positions, we are not required to respect and tolerate wrong behavior. Our duty to truth requires us to seek relief from some behavior that is wrong. This is easy to see when it involves extreme behaviors that most believers and nonbelievers recognize as wrong or unacceptable.[2]

When things are not extreme, however, the decisions become more difficult:

Profanity, cohabitation, and Sabbath breaking—excellent examples to illustrate how Latter-day Saints might balance their competing duties to truth and tolerance in their own lives in these difficult circumstances.

I begin with our personal conduct, including the teaching of our children. In applying the sometimes competing demands of truth and tolerance in these three behaviors and many others, we should not be tolerant with ourselves. We should be ruled by the demands of truth. We should be strong in keeping the commandments and our covenants, and we should repent and improve when we fall short….

Similarly, with our children and others we have a duty to teach—such as in our Church callings—our duty to truth is paramount. Of course, teaching efforts only bear fruit through the agency of others, so they must always be done with love, patience, and persuasion.

I turn now to the obligations of truth and tolerance in our personal relations with associates who use profanity in our presence, who live with a partner out of wedlock, or who do not observe the Sabbath day appropriately. How should we react toward and communicate with them?

Our obligation to tolerance means that none of these behaviors—or others we consider deviations from the truth—should ever cause us to react with hateful communications or unkind actions. But our obligation to truth has its own set of requirements and its own set of blessings….

In this sensitive matter we should first consider whether or the extent to which we should communicate to our associates what we know to be true about their behavior. In most cases this decision can depend on how directly we are personally affected by it.[3]

Profanity consistently used in our presence is an appropriate cause for us to communicate the fact that this is offensive to us. Profanity used out of our presence by nonbelievers probably would not be an occasion for us to confront the offenders.

Cohabitation we know to be a serious sin in which Latter-day Saints must not engage, whatever the circumstances. When practiced by those around us, it can be private behavior or something we are asked to condone, sponsor, or facilitate. In the balance between truth and tolerance, tolerance can be dominant where the behavior does not involve us personally. If the cohabitation does involve us personally, we should be governed by our duty to truth. For example, it is one thing to ignore serious sins when they are private; it is quite another thing to be asked to sponsor or impliedly endorse them, such as by housing them in our own homes….

In all of this we should not presume to judge our neighbors or associates on the ultimate effect of their behaviors. That judgment is the Lord’s, not ours. Even He refrained from a final mortal judgment of the woman taken in adultery. Tolerance requires a similar refraining in our judgment of others.[4]

Remember, judge situations and behavior, not other people’s final state or stance before God.[5]

I conclude with the words of Boyd K. Packer:

The word tolerance does not stand alone. It requires an object and a response to qualify it as a virtue. … Tolerance is often demanded but seldom returned. Beware of the word tolerance. It is a very unstable virtue.[6]

Some things we must tolerate. But others we must not—think of murder, child abuse, or rape. Surely these acts deserve no tolerance at all. Some things deserve unlimited tolerance, some a measured amount, and some none at all.

Individuals are perhaps entitled to almost boundless tolerance and patience. Actions, however, are not—we are entitled to express our disapproval, and in some situations may even have a duty to do so. And, remember, all tolerance is ultimately founded on a moral law—the conviction that there are absolute rights and wrongs. We may not all agree on what those rights and wrongs are: and that is why we must be tolerant. But, it is not intolerant to have such disagreements, or to express them and stand up for our convictions. Tolerance is intended to permit and encourage exactly that. After all, shouldn’t we expect that everyone can change their minds and come to a better understanding of the truth? It would be intolerant to keep quiet, presuming that others are incapable of changing or growing. They may seek to persuade us, and we them—all in a spirit of charity, of course, but it is never kind or charitable to refuse to speak what we believe to be true about eternal matters.

God be thanked that we have the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the living prophets and apostles to guide us as we seek to keep our covenants—including the covenant to stand as a witness of him at all times, in all things, and in all places. I do not expect that we will win all such contests in the secular realm. But, we are not intended to. We are, however, expected to stand up and be counted—and remain tolerant (in the true sense) while doing so.

[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[3] This footnote is my addition, not Elder Oaks’: It is worth noting, given the current debates and concern about same-sex marriage, that there is substantial worry that current efforts regarding same-sex marriage will pose a substantial threat to religious liberty. This is not the conclusion just of wide-eyed, paranoid talk-radio hosts. An excellent book collects papers from a variety of legal scholars on the questions. Even those scholars who favor the implementation of gay marriage are frank to say that under current US law, there are substantial risks to religious believers unless specific steps are taken to protect them. Since much of this law is being made by the courts—since same-sex advocates have lost at the ballot box and in the legislature, by and large—such protections are not being introduced. So, the same-sex marriage debate directly impacts Latter-day Saints: not by “threatening our marriages,” as some have pretended, but by threatening our ability to live and practice our faith without suffering penalties for our views on moral matters. See Douglas Laycock, Jr. Anthony Picarello and Robin Fretwell Wilson (editors), Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008).

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[5] Elder Oaks has an entire talk which discusses which matters we can and cannot appropriately judge. See Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging,” address given at BYU on 1 March 1998; reproduced in Brigham Young University 1997–98 Speeches, 1–7.

[6] Boyd K. Packer, “Be Not Afraid” (address at the Ogden Institute of Religion, 16 November 2008), 5; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011, italics in original.