The Intolerance of Liberal Toleration

D. A. Carson, a well-known Reformed theologian and exegete, has written a clear and well-reasoned analysis of today’s imperialistic tolerance from an Evangelical and classically liberal standpoint.

He tells us that the new understanding of tolerance has meant a shift from accepting the right of others to hold dissenting views to demanding acceptance of such views as equally valid. It thus implies a shift from free discussion of conflicting truth claims to suppressing conflicts by silencing truth claims. This shift, he says, makes the new tolerance intellectually debilitating as well as blind, intolerant, and socially dangerous.

In spite of its oddity and irrationality, the new tolerance is very difficult to fight. Developments in Western culture, the author tells us, have put it at the heart of our “plausibility structure”—the set of basic principles practically everybody accepts without question. As such, it is tenaciously held because our collective plausibility structure has become thin, and losing a large piece of what remains would threaten the coherence of our common social world.

The result is that the new tolerance holds the obvious moral high ground while dissent is considered irrational and presumptively violent. Its demands are treated as uniquely neutral, and for that reason it carries the rights but not the responsibilities of truth: it has the right to prevail, but no obligation to explain itself. To add to the confusion, both the new and old approaches to tolerance remain in circulation and discussions shift opportunistically from one to the other. It thus becomes all the more difficult to discuss basic issues in a rational way.

Carson book coverThe author has no trouble coming up with a wide variety of examples to illustrate the perverse intolerance that results. Many of these have to do with suppression of Christianity on account of its truth claims, not least those regarding sexual morality. He mentions other situations as well, like the case of an atheist expelled from college for asking another student, who believed in astral projections and leprechauns living on another energy level, what evidence she had for her beliefs.

Carson provides a useful discussion of the history of how we got where we are now, and notes that every society necessarily mixes tolerance and intolerance. Treatments of the topic that depict tolerance and intolerance as simply “in conflict” miss what is going on. The Romans, for example, were tolerant of foreign gods, but not of people who rejected the deified Caesar.

What emerges from his discussion of such instances is a recognition that tolerance was originally more a social response than an intellectual stance. Its extent and boundaries were based on such substantive considerations as the social good. A particular instance of toleration might be accepted as a stopgap until agreement could be reached, or a way of promoting energetic and rational discussion, or as an expression of respect for those who differed on issues that were not considered fundamental.

As time passed, public life became less concerned with the public good in general and focused more narrowly on wealth, power, and avoidance of conflict. Under such circumstances higher goods became a matter of ecclesiastical or private concern, and tolerance more and more a matter of church/state relations and the right of privacy. By the end of the nineteenth century, with the abandonment of longstanding religious presuppositions of public discussion, the church became in principle a private concern as well, and tolerance a matter of letting each individual do as much as possible of what he wanted.

John Stuart Mill took the discussion to the next level by making such developments a moral ideal: he promoted radical individualism, celebrated lifestyle diversity as such, and called for social as well as legal toleration for moral innovations. The result was a tolerance that looks only to itself, or perhaps individual freedom, as the highest standard. As the author puts it, the current form of tolerance is “largely cut free from both a well-articulated vision of truth and from binding culture-wide moral standards.”

The result has not been a state of ultimate freedom but a tolerance that makes rejection of absolutes an absolute. That, of course, is self-contradiction. As the author notes, the “truth question catches up with all of us,” and secularism has turned out as absolutist and dogmatic in its commitments as any other system. It is more so than most since it denies that it has dogmatic certainties and so feels no obligation to articulate and defend itself against objection. Instead, it relies on the “manipulative bludgeoning” of accusations of intolerance.

The new tolerance thus puts irrationality and bullying at the heart of public discussion. The results are as bad as might be expected. The new tolerance can’t deal with evil, for example, so serious discussion of human life and the public good becomes impossible. That leads to practical problems. The author notes, for example, that the idea of truth is necessary to resist tyranny, giving twentieth-century tyrannies and unpleasant features of Japanese life as examples. Nor can democratic procedures solve the problem. If rational discussion is impossible democracy becomes unworkable, and power inevitably flows upward to manipulative and irresponsible elites.

The author notes that the Christian emphasis on truth makes Christianity intolerant and therefore illegitimate by the new definition of tolerance. He therefore ends the book with a discussion of how Christians (and indeed perhaps other religious believers as well) should proceed today. At the intellectual level, he says, they should stand for civility and the principle of the supremacy of truth. They should also distinguish diversity as a situation from diversity as a principle, and debunk the new tolerance and the claimed neutrality of the secular. And at the spiritual level they should evangelize, be prepared to suffer, and trust God.

Carson’s discussion is clear, careful, and intelligent. A possible shortcoming of the book is a failure to give the devil all he is due. He treats the new form of tolerance as irrational, which it is, but if we stop there it is impossible to understand why it has become so immensely powerful among intelligent, thoughtful, responsible, and well-educated people. More needs to be said of the logic of a modern outlook that views human relations technologically, and identifies what is good with what is desired. For those who hold such an outlook it is natural to divinize individual subjectivity, which leads to an extreme concern for feelings, and to reject as irrational traditional forms of social organization, which involve sexual and cultural distinctions as well as conceptions of ultimate truth. Put those two tendencies together and the result is today’s politically correct version of tolerance. The author rightly points out many ironies of the present situation. Its ultimate irony, however, is that the current craziness springs from the utilitarian and technological outlook that is now considered so purely rational.

This review first appeared March 31, 2013 on the University Bookman website and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a photograph of John Stuart Mill.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Jambe d’Argent

    “A possible shortcoming of the book is a failure to give the devil all he is due.” This sentence made me realize the fact that the champions of “inclusive language” in theology always apply it to God but never to the devil…(By the way, I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Kalb is one of such champions).

  • cestusdei

    No one, no one, is more intolerant then a liberal.

  • crakpot

    Liberals have weaponized language. Propaganda is redefining words to make followers feel better about themselves, and hateful of the non-compliant:
    marriage – by whom?
    tolerance – of what?
    rights – from whom?
    liberty – to do what?
    happiness – having whatever you want, or what is good?
    choice – to kill?

    • Andrew Beacham

      The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice and vice versa according to the legal scholar Blackstone and Justinian law

  • Becky Chandler

    For more on John Stuart Mill, and his deformation of liberalism as alluded to in this book review see Ralph Raico’s brilliant discussion in“Classical Liberalism and the
    Austrian School” chapter 2 “Liberalism: True andFalse”
    (free download in epub or pdf format)

  • vicki

    First Principle: Your Creator gifted you with life and free will.

    How you use these 2 gifts and how you honor these gifts in others,

    is how you shall be judged.

    The above will reset your moral compass and allow actual tolerance and truth to co-exist.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I believe the origins of toleration can be found in the aftermath of the English Civil War, the Wars of Religion in France and the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe.

    All three ended in stalemate and many people concluded that, as a practical matter, it was impossible to re-establish religious unity. To secure civil peace, there were two alternatives: to expel dissenters or to accord them a measure of toleration and, in fact, both policies were used.

    Moreover, the failure of any party to convince its opponents of the error of their ways, led to the widespread “Pyrrhonism” or scepticism of many intellectuals. Catholics and Protestants could not both be right, but they could both be wrong and, in any event, one could doubt whether we have available a rational criterion, valid for all, for deciding whether a theological claim was rationally founded. The factof religious pluralism suggested to many that we do not. This is not relativism, of course, but it could easily lead to it.

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  • Carl Albert

    Judge Andrew Napolitano, in his excellent book “It’s Dangerous To Be Right When the Government is Wrong” makes an excellent defense of free speech as a natural right – and which cuts “tolerance” at its core. essentially, he correlates speech as the mind and soul crying out in as powerful an expression as is art or music. those who decry the ideas and expressions of others as “intolerant” (or not politically correct) neglect to rely upon wisdom and their freedom to associate.

  • Ford Oxaal

    Our society at large suffers a sort of post traumatic stress syndrome from the killing off of a large swathe of our own progeny, leading to amygdala hyperresponsivity whenever the subject comes up (which is all the time). Plus there is something in the water/foodchain, just like Rome. Probably an excess of estrogen.

  • Uncertain and Inquiring

    All who “Know” that they are always “RIGHT” or who have “ALL THE RIGHT ANSWERS” seem to be ill-educated, not inquisitive, frightened mimicker who lack the love to speak with God or others of their deepest thoughts and questions. It the “halo” is self fitted, remove it and ask “WHY”?


    The dictatorship of “tolerance” that obsessively worships at the altar of “diversity” will abide ANYTHING and EVERYTHING EXCEPT tolerance or diversity of thought or opinion. This coercive leftist secular mentality has become the worldview of the unquestioning majority. To dissent from this mindset is usually to be dismissed an unenlightened buffoon. The intolerant tactics of the USSR’s party line never really disappeared. They just moved to the West, particularly to the U.S., and have completely infiltrated the current regime’s police state and its fawning minions.

    • Andrew Beacham

      I guess they didn’t read the verse that said “Be conformed to Christ.” (Romans 8:29)


    Todays ‘tolerant liberality’ is a case of the enforcement of a secular creed onto others. An example is that Christians no longer tolerate homosexual behaviour but they have to call it moral & equal to marriage. We are sued and sackedfor not doing this. Liberal ‘tolerance’ is not in the least tolerant.

    • Andrew Beacham

      It is not a secular creed that they are forcing on us, but Hell itself. They want to destroy us all, witting or unwittingly.

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  • Unsightly hair

    Too bad you people are the minority now 🙁 wah wah liberals are winning we don’t want progression we want things to stay how they are bible says its wrong Adam and Eve Jesus dont you understand the constitution has nothing to do with religion go ahead believing what you want but this country and its laws will move forward without you and you will be written in history being on the wrong side

    • slainte

      I choose to be on the right side of God even if it places me on the wrong side of History. God’s kingdom is not of this world.

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