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Weaponizing Tolerance

Although tolerance is believed to be a way to avoid contention, if applied incorrectly, it can be used more as a weapon than a notion of compassion.
This is the third in a series of articles by Gregory L Smith exploring tolerance in contemporary life. You can read the first (“A Tale of Two Tolerances”) and second (“Tolerance for Me But Not For Thee”).

Latter-day Saint scripture often calls for unity and denounces contention. “This is not my doctrine,” warned the resurrected Christ, “to stir up the hearts of men with anger one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Nephi 11:30).

In my observation, Latter-day Saints who wish to sustain the apostles and the teachings of the Church are often challenged by fellow members with different views—in classrooms, on social media, or in publication. These other members have concluded that they know better than the Church’s leaders, and assure themselves that the leaders will catch up eventually. (We even occasionally see individuals claiming to have a testimony of the role of prophets, only to announce in the same breath that these prophets are wrong about the law of chastity, the conferral of divine authority, and the doctrines to be taught.)

These heterodox members are often loud advocates for “tolerance”—insisting that their views be accorded tolerance from other members within the teachings, meetings, and structure of the Church. Further, they claim that to teach certain moral standards or principles is intolerant, and thus wrong and unchristian.

These same members also often become upset when the Church’s official position on such matters is taught, or when their own variant views are contradicted in Church settings. Doing this, they argue, is insensitive, divisive, and as an attempt to ostracize those who do not agree. To teach what the scripture and apostles teach is to be guilty of “boundary maintenance,” which allegedly keeps others from joining the Church or remaining active in it.

Such heterodox members also condemn others within the faith as intolerant when their views accord with the doctrines taught by the apostles, while draping themselves in the robes of true charity and Christian discipleship. Should these claims be challenged, the heterodox will often loudly accuse their co-religionists of being “contentious” (thus confirming the heterodox claim that it is they, and not the orthodox, who are the true Christians).

President Oaks observed:

Tolerance obviously requires a non-contentious manner of relating toward one another’s differences. But tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.

The resurrected Jesus did not say that differing on a matter of doctrine was automatically evidence of “contention.”

Note that we are not necessarily being contentious just because we refuse to stop expressing an opinion, or decline to remain quiet about standards or matters of public importance. All disagreement is not contention. 

Yet some members of the Church who want us to wink at their behavior, or accept their views, continue trying to paint those who disagree as stirring up “contention.” We should not fall for this rhetorical trick—the resurrected Jesus did not say that differing on a matter of doctrine was automatically evidence of “contention.” Instead, “he that has the spirit of contention is not of me,” he declared. 

What characterizes the spirit of contention? “The spirit of contention. . . is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29). It is the spirit of contention—which is always motivated or accompanied by anger—that is condemned. A difference of opinion—even a vigorous, weighty, and irreconcilable one—is not automatically evidence of an unchristian contentiousness. This is particularly true when we are defending doctrines and apostles about which and for whom we are under covenant.

One could certainly exploit this observation to justify all manner of unchristian tactics or attitudes on the part of the believer. But we must not make the opposite error, nor allow Christian principles to be illegitimately weaponized to silence those who sustain the scriptures and apostles. 

Similarly, members with heterodox opinions about which the apostles have been univocal could wisely examine themselves to see whether their attempts to urge their own sincerely held views against those of the apostles are not inherently contentious, especially when brought forward in a community that has taken explicitly different stances.  


No one likes to make people uncomfortable or to hurt feelings, which is one reason we avoid contention. It is unpleasant. We want to encourage people and tell them positive things, not give them bad news. And, this is especially a risk with people we love and want to be close to—our friends, our fellow Church members, our neighbors, or our family.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell warned:

Working through our own errors and the errors of others is extremely painful and may require going back to the point of original error. This cannot be accomplished if we minimize the need for the individual involved to confront harsh reality, including the need to go back, spiritually and psychologically, in order to get back on the right road. Letting others simply go erringly on may be easy—but it is not love. . . .Just as we resist the temptation to manipulate others, we must resist the attempts of others to manipulate us. Leaders with the best of motivations can readily be trapped by their pity and compassion for other people. Compassion is important, but it can readily degenerate into the kind of pity which immobilizes us in terms of our ability to really help one another.

We aren’t showing real love or true compassion when we let someone go on in sin and tell them it’s OK. Nor should we let them manipulate us through cries of “contention!” or “intolerance!” 

Even if I am guilty of being contentious in my zeal for them to turn back to a better path, that does not make the sin in question any less serious.

A Parable

Imagine there is a bottle we sincerely believed (or even knew, based upon expert analysis) to contain poison. A loved one comes in from a hot day outside, grabs the bottle and puts it to his lips.

“Stop!” you cry, “That’s poison.”

“But there’s no other water in the house,” complains the thirsty person.

“That may be true, but you still shouldn’t drink that.”

“Other people get to drink things, why can’t I drink this?”

“It’s poison!”

“Well, you say it’s poison. I have a different opinion. I say it’s OK. And lots of my friends told me it was fine. Some of them tasted it, and they say it’s fine. You can’t be sure it’s poison.”

“I’m convinced that it is—an expert on poisoning, whom I have always found to be reliable, told me that it was. I strongly advise you not to drink it.”

“You’re so cruel, keeping me from quenching my thirst. Why should I believe you or your expert? Since I believe there’s no poison here, you’ve got no right to go around telling me there is. Where’s your tolerance? Why are you so contentious?”

It is laughable to think that we would simply remain quiet or acquiesce in such a case, even at the cost of hurt feelings. But, this is precisely what the “new” tolerance asks us to do. “Real love for the sinner may compel courageous confrontation—not acquiescence!” said President Nelson. “Real love does not support self-destructing behavior.” And such confrontation does not equal contention.

So, if we express our views about right and wrong, we ought not expect tolerance from the world or those members who have adopted its opinions, however sincerely. We aren’t going to get it, and often the best weapon they have for silencing others is to paint them as intolerant, or to exercise their own feelings of offense to dramatic effect. Why? As Elder Maxwell noted:

In Sodom they probably had absolute free speech, but nothing worth saying! On the other hand, an otherwise permissive society, which tolerates almost everything, usually will not tolerate speech that challenges its iniquity. Evil is always intolerantly preoccupied with its own perpetuation.

“It Doesn’t Affect Me”

We might be tempted to say, of a given principle or doctrine, “Well, their rejection of it doesn’t directly affect me, so I should stay quiet.” John Taylor and the First Presidency had some strong words for that kind of attitude, which simply does not dovetail well with Christian covenants:

The mantle of charity must not be stretched so widely, in our desire to protect our erring friends, as to reflect dishonor on the work of God, or contempt for the principles of the everlasting Gospel. There is an unfortunate tendency in the natures of many to palliate sins by which they are not personally injured, but we must not forget that such palliation frequently increases the original wrong, and brings discredit on the Church and dishonor to the name and work of our blessed Redeemer; in other words, to save the feelings of our friends we are willing to crucify afresh the Lord of life and glory.

In short, as Elder Maxwell put it, “Kindness never takes the form of permissiveness.”  President Nelson has likewise cautioned:

We must recognize … that there is a difference between tolerance and tolerate. Your gracious tolerance for an individual does not grant him or her license to do wrong, nor does your tolerance obligate you to tolerate his or her misdeed. That distinction is fundamental to an understanding of this vital virtue.

“Imposing” Our Views

Such debates and contests of opinion matter because at least one view of truth (even the view that there is no truth) will ultimately prevail in Church classrooms, communities, social mores, and the law. Some worry that by making some acts supported or encouraged in law, and by opposing other acts in law (or at least refusing to endorse them by law) we are “imposing our own morality” on others.

This is nonsense, and those who make the claim need to be called on it. As President Oaks (a former Utah Supreme Court Justice) noted:

Those who take this position should realize that the law of crimes legislates nothing but morality. Should we repeal all laws with a moral basis so that our government will not punish any choices some persons consider immoral? Such an action would wipe out virtually all of the laws against crimes.

We recall that even a claim that tolerance should govern the law of the land is a moral, ethical position that claims to be superior to another stance. All laws on this kind must express a moral point of view. Those who decry the “legislation of morality” are in fact saying is that they want to legislate their morality (even if that morality is a lack of absolute morality) not avoid legislating morality altogether—because that is impossible. 

As President Oaks noted elsewhere:

When believers seek to promote their positions in the public square, their methods and their advocacy should always be tolerant of the opinions and positions of others who do not share their beliefs. We should not add to the extremism that divides our society. As believers, we must always speak with love and show patience, understanding, and compassion toward our adversaries. . . . [Noting again here that we can have an adversary and yet not be guilty of contention.]

As believers, we should also frame our arguments and positions in ways that contribute to the reasoned discussion and accommodation that are essential to democratic government in a pluralistic society. By this means we will contribute to the civility that is essential to preserve our civilization. . . .

Believers should not be deterred by the familiar charge that they are trying to legislate morality. Many areas of the law are based on Judeo-Christian morality and have been for centuries. Our civilization is based on morality and cannot exist without it. As John Adams declared: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

President Oaks: Three Principles

President Oaks spoke to the young adults of the Church about these matters 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.”

The third principle is likewise vital, however, and we will examine it in more detail:

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.

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

Profanity, cohabitation, and Sabbath-breaking—are each 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 responsibility 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.

It seems we must not avoid teaching doctrines or principles in a Church setting that make some uncomfortable, in order to simply aim to be “tolerant.” That being said, we also must teach in the proper way. President Oaks continues:

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. . . .

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.

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 implicitly 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.

Remember, we ought to judge situations and behavior, not other people’s final state or stance before God. I conclude with President 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.


Some things deserve unlimited tolerance, some a measured amount, and some none at all—think of murder, child abuse, or rape. Surely these acts deserve no tolerance at all. A request for tolerance is not a free pass; it is instead an invitation to moral reflection. In the end, there are some things that we cannot tolerate—and should not.

Shouldn’t we expect that everyone can change their minds and come to a better understanding of the truth?

When it comes to a wide range of human beliefs and perspectives, 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 within the context of the restored Gospel 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. The true principle of 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, but it is never kind or charitable to refuse to speak what we believe to be true about weighty matters.

Having said all this, I expect the charge of intolerance against believing Saints will not diminish in the years to come. It is simply too useful a weapon in the hands of those within and without the Church who reject some of the absolutes for which covenant members of the Church must stand. But, ought we to be surprised? “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?” (Matthew 10:25). 

Jesus and his prophets have often been called intolerant—and far worse. In a world increasingly opposed to the teachings of Christ, His followers should be prepared to face the same.    

About the author

Gregory L. Smith

Gregory Smith has spoken to the Miller Eccles Study Group, is a member of the Interpreter Foundation editorial board, and published in the FARMS Review. He has an M.D. from the University of Alberta.
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