THE BLOG
04/11/2014 10:27 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

What Tolerance Truly Means

Following revelations that recently appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich had supported California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8, he is out. And so is tolerance in this country -- at least according to critics of the pressure campaign that led to Eich's involuntary resignation, and other campaigns like it.

For those involved in the religion, culture and politics debates, the Mozilla episode has sparked new rounds of recriminations. With it has come the now-customary rhetorical question from conservatives: How do gay-rights liberals get away with calling themselves the "tolerance" people when they show such nasty intolerance toward anyone who disagrees with them?

How? Because they believe in tolerance -- a good thing -- and it only makes sense that they not tolerate actions and words that exclude gays or represent other forms of intolerance.

After liberals fumed over the Christian relief agency World Vision reversing a decision to allow married gay people on staff, Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy sounded a warning to fellow conservatives. "[T]he story is not anywhere near over," Tooley wrote in The American Spectator. "[S]eriously religious groups must prepare for the encroaching storm of secularist intolerance for any substantive dissent from secularism's very narrow understanding of tolerance."

Added Rod Dreher on the website of The American Conservative magazine, "[T]he Left uses the rhetoric of diversity to justify its radical intolerance, and crushing of dissent in pursuit of strict uniformity."

There is much to argue with here, but Tooley's and Dreher's perspectives are right in one respect. Sometimes liberals -- and conservatives too, as Dreher admitted -- take their principles to extremes and turn them into rigid ideologies and purity tests.

This can be downright counterproductive. At no time was that more apparent than when Toms shoes, which donates millions of free pairs to poor children, faced a boycott drive for having the temerity to consider a distribution partnership with Focus on the Family. Toms had broken the cardinal rule that states that thou shalt never cooperate with an evangelical group that actively opposes gay marriage. Never mind shoes for the needy kids.

This is the dynamic that fuels the common critique of liberals and their precious "tolerance." To hear it from many conservatives, liberals are the truly intolerant ones. This is evident, we're told, every time liberals go on the attack against conservative Christians who refuse to accept gay people, and against celebrities who make insensitive statements about gays, women, blacks, Latinos or Asians (cases in point: actor Alec Baldwin, now labeled "homophobic" for words he used while lambasting an intrusive TMZ videographer, and The Colbert Report, which found itself under attack for tweets about Asians that were actually intended to ridicule racists).

The charges of liberal hypocrisy seem premised on a conception of tolerance with a lowercase "t." This is an anything-goes, "whatever" version of tolerance. But most progressives I know believe in a form that goes deeper. Think of it as capital-"T" tolerance -- a foundational ethical commitment and a positive vision of a world in which those in the mainstream give leeway and respect to those who are different.

From the viewpoint of this principled tolerance, it is utterly ridiculous to expect a shrug and "whatever" in the face of disrespect and bigotry against racial or sexual minorities. This tolerance can tolerate a lot -- pretty much everything, in fact, except intolerance. But here's my call to tolerance champions: Except in the direst situations, please confine the condemnations to actions, ideas and words, and resist the temptation to write off entire individuals, organizations and religious movements. Sometimes a little patience is in order too. Those with strong religious beliefs about marriage are not all going to change overnight.

There's a saying associated with evangelicals and homosexuality that goes, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It's highly debatable whether the coiners of that phrase live up to the "love" part, but there's something in that notion that the tolerance brigade might well appropriate and apply the next time word seeps out about a CEO or anyone else in the spotlight who opposed, or still opposes, gay marriage:

Intolerance for the offending act, and tolerance for the person.

This blog post originally appeared as an op-ed in USA Today on April 8, 2014.