True Tolerance

You can hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV set these days without seeing Christians bashed as bigots. Even the Republican National Committee chairman announced that he was ashamed of the intolerant attitude shown by Christians in last summer's convention. There is no group more harshly stereotyped in America today than what the media labels the Religious Right. But a look at the facts should make these negative stereotypes crumble. One of the most significant studies ever done on Christians was recently published by George Gallup, under the title The Saints Among Us. The Gallup organization has been taking measurements on people's religious practices for years. But this one is different: It delves into the effect of religion on people's attitudes and personality. And the effects it uncovered are dramatic: People with a strong Christian faith are found to be happier, more generous in helping others, and-here's the real surprise-more tolerant. The survey asked questions such as, "Would you object to a person of another race moving in next door?" Of the highly religious, 84 percent said they would not object, compared to only 63 percent of the nonreligious-a 20-point difference. There's "a general assumption," says Gallup, "that the more religious people are, the more close-minded and bigoted they are." But his study, Gallup says, found just the opposite. Religious people are actually more tolerant, more color-blind. They also score higher on related virtues such as compassion and forgiveness. When asked whether they spend time helping people in need, 73 percent of the highly religious said yes, compared to only 42 percent of the nonreligious-a difference of 30 points. When asked whether they forgive people who offend them, again the spread was 30 points. So much for the stereotype of intolerant hate-mongers. If the empirical evidence contradicts the stereotype, why is it still so widespread? To begin with, Gallup's findings apply only to people highly committed to the Christian faith-about 10 percent of the population. Average churchgoers don't show any difference from the general population. So when the non-Christian peeks through the doors of the average church, he sees people whose lives show little of the transforming power of God. A second reason Christians are condemned as intolerant is that our culture has a distorted view of what true tolerance is. Americans tend to define tolerance as moral neutrality-refusing to judge any behavior right or wrong. The classic definition of tolerance, however, is profoundly judgmental: It means putting up with people even when we know they're wrong. The classic definition stems from a deep Christian sense of sin and error. Since everyone falls short at some point, we are enjoined to tolerate people's shortcomings, so long as they do not directly threaten the communal life-all the while, of course, lovingly seeking to persuade them of the truth. So when you hear those predictable words from the media or your friends describing some Christian group as intolerant and narrow, take a moment to educate them. Real tolerance is a Christian virtue-and the empirical evidence shows that it is Christians who practice it best.


Chuck Colson


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