Tolerance does not presume agreement or approval, rather, and contrarily, it actually presupposes disagreement. To be tolerant is to refrain from using force to prevent someone from engaging in a lifestyle or activity with which we ourselves disagree. We are tolerant when, even if we vocally express our disapproval against an activity, we refrain from physically interfering with the activity. Tolerance is not present in a situation of agreement and approval. I am not “tolerating” when I see a person reading a Christian Bible (because I approve of it), but I do tolerate a Jehovah’s Witness worshipping at a Kingdom Hall. I do not think that worshipping at a Kingdom Hall is a moral activity, and it is perfectly fine to inform them of this if ever in a conversation, but I will not physically prevent them from going about that business. Such is tolerance.
In our culture however, tolerance has been distorted. To most people today, tolerance means that one actually accepts as morally or intellectually legitimate the views, actions, or lifestyles of all other people. To disagree with someone else or to express disapproval of a given activity is seen not only as intolerant, but actually hateful. Without one inkling of toleration for our own views, the toleration-redefiners demonstrate with unrelenting fervor their demand that we approve of and cheer for whatever behavior they deem worthy of promotion.
D.A. Carson makes a key distinction in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance between the “old tolerance” and the “new tolerance.” He notes a
“shift from ‘accepting the existence of different views’ to ‘acceptance of different views,’ from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, [that is] subtle in form, but massive in substance.”
He continues to explain that
To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are quality valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new.
Remember then that tolerance presupposes the existence of disagreement. And when you hear some cultural commentator explaining that cultural conservatives ought to be more tolerant, they are often using the word under the “new” meaning. We should not accept as morally or logically legitimate those things which plainly are not. And yet we should accept the existence of such things. We should be tolerant in the old sense and not in the new. The battle cry all around us for “tolerance” is misplaced because of the misuse of the word.