Last year I interviewed a number of French Christians to find out what it was like being a Christian in France. What they said may come as a surprise, especially for those of us in America who tend to take our freedoms for granted. One of the interesting things I learned focused on the notion of tolerance. Prior to the French revolution, late 18th century France had been the most tolerant society in all of Europe. Tolerance was understood as allowing or permitting another person’s viewpoint or values in spite of how one personally felt. Though this notion of tolerance, like any type of liberty, has obvious legal limits, it was based on the Biblical idea (not always perfectly followed by Christian societies) that we should refrain from deporting, imprisoning, executing or humiliating those whose beliefs, practices and behaviours are inferior to one’s own.
Tolerance in this sense did not suggest an acceptance of that which was being tolerated, but connoted the idea of allowing something in spite of how one actually felt about it, as embodied in the quotation falsely attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
During the revolution’s reign of terror, all tolerance came to a sudden end. Revolutionary thought police began enforcing what we now call ‘political correctness.’ The guillotine was used to vigorously suppress any opinion or expression which contravened the anti-Christian values of the revolution.
Though France regained some of its freedoms after the fall of Napoleon, the nation has remained institutionally secular, paving the way for a new shift in the notion of tolerance which began to emerge in the 20th century. Around the middle of the last century, tolerance gradually ceased to be understood in the original sense as permitting that which one did not personally accept. Instead, it began to mean actually accepting ideas, values and practices that differed from one’s own. Whereas under the old notion of tolerance a Frenchman had to disagree with someone in order to tolerate, allow or put up with the different viewpoint, the new meaning of tolerance does not allow for such disagreement; rather, it asserts that a person must actually accept all values and viewpoint as being equally legitimate (the obvious exception is that we are not supposed to tolerate the older notion of tolerance, since the older notion assumed what is now an allegedly intolerant antithesis.)