SEATTLE – Tolerance, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, means "the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others." But some believe the word is now being twisted and abused.
"Tolerance used to mean having respect for someone whose views you disagreed with," said Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from Mercer Island, Wash. "Today, tolerance means that you must accept and respect those very views."
Lapin is president of Toward Tradition, a national organization that boasts 10,000 members, most of them Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians who believe American society should return to its biblical roots.
The organization purchased an advertisement entitled "Terrorized by 'Tolerance'" that appeared in the June 29 edition of The New York Times.
The ad begins, "Lately, accusations of 'intolerance' have chilled free speech. Armed with baseless charges of 'racism,' 'anti-Semitism' and 'homophobia,' the enforcers of 'tolerance' intimidate civic and religious leaders, and the rest of us too, who tremble lest we violate its dictates."
Critics say the new purveyors of "tolerance" have banned prayer in schools, criticized politicians who openly discuss their faith and imposed economic sanctions on the Boy Scouts of America and other private organizations that refuse to condone homosexuality.
Many Americans believe homosexuality conflicts with traditional religious teaching, but their public statements against it are often labeled as "hate speech" by others who consider sexual preference a biological factor like race and gender.
"Tolerance is great," said the Rev. Mark Edward Williams, a United Methodist minister from Seattle. "But showing gracious love and showing respect and caring for your neighbor is actually what Jesus instructed us to do."
On June 28, Williams became the first openly gay United Methodist pastor to receive a church assignment, despite his denomination's official ban on homosexual clergy. While this assignment is temporary and subject to review, Williams' followers hope it signals a softening of the church's attitudes toward sexual preference.
In recent years, America's houses of worship have adopted more "tolerant" attitudes toward other modern realities, including divorce and premarital sex. Some say this brings spirituality to groups that once were ostracized.
But Lapin says religion would set a better example for society by upholding traditional values instead of embracing "moral relativism."
"The source of Western civilization, the core of Judeo-Christian tradition, the Torah, the five books of Moses, is possibly the most intolerant document the world has ever seen," Lapin says.
"And that's what's good about it."