TRUTH AND TOLERANCE
Elder Dallin H. Oaks
September 11, 2011
My dear young brothers and sisters, Kristen and I feel privileged to be with you on this significant occasion. We meet on 9/11, the tenth anniversary of an event that has profoundly influenced our lives and thinking, and will do so for many years to come. It is forever associated with the Twin Towers.
I have felt impressed to speak this evening about another set of twins, the twin ideas of Truth and Tolerance. These subjects were not chosen because they are uniquely your concern as young adults, like the dating, hanging out, and marriage I described to this audience some years ago. My treatment of Truth and Tolerance will invite you to consider and to teach these twin subjects because they are vital to the rising generation, in which you are the senior members.
First, truth. We believe in absolute truth, including the existence of God and the right and wrong established by His commandments. We sing:
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.
In the words of President Joseph F. Smith:
“We believe in all truth, no matter to what subject it may refer. No sect or religious denomination in the world possesses a single principle of truth that we do not accept or that we will reject. We are willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come; for truth will stand, truth will endure.”
The existence and nature of truth is one of the fundamental questions of mortal life. Jesus told the Roman governor Pilate that He came into the world to “bear witness unto the truth.” “What is truth?” that unbeliever responded (John 18:37-38). In earlier times the Savior had declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In modern revelation He declared: “Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24).
My young brothers and sisters, we know that the existence of God and the existence of absolute truth are fundamental to life on this earth, whether they are believed or not. We also know that evil exists and that some things are simply, seriously, and everlastingly wrong. You whom I address shun evil and seek truth. I salute you for your righteous actions and your righteous desires. As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I seek to help you make right choices in a world that is increasingly polarized between belief and disbelief, between good and evil.
Shocking reports of large-scale thievery and lying in civilized societies in the last two months suggest a moral vacuum in which many have little sense of right and wrong. Last month’s widespread rioting and pillaging in Britain and the scandalous widespread cheating by teachers on state-mandated tests in elementary and middle schools in Atlanta, Georgia have caused many to wonder whether we are losing the moral foundation western countries have received from their Judeo-Christian heritage.
It is well to worry about our moral foundation. We live in a world where more and more persons of influence are teaching and acting out a belief that there is no absolute right and wrong, that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made choices that can prevail over the commandments of God. Many even question whether there is a God.
The philosophy of moral relativism, which holds that each person is free to choose for himself what is right and wrong, is becoming the unofficial creed for many in America and other western nations. At the extreme level, evil acts that used to be localized and covered up like a boil are now legalized and paraded like a banner. Persuaded by this philosophy, many of the rising generation—youth and young adults—are caught up in self-serving pleasures, pagan painting and piercing of body parts, foul language, revealing attire, pornography, dishonesty, and degrading sexual indulgence.
On the foundation belief in right and wrong there is an alarming contrast between the older and the younger generations. According to survey data of two decades ago, 80 percent of American adults believed “there are clear guidelines about what’s good and evil that apply to everyone regardless of the situation.” In contrast, a more recent poll of college seniors suggests that “three-quarters of [them] believe that the difference between right and wrong is relative.”
Many religious leaders teach the existence of God as the Ultimate Lawgiver, by whose action certain behavior is absolutely right and true and other behavior is absolutely wrong and untrue. Bible and Book of Mormon prophets foresaw this time, when men would be “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4) and, indeed, when men would deny God (Jude 1:4; 2 Ne. 28:5; Moroni 7:17; D&C 29:22).
In this troubled circumstance we who believe in God and the corollary truth of absolute right and wrong have the challenge of living in a godless and increasingly amoral world. In this circumstance, all of us—and especially you of the rising generation—have a duty to stand up and speak to affirm that God exists and that there are absolute truths His commandments establish. In doing so, we Latter-day Saints rely on the truth we sing in the hymn I quoted earlier:
The pillar of truth will endure to the last,
And its firm-rooted bulwarks withstand the rude blast
And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes.
As I face this audience of committed young people, I know that some of you may be wondering why I am speaking about what is obvious to you, and what you might assume is obvious to others. Recall the survey data I mentioned earlier, suggesting that about three-quarters of all college seniors believe that the difference between right and wrong is relative.
I have chosen to speak about truth because teachers in schools, colleges, and universities are teaching and practicing relative morality. This is shaping the attitudes of many young Americans who are taking their places as the teachers of our children and the shapers of public attitudes through the media and popular entertainment. This philosophy of moral relativism denies what millions of believing Christians, Jews and Muslims consider fundamental, and this denial creates serious problems for all of us. What believers should do about this introduces the second of my twin subjects, “Tolerance.”
Tolerance is defined as a friendly and fair attitude toward unfamiliar opinions and practices or toward the persons who hold or practice them. As modern transportation and communication have brought all of us into closer proximity to different peoples and different ideas, we have greater need for tolerance. When I was a young adult, about sixty years ago, it was only in books and magazines that most Americans were exposed to great differences in cultures, values and peoples. Now we experience such differences in television and the internet, and often in personal interactions in our neighborhoods and the marketplace.
This greater exposure to diversity both enriches our lives and complicates them. We are enriched by associations with different peoples, which remind us of the wonderful diversity of the children of God. But diversities in cultures and values also challenge us to identify what can be embraced as consistent with our gospel culture and values and what cannot. In this way diversity increases the potential for conflict and requires us to be more thoughtful about the nature of tolerance. What is tolerance, when does it apply, and when does it not apply?
This is a harder question for those who affirm the existence of God and absolute truth than for those who believe in moral relativism. The weaker one’s belief in God and the fewer one’s moral absolutes, the fewer the occasions when the ideas or practices of others will confront one with the challenge to be tolerant. For example, an atheist has no need to decide what kinds and occasions of profanity or blasphemy can be tolerated and what kinds should be confronted. Persons who don’t believe in God or in absolute truth in moral matters can see themselves as the most tolerant of persons. For them, almost anything goes. “You do your thing and I’ll do my thing” is the popular description. This belief system can tolerate almost any behavior and almost any persons. Unfortunately, some who believe in moral relativism seem to have difficulty tolerating those who insist that there is a God who should be respected and certain moral absolutes that should be observed.
I will say no more about the tolerance or intolerance of non-believers. I am speaking to an audience of Latter-day Saints who believe in God and in absolute truth. What does tolerance mean to us and to other believers, and what are our special challenges in applying it?
I begin with three absolute truths. I express them as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, but I believe that most of these ideas are shared by believers generally.
First, all persons are brothers and sisters under God, taught within their various religions to love and do good to one another. President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed this idea for Latter-day Saints:
“Each of us [from various religious denominations] believes in the fatherhood of God, although we may differ in our interpretations of Him. Each of us is part of a great family, the human family, sons and daughters of God, and therefore brothers and sisters. We must work harder to build mutual respect, and attitude of forbearance, with tolerance one for another regardless of the doctrines and philosophies which we may espouse.”
Note that President Hinckley spoke of “mutual respect” as well as tolerance. Speaking at BYU a decade later, a Muslim scholar, Dr. Alwi Shihab, an Indonesian, elaborated that idea in these words:
“To tolerate something is to learn to live with it, even when you think it is wrong and downright evil. . . . We must go, I believe, beyond tolerance if we are to achieve harmony in our world.”
Relying on the teachings of the Quran, Dr. Shihab continued:
“We must respect this God-given dignity in every human being, even in our enemies. For the goal of all human relations—whether they are religious, social, political, or economic—ought to be cooperation and mutual respect.”
Living together with mutual respect for one another’s differences is a challenge in today’s world. However—and here I express a second absolute truth—this living with differences is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us we must do.
The kingdom of God is like a leaven, Jesus taught (Matt. 13:33). A leaven—yeast—is hidden away in the larger mass until the whole is leavened, which means raised by its influence. Our Savior also taught that His followers will have tribulation in the world (see John 16:33), that their numbers and dominions will be small (see 1 Ne. 14:12) and that they will be hated because they are not of the world (see John 17:14). But that is our role. We are called to live with other children of God who do not share our faith or our values, and who do not have the covenant obligations we have assumed. So it was that at the conclusion of His ministry, Jesus prayed to the Father, “not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15). We are to be in the world, but not of the world.
Since followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to be a leaven—not to be taken out of the world, but to remain in it—we must seek tolerance from those who hate us for not being of the world. As part of this, we will sometimes need to challenge laws that would impair our freedom to practice our faiths, doing so in reliance on our constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion. As described by an attorney supporting a Lutheran school in a case now before the United States Supreme Court, the big concern is “the ability of people of all faiths to work out their relationship with God and one another without the government looking over their shoulder.” That is why we need understanding and support—including your understanding and support—when we must contend for religious freedom.
We must also practice tolerance and respect toward others. As the Apostle Paul taught, Christians should “follow after the things that make for peace” (Rom. 14:19), and as much as possible “live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). Consequently, we should be alert to honor the good we should see in all people and in many opinions and practices that differ from our own. As the Book of Mormon teaches
“all things which are good cometh of God; . . . wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God. Wherefore, take heed . . . that ye do not judge . . . that which is good and of God to be of the devil” (Moroni 7:12-14).
That approach to differences will yield tolerance and also respect.
Our tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs does not cause us to abandon our commitment to the truths we understand and the covenants we have made. That is a third absolute truth. We are cast as combatants in the war between truth and error. There is no middle ground. We must stand up for truth, even while we practice tolerance and respect for beliefs and ideas different from our own and for the people who hold them.
While we must practice tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs, including their constitutional freedom to explain and advocate their positions, we are not required to respect and tolerate wrong behavior. Our duty to truth requires us to seek relief from some behavior that is wrong. This is easy as to extreme behaviors that most believers and non-believers recognize as wrong or unacceptable. For example, we must all deplore murder or other terrorist behavior, even when done by extremists in the name of religion. And we must all oppose violence and thievery.
As to less extreme behaviors, where even believers disagree on whether or not they are wrong, the nature and extent of what we should tolerate is much more difficult to define. Thus, a thoughtful LDS woman wrote me about her concern that “the world’s definition of ‘tolerance’ seems to be increasingly used in relation to tolerating wicked lifestyles.” She asked how the Lord would define “tolerance.”
President Boyd K. Packer gave an inspired introduction to this subject. Speaking to an audience of Institute students three years ago he said:
“The word tolerance does not stand alone. It requires an object and a response to qualify it as a virtue. . . . Tolerance is often demanded but seldom returned. Beware of the word tolerance. It is a very unstable virtue.”
This inspired caution reminds us that for persons who believe in absolute truth, tolerance for behavior is like a two-sided coin. Tolerance or respect is on one side of the coin, but truth is always on the other. You cannot possess or use the coin of tolerance without being conscious of both sides.
Our Savior applied this principle. When he faced the woman taken in adultery, Jesus spoke the comforting words of tolerance: “Neither do I condemn thee.” Then, as he sent her away, he spoke the commanding words of truth: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). We should all be edified and strengthened by this example of speaking both tolerance and truth: kindness in the communication, but firmness in the truth.
Let us consider how to apply that example to some other behaviors. Another thoughtful LDS member wrote:
“In Mosiah 18:9, Alma tells us that when we are baptized we covenant ‘to stand as “witnesses” of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in.’ . . . What does this scripture mean for our day and how can it be applied by Latter-day Saints?
“Living in the mission field, I often hear the name of the Lord taken in vain, and I also have acquaintances who tell me that they are living with their boyfriends. I have found that observance of the Sabbath is almost obsolete. How can I keep my covenant to stand as a witness and not offend these people?”
Profanity, cohabitation, and Sabbath-breaking—excellent examples to illustrate how Latter-day Saints might balance their competing duties to truth and tolerance in their own lives in these different circumstances.
I begin with our personal conduct, including the teaching of our children. In applying the sometimes competing demands of truth and tolerance in these three behaviors and many others we should not be tolerant with ourselves. We should be ruled by the demands of truth. We should be strong in keeping the commandments and our covenants, and we should repent and improve when we fall short. As President Thomas S. Monson taught us in the conference where he was sustained as our prophet:
“My young friends, be strong. . . . The face of sin today often wears the mask of tolerance. Do not be deceived; behind that façade is heartache, unhappiness, and pain. You know what is right and what is wrong, and no disguise, however appealing, can change that. The character of transgression remains the same. If your so-called friends urge you to do anything you know to be wrong, you be the one to make a stand for right, even if you stand alone.”
Similarly, with our children and others we have a duty to teach—such as in our Church callings—our duty to truth is paramount. Of course, teaching efforts only bear fruit through the agency of others, so they must always be done with love, patience, and persuasion.
I turn now to the obligations of truth and tolerance in our personal relations with associates who use profanity in our presence, who live with a partner out of wedlock, or who do not observe the Sabbath day appropriately? How should we react toward and communicate with them?
Our obligation to tolerance means that none of these behaviors—or others we consider deviations from the truth—should ever cause us to react with hateful communications or unkind actions. But our obligation to truth has its own set of requirements and its own set of blessings. When we “speak every man truth with his neighbour,” and when we “[speak] the truth in love,” as the Apostle Paul taught (Eph. 4:25, 15), we are acting as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, doing His work. Angels will stand with us and He will send His Holy Spirit to guide us.
In this sensitive matter we should first consider whether or the extent to which we should communicate to our associates what we know to be true about their behavior. In most cases this decision can depend on how directly we are personally affected by it.
Profanity consistently used in our presence is an appropriate cause for us to communicate the fact that this is offensive to us. Profanity used out of our presence by non-believers probably would not be an occasion for us to confront the offenders.
Cohabitation we know to be a serious sin, in which Latter-day Saints must not engage, whatever the circumstances. When practiced by those around us, it can be private behavior or something we are asked to condone, sponsor, or facilitate. In the balance between truth and tolerance, tolerance can be dominant where the behavior does not involve us personally. If the cohabitation does involve us personally, we should be governed by our duty to truth. For example, it is one thing to ignore serious sins when they are private; it is quite another thing to be asked to sponsor or impliedly endorse them, such as by housing them in our own homes.
On Sabbath observance, Latter-day Saints know that we are taught to observe the Sabbath Day in a different way than many other Christians. Most of us are troubled by packed shopping centers and other commercial activities on the Sabbath. Perhaps we should explain our belief that our observance of the Sabbath, including our partaking of the sacrament, restores us spiritually and makes us better people for the rest of the week. Then, to other believers, we might express appreciation for the fact that we share common ground on what is most vital because each of us believes in God and in the existence of absolute truth, even though we differ in our definitions of those fundamentals. Beyond that, we should remember the Savior’s teaching that we should avoid contention (see 3 Ne. 11:29-30) and that our example and our preaching should “be the warning voice, every man to his neighbor, in mildness and in meekness” (D&C 38:41).
In all of this we should not presume to judge our neighbors or associates on the ultimate effect of their behaviors. That judgment is the Lord’s, not ours. Even He refrained from a final mortal judgment of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:11). Tolerance requires a similar refraining in our judgment of others.
Having discussed the balancing of truth and tolerance in our personal behavior and in our relations with associates, I come to a different and more difficult circumstance. When believers enter the public square to try to influence the making or the administration of laws motivated by their beliefs, they should apply some different principles. As young adults, you may wonder why I am speaking to you about the principles we should follow when we seek government action, such as by the legislature. You might say, “That is a matter for senior Church authorities to handle.” I describe these principles to you young adults because you are current members and future leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ, and you will need to decide these kinds of questions sooner than you think. You need to understand how our efforts in the public square are informed by the balance between truth and tolerance.
Whether or how we might seek to obtain laws that would compel or influence behavior that we deem desirable because of our belief in God and His commandments is too large a subject for adequate treatment in the concluding few minutes of my talk. I will, therefore, limit myself to describing four paramount principles that should govern such an effort.
First, when believers in Jesus Christ take their views of truth into the public square they must seek the inspiration of the Lord to be selective and wise in choosing which true principles they seek to promote by law or executive action. Generally, they should refrain from seeking laws or administrative action to facilitate beliefs that are distinctive to believers, such as the enforcement of acts of worship, even by implication. Believers can be less cautious in seeking government action that would serve principles broader than merely facilitating the practice of their beliefs, such as laws concerning public health, safety and morals.
In any event, as defenders of the faith, believers can and must seek laws that will preserve religious freedom. Along with the ascendancy of moral relativism, the United States is experiencing a disturbing reduction in overall public esteem for religion. Once an accepted part of American life, religion is now suspect in the minds of many. To them it has become something that must prove its legitimacy as a part of our public life. Some influential voices even question the extent to which our constitutions should protect the free exercise of religion, including the right to practice and preach religious principles.
This is a vital matter on which we who believe in a Supreme Being who has established absolute right and wrong in human behavior must unite to insist on our time-honored constitutional rights to exercise our religion, to vote our consciences on public issues, and to participate in elections and debates in the public square and the halls of justice. In doing so we stand with angels. We must also stand shoulder to shoulder with other believers to preserve and strengthen the freedom to advocate and practice our religious beliefs, whatever they are. For this purpose we must walk together on the same path in order to secure our freedom to pursue our separate ways when that is necessary according to our separate beliefs. Guided by Heaven in this righteous cause, our words will be sweet and find place in the hearts of many.
Second, when believers seek to promote their positions in the public square, their methods and their advocacy should always be tolerant of the opinions and positions of those who do not share their beliefs. We should not add to the extremism that divides our society. As believers we must always speak with love and show patience, understanding, and compassion toward our adversaries. Christian believers are under command to love their neighbors (Luke 10:27), to forgive (Matt. 18:21-35), and to do good to those who despitefully use them (Matt. 5:44). They should always remember the Savior’s teaching that we “bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use [us], and persecute [us]” (Matt. 5:44). As believers we should also frame our arguments and positions in ways that contribute to the reasoned discussion and accommodation that are essential to democratic government in a pluralistic society. By this means we will contribute to the civility that is essential to preserve our civilization.
Third, believers should not be deterred by the familiar charge that they are trying to legislate morality. Many areas of the law are based on Judeo/Christian morality and have been for centuries. Our civilization is based on morality and cannot exist without it. As John Adams declared, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Fourth, believers should not shrink from seeking laws to maintain public conditions or policies that assist them in practicing the requirements of their faith where those conditions or policies are also favorable to the public health, safety or morals. For example, even though religious beliefs are behind many criminal laws and some family laws, such laws have a long-standing history of appropriateness in democratic societies. But where believers are in the majority they should always be sensitive to the views of the minority.
We Latter-day Saints are sometimes accused of being self-righteous and intolerant of others, especially where we are in the majority or where others are in the majority and our beliefs cause us to oppose them. Surely Latter-day Saints do need to be more wise and skillful in explaining and pursuing our views and in exercising our influence when we have it.
That is the spirit of the two-sided coin of Truth and Tolerance. President Thomas S. Monson has provided an excellent example of the practice of these twin virtues. Throughout his life he has been exemplary in reaching out and working with the members and leaders of other faiths, in cooperative efforts on matters of common interest, and in the Christian fellowship and concern that have no denominational boundaries.
Finally, the spirit of our balance of truth and tolerance is applied in these words of President Gordon B. Hinckley:
“Let us reach out to those in our community who are not of our faith. Let us be good neighbors, kind and generous and gracious. Let us be involved in good community causes. There may be situations, there will be situations, where, with serious moral issues involved, we cannot bend on matters of principle. But in such instances we can politely disagree without being disagreeable. We can acknowledge the sincerity of those whose positions we cannot accept. We can speak of principles rather than personalities.”
I close with this assurance and this testimony.
The Bible teaches that one of the functions of a prophet is to be a “watchman” to warn Israel (Ezek. 3:17, 33:7). In revelation the Lord added this parable for modern Zion: “Set . . . a watchman upon the tower,” who will “[see] the enemy while he [is] yet afar off” and give warning to save the vineyard “from the hands of the destroyer” (D&C 101:45, 54).
I have spoken to you as one of those watchmen, on the subject the Spirit has assigned me. I assure you that my message is true. If you have doubts about this or if you have questions about how to apply these principles in your own life, I urge you to seek guidance from the same Source.
On the broader question being widely agitated by the atheists of our day, I proclaim my knowledge that God lives! His creations witness His existence and His servants hear and proclaim His voice. Modern revelation teaches that some have the gift to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, crucified for the sins of the world, and that it is given to others to believe on their words (D&C 40:13-14). As one who knows, I invite you to believe on my words.
I testify of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the vineyard. He is our Savior, and He reaches out to each of us with the timeless invitation to receive His peace by learning of Him and by walking in His way (D&C 19:23):
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
 “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” Hymns, 1985, no. 272, verse 4.
 Gospel Doctrine, Deseret Book, 1939, p. 1.
 “Is the U.S. a Nation of Liars?” The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2011, p. 20; “Anarchy in the U.K., The Economist, August 13, 2011, p. 14
 Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (Basic Books, 1993), 225.
 The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2002, p. W11.
 E.g., John Paul II: The Encyclicals in Everyday Language, edited by Joseph G. Donders, 2005, 212-13; Rabbi Harold Kushner, Who Needs God, First Fireside Ed’n, 2002, 78.
 Hymns, no. 272, verse 3.
 Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Deseret Book Co, 1995), 665.
 “Building Bridges to Harmony Through Understanding,” an address at Brigham Young University, Oct. 10, 2006, included in Alwi Shihab, Examining Islam in the West (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2004), 405-6.
 Eric Rassbach, Becket Fund attorney, quoted in William McGurn, “Religion and the Cult of Tolerance,” The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2011, p. A11.
 Letter to DHO, May 14, 1998.
 Be Not Afraid,” address at the Ogden Institute of Religion, Nov. 16, 2008, p. 5.
 Letter to DHO, December 22, 1987.
 “Examples of Righteousness,” Ensign, May 2008, 65.
 The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1854), Vol. IX, p. 229, October 11, 1798.
 See Heidi S. Swinton, To the Rescue, (Deseret Book Co, 2010), especially chapters 25, 28, and pp. 462-63.
 Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, Deseret Book Co., 1997, pp. 662.