Once more, we must remember that we are not exclusively talking about freedom for Christians in our culture. The same right to religious liberty that should protect followers of Christ should also protect followers of Moses, Muhammad, Krishna and Buddha, as well as those who believe there is no god to follow in the first place. This is one of the reasons why years ago I joined prominent religious leaders, including some I strongly disagree with, in signing a document expressing convictions concerning religious liberty. The end of that document states:

We will not … bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

That last phrase alludes to Jesus’ teaching that while we have certain obligations to our government (i.e., Caesar), our ultimate obligation is to our God (see Mark 12:13-17). He is the one who has put the freedom of conscience on the human heart, and that freedom applies universally. For this reason I gladly stand for religious liberty alongside people who do not believe the same gospel that I do. I don’t believe I’ll spend eternity with such people in heaven, but I am more than willing to go to jail for them on earth.

The gospel compels me to say this because the gospel begins with a God who gives men and women the freedom to pursue or deny Him as they please. Unfortunately, Christian history is haunted by people who missed this mammoth foundation. Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in the fourth century soon turned into governmental coercion to become a Christian. Tragically, church history in subsequent centuries contains other examples of shameful attempts to spread Christianity by force or military might. Even today, wars begin and battles are fought under the facade of Christian religion. Yet history, reason and Scripture together shout the reality that none of this was, or is, right.

This is why a level of separation between Church and state is so essential. This phrase—“separation of Church and state”—though widely debated regarding its specific application, signifies the unique role of these two institutions in society and their interdependent relationship with one another. The Church (read: religion) exists as an arena where individuals search the deepest questions of life and apply their answers consistently in the way they live. The state (read: government), in turn, exists to enable that quest, protecting men and women as they exercise this human right. The state exists neither for the establishment of religion nor for the elimination of religion but for the freedom of religion. In this relationship between Church and state, the government fosters a marketplace of ideas where religious exploration and expression are open—where men and women of all faiths are able to reason together regarding how to flourish alongside one another.

But if we’re not careful, this marketplace of ideas can subtly be minimized, and religious liberty can inevitably become limited. This is increasingly evident in contemporary culture, where the search for religious truth is often supplanted by the idolization of supposed tolerance. The cardinal sin of our culture is to be found intolerant, yet what we mean by intolerant is ironically, well, intolerant. Let me explain.

As soon as someone today says that homosexual activity is wrong or sinful, he or she is immediately called “intolerant.” “Offensive,” “bigoted” or “hateful,” as we’ve seen, but we’ll stick with “intolerant” for now. This supposed intolerance is often based upon that person’s belief in the Bible. Simply because that belief is different from others’ beliefs, it receives the “intolerance” label.

But the label is strangely self-defeating. Isn’t the person who assigns the “intolerance” label actually displaying a similar intolerance of that other person’s belief? In the process of calling another person “intolerant,” it sure seems that the name-caller is fairly intolerant him- or herself. This is common across our culture. It’s as if Americans are tired of intolerant people, and we’re not going to tolerate them anymore. We find ourselves in the awkward position of being intolerant of intolerant people, which means we cannot tolerate ourselves.

Apparently, our view of tolerance is a bit skewed. After all, the very notion of tolerance necessitates disagreement. Think about it. I don’t tolerate you if you believe exactly what I believe. If you believe that baseball is the greatest sport ever invented, I don’t tolerate you. I wholeheartedly agree with you, and I will gladly sit behind home plate with you, eating a hot dog and enjoying a game with you any day! It’s only if you believe that baseball is boring and soccer is much more exciting that I will find myself having to tolerate you. In that case, I will ardently disagree with you, and I will invariably enlighten you as to all the reasons why you’re wrong. But in the end, I will gladly sit in the stands with you as we watch guys run around kicking a ball on a field together.

Tolerance implies disagreement. I have to disagree with you in order to tolerate you. Sports superiority is obviously a light example, but on the deepest religious questions about life, we are bound to experience similar disagreements, aren’t we? And when we come to those disagreements, it would not only be wise but helpful for us to not immediately resort to calling one another intolerant (or bigoted or hateful, for that matter). Instead, it would be wise and helpful for us to patiently consider where each of us is coming from and why we have arrived at our respective conclusions. Based upon these considerations, we can then be free to contemplate how to treat one another with the greatest dignity in view of our differences.

Further confusion about intolerance can also be clarified when we realize that tolerance applies to people and beliefs in distinct ways. On one hand, toleration of people requires that we treat one another with equal value, honoring each person’s fundamental human freedom to express private faith in public forums. On the other hand, toleration of beliefs does not require that we accept every idea as equally valid, as if a belief is true, right or good simply because someone expresses it. In this way, tolerance of a person’s value does not mean I must accept that person’s views.

For example, I have Muslim friends whom I respect deeply, yet I disagree with them passionately. I believe Jesus is the Son of God; they don’t. They believe Muhammad was a prophet sent from God; I disagree. I believe Jesus died on a cross and rose from the grave; they don’t. They believe they will go to heaven when they die; I disagree.

These are major points of disagreement, and they shouldn’t be minimized. The tendency in our relativistic approach to religious truth is to say, “Hey, as long as someone believes something, that makes it right.” But such thinking simply can’t apply to any of the issues I mentioned above. Either Jesus is or isn’t the Son of God. He can’t be the Son of God and not be the Son of God at the same time. Similarly, either Muhammad was a prophet sent from God or he wasn’t. Either Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave or He didn’t. Muslims will either go to heaven when they die or they won’t.

These are serious questions (I would say eternally serious questions), and the purpose of religious freedom is to provide an atmosphere in which these questions can be explored. Such an atmosphere must be marked by the ability to articulate vigorous disagreement about beliefs while continuing to assign value and dignity to the people with whom we disagree. It is this atmosphere that is increasingly compromised in our culture today. I lament the many ways that Christians express differences in belief devoid of respect for the people with whom we speak. Likewise, I lament the many ways that Christians are labeled intolerant, narrow-minded and outdated whenever they express biblical beliefs that have persisted throughout centuries.

Nowhere are these twin realities more clear than in the debate over marriage. Christians should not view those who advocate the redefinition of marriage as arch-enemies who are conspiring to take over the culture. Instead, they are men and women seeking a way that seems right to them. Consequently, there are wonderful ways to express disagreement with them while also conveying clear love and admiration for them.

At the same time, we saw how the Supreme Court’s decision on the definition of marriage not only undercut “an aspect of marriage that [has] been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence,” but seemed to assert rather strongly that opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in the hatred of homosexuals. Supporters of traditional marriage, according to Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion, were painted as “bigots” and “enemies of the human race.” Such supporters were described as men and women who seek “to ‘demean,’ to ‘impose inequality,’ to ‘impose . . . a stigma,’ to deny people ‘equal dignity,’ to brand gay people as ‘unworthy,’ and to ‘humiliat[e]’ their children.” Such characterizations are not just dangerously unhelpful. They are simply untrue.

The ramifications for religious liberty in all of this are great. These are weighty matters to discuss, ranging from the foundations of the family to life after death. Such matters demand the ability to ask questions and explore answers in an atmosphere of dignity and respect, passionate discussion and inevitable disagreement. Furthermore, such matters demand the opportunity for all of us as citizens to arrange our lives according to what we believe as we consider how to listen to, learn from and live alongside one another not in spite of, but in light of our differences. None of this is simple in a culture like ours. But all of this is critical for a culture like ours.

This excerpt is adapted from David Platt’s Counter Culture. Used with permission.