G.K. Chesterton is considered one of the best writers of the 20th century. “He said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else.” He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. Born in London, G.K. Chesterton was educated at St. Paul’s, but never went to college. He went to art school.
Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” This was the man who wrote a book called The Everlasting Man, which led a young atheist named C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. Chesterton debated many of the celebrated intellectuals of his time: George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, usually emerging the winner. George Bernard Shaw said: “The world is not thankful enough for Chesterton.”
Chesterton argued eloquently against all the trends that eventually took over the 20th century: materialism, scientific determinism, moral relativism, and spineless agnosticism. He also argued against both socialism and capitalism and showed why they have both been the enemies of freedom and justice in modern society. And what did he argue for? What was it he defended? He defended “the common man” and common sense. He defended the poor. He defended the family. He defended beauty. And he defended Christianity.
As Dale Ahlquist says, “These don’t play well in the classroom, in the media, or in the public arena. The modern world prefers writers who are snobs, who have exotic and bizarre ideas, who glorify decadence, who scoff at Christianity, who deny the dignity of the poor, and who think freedom means no responsibility.”
Christians are currently arguing whether democracy is the best form of government and if it is sanctioned by principles found in Scripture itself, this notion is a modern innovation: no one before the sixteenth century thought this to be the case. Doubtless democracy, especially classic liberal democracy, is the best form of government for establishing at least minimal standards of accountability to the governed and for ensuring smooth (i.e., nonviolent) transitions, but it does not follow that it is always the best regime – and it has the potential for becoming as tyrannous as any other regime if it begins to think that the systems and structures of democracy are neutral and independent of any greater allegiance. In the “Origins of Political Order,” Francis Fukuyama argues that “successful liberal democracy requires both a state that is strong, unified, and able to enforce laws on its own territory, and a society that is strong and cohesive and able to impose accountability on the state.” This thesis does not adequately wrestle with the accountability of citizens (both those in the government and those not in the government) to something – Someone – greater than a political system. When citizens and government officials alike increasingly distance themselves, at least on some issues, from questions of truth and morality, then what the state will and will not tolerate easily becomes hijacked by current agendas that may easily become coercive. And if the notion of tolerance itself, in a parallel move, becomes distanced from larger notions of truth and morality, such that in various domains the chief evil is the (new) intolerance, then coercion by the state is bound to follow.
Robert Kraynak, in “Christianity and Modern Politics: God and Politics In a Fallen World,” states: “Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be. Christianity is not necessarily a liberal or a democratic religion, nor does it make the support of a political order its highest priority. The implications of this dilemma are that the secularists are wrong if they think religion should be kept out of the “public square”; but religious believers are also mistaken if they think that it is easy to reconcile their faith with the principles and practices of modern liberal democracy.”
In short, thoughtful Christians who live in democracies, however hard they work at being responsible citizens, cannot possibly imagine that the fact that they live in democracies will protect them from the revolution regarding the boundaries – and the very nature – of tolerance and intolerance. So where do we go from here?
Another way of making a similar point – that we must insist on the superiority of the old tolerance – is to keep reserving a place for truth, not only in our own hearts and minds, but in our interaction with the broader culture. Go back three or four decades when an older version of tolerance was in play: we tolerate those whose fundamental beliefs we think are false (the new version insists that it is wrong to say someone else’s fundamental beliefs are false). In his helpful book Christ the Controversialist, John R. W. Stott tells us, first, what Christians should do when they disagree with one another: “The proper activity of professing Christians who disagree with one another is neither to ignore, nor to conceal, nor even to minimize their differences, but to debate them. [That of course presupposes a certain view of truth]. We seem to have moved a long way from this vehement zeal for the truth which Christ and His apostles displayed. But if we loved the glory of God more, and if we cared more for the eternal good of the souls of men, we would not refuse to engage in necessary controversy, when the truth of the Gospel is at stake. The apostolic command is clear. We are “to maintain the truth in love,” being neither truthless in our love, nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance.
Then, to emphasize the importance of truth, Stott gets at different views of tolerance by distinguishing between a “tolerant mind” and a “tolerant spirit”:
“We need to distinguish between the tolerant mind and the tolerant spirit. Tolerant in spirit a Christian should always be, loving, understanding, forgiving and forbearing others, making allowances for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, for true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). But how can we be tolerant in mind of what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous?”
This is a slightly different way of distinguishing between what is called the old tolerance and the new, but it makes the same point by insisting on the non-negotiability of truth as a category to be maintained, cherished, and upheld. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Once again, although the issue is in part theoretical, the insistence on truth has many practical applications. It is not only a matter (for Christians) of insisting on the truth of the Gospel, but insisting on truthful speech, truthful analyses, truthful representations of other religions (thus claiming they are all saying the same things is untruthful, and should be rejected, in the first instance, as untruthful speech), even truthful representations of what the Constitution says – thus the First Amendment means something different from what is commonly assumed: what is the truth of the matter? And with all of this a willingness, even an eagerness, to correct something we have said if it is persuasively pointed out to us that we have not spoken the truth.