What does the Bible teach about religious toleration? There are passages, especially in the Old Testament, which seem clearly to teach intolerance. God forbade interfaith marriage with the inhabitants of Canaan (Deu. 7:3), ordered the destruction of their places of worship (7:5), and even told the Israelites to commit genocide (7:1-2). However, we need to remember that Israel was a theocracy. God has a right to discriminate against and even exterminate his enemies. We do not.
There are also themes of toleration to be found in the Hebrew scriptures. Moses calls God “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16). The Torah enjoins love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18). And there were positive contacts between Judaism and other religions. For example, the influence of Zoroastrianism allowed the Hebrews to develop a robust view of the afterlife and the spirit world that it didn’t have before.
Under the new covenant, scripture clearly teaches toleration. Jesus refused to curse those who did not receive him because of religious prejudice (Luke 9:52-56). He corrected his disciples for rebuking an exorcist who did not follow them (Luke 9:49-50) and treated a Samaritan woman with respect (John 4:7-30). He used the example of a good Samaritan to shame his fellow Jews about their intolerance (Luke 10:25-37). The Apostle Paul acknowledged the religious devotion of pagans in Athens (Acts 17:22) and even spoke approvingly of Gentiles who do what is right, even though they don’t have God’s law (Rom. 2:14-16). And God called Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house” (Acts 10:2). Finally, while the New Testament doesn’t command toleration in so many words, it comes close when it commends “forbearing one another” (Col. 3:13, Eph. 4:2). And there are plenty of verses that command us to love others, even our enemies.
In addition to Biblical reasons, there are legal and historical reasons to practice religious toleration. I know this may come as a shock to some, but America was not founded as a Christian nation. Legally the United States has always been a secular state. There is no mention of God, Jesus, or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution, and the First Amendment mandates the separation of church and state. This is even more significant in light of the fact that a large majority of the founding fathers were professing Christians. They could have made the US officially Christian, even Protestant, but they chose not to.
Today there is a good kind of Christian activism, which seeks to preserve the rights of all Americans to worship according to the dictates of their consciences. It works to safeguard America’s godly heritage without trying to privilege one religion over another. This approach is an heir of that great tradition of Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. There is, however, another kind of Christian activism that wants to establish evangelical Protestantism over all other religions, seeking to force organized prayer and the teaching of creationism on the public schools, insisting America is a Christian nation, and politicking from the pulpit to the point of instructing church members how to vote. However well intentioned, this kind of activism is unhealthy and potentially threatens our religious freedom.
How would we evangelical Protestants like it if we faced such activism from others? Imagine if Catholics sought to outlaw birth control, Mormons caffeine, or Hindus the eating of meat. What if Jews wanted legislation to force all school cafeterias to keep kosher or Muslims wanted every Friday declared an official day of worship? If we can’t put the shoe on the other foot and feel comfortable, it’s not a good fit.