Just before last year’s elections, my wife and I attended a performance at a local concert center. The singer-songwriter who performed has a reputation for being aware of and sympathetic to those who suffer the anguish and misery of discrimination, and much of her music reflects that sensitivity. My wife and I had both enjoyed her music, and we were looking forward to listening to her music “live.” After having performed two of her more popular songs, the artist paused from her singing for several moments to encourage her audience to be responsible by voting at the upcoming election. She went on to say that although she had not read the measure herself, she had heard that there was a particular measure on the state-wide ballot that discriminated against homosexuals. She encouraged the audience to vote against the measure because it was bigoted and discriminatory. The audience’s sympathetic response to her plea was frightening. It had the character and quality of an angry mob in an old western, intent on taking justice into their own hands, completely intolerant of anyone who would disagree or get in its way.

The performer communicated several messages in her exhortation to the audience. Firstly, be responsible and vote. Secondly, bigotry is wrong. Thirdly, a vote against the measure would be a vote against bigotry and discrimination; a vote for the measure would be a vote for bigotry and discrimination. I agree with her first message; it is responsible to be informed about ballot measures and the people running for public office and to vote accordingly. Her second message was also appropriate; bigotry is absolutely and completely wrong. Her third point, however, was shortsighted; someone might or might not be a bigot whether he voted for or against the measure.

The intent of this article is not to argue for or against the measure in question, but rather to present an accurate definition of bigotry and a clear understanding of its roots. Intended or not, the audience’s response to the performer’s exhortation was discriminatory and intolerant of any differing opinion. And that is bigotry.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines bigotry:

(1) stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own. (2) actions, beliefs, prejudices, of a bigot. (3) to be so emotionally or subjectively attached to one’s own beliefs as to be unthinkably hostile to all others who disagree.

A bigot is a person who is utterly intolerant of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from his own. In practical terms, bigotry is about how you relate to someone who disagrees with you.

A governing rule of current dialogue regarding moral issues is that you must never openly express disagreement or, worse still, communicate to another person that you believe he is or may be wrong. The moral relativism that exists in our society today dictates this rule. And the ‘politically correct’, who present themselves as accepting and tolerant, adhere to this rule which is, ironically, very inflexible and intolerant of those who dare to break it.

The rationale of the morally relativistic perspective asserts that there are no moral absolutes, and therefore one person’s truth is as important and true as another’s. So when you disagree with someone or tell him that you think he is wrong, you are looked upon as arrogant and narrow-minded; you have committed not just a huge social blunder, but a cardinal sin with severe consequences. You have, according to the rule, exhibited a lack of acceptance and tolerance toward another person. You have displayed yourself as a bigot.

The dynamic of this unspoken rule is graphically illustrated in the discussion about homosexuality. Those who disagree with the ‘politically correct’ belief that homosexual behavior is a legitimate, morally acceptable expression of one’s sexuality are automatically considered bigots. And the rule is evident on a much larger scale. A group of people who hold an opinion or belief that differs from a belief considered acceptable or politically correct is often labeled as bigoted. The penalty for breaking the rule—prescribed by the morally relativistic, politically correct perspective—is to be labeled a bigot. Often, this is how groups with conservative morals come to be looked upon as bigoted.

But notice how different the dictionary definition of ‘bigotry’ is from how the term is often used in our culture. ‘Bigotry’ according to the dictionary is characterized by intolerance of a creed, belief, or opinion—not disagreement with it. This is a crucial distinction. Disagreeing with someone, or stating that you believe a particular position to be in error, is something altogether different from intolerance. Intolerance refers to a hostile, dogmatic, one-sided, self-righteous refusal to allow others to have or to put into practice views that are different from one’s own. Disagreeing is expressing different ideas, thoughts, or beliefs. Disagreeing with someone who holds a morally liberal, politically correct perspective does not make a morally conservative person a bigot anymore than disagreeing with someone with conservative morals makes someone with relativistic morals a bigot. Intolerance makes a person a bigot.

At the heart of bigotry is an unwillingness to accept the truth that all men are equally sinful and desperately in need of the mercy of God. This is illustrated in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer in Luke 18:10-14:

And He [Jesus] also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

The first character in the parable is a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a religious organization of men who banded together in groups for the purpose of supporting, encouraging, and educating one another in the observance of the Law. The Pharisees devoted their lives to doing all the things they thought a person who was serious about God ought to do. They paid their tithes religiously. They prayed fervently and regularly. They went to the temple as often as they could. They believed the right theology. They didn’t associate with people whom they considered to be sinners. They were the ‘religiously correct’ of their time and culture. The Pharisees were fanatical about their religious pursuits, and they had no tolerance for those who held contrary beliefs, or for those who expressed their religion differently.

The second character in the parable is a tax-gatherer. When Judea became a Roman province, the people who lived there had to pay taxes to the emperor. The Romans had a unique way of collecting taxes. They sold ‘tax franchises’ to certain Jews, giving them the right to collect taxes for the Roman government from the Jewish people. Prospective tax-gatherers were willing to pay great sums of money for a five-year contract because the Roman government set a tax quota for a particular district but set no limit on the amount of money a tax-gatherer could actually collect. Once a tax-gatherer met his quota, he could keep any extra money. As you can imagine, although tax-gatherers were fairly wealthy individuals, they were not the most popular people in the Jewish community. In fact, Jewish law considered a tax-gatherer to be unclean and a traitor; unclean because of his direct dealings with gentiles; a traitor because he collected taxes for the Romans from his own countrymen.

The Pharisee in the parable was living a ‘religiously correct’ life. From his perspective he was doing what a man serious about righteousness and finding favor with God ought to be doing. He looked at his life and concluded that all was well between himself and God. And his religiously correct life even allowed for and included contempt for sinners like the tax-gatherer.

The Pharisees had a prescribed set of rules for relating to God, and those rules provided a tangible means for the Pharisees to measure themselves and determine their success in finding favor with God. There were, however, two problems with their rules.

First of all, their code of conduct differed from what God really wanted. God wanted the Pharisees (and all people) to be certain kinds of people at the core of their beings, rather than people who conformed to a set of manageable rules He did not intend. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with this issue in Matthew 23:23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

Secondly, the rules of the Pharisees prevented them from realizing their desperate need to trust God. God wants people to trust Him for the gift of righteousness. He wants people, through failure and experiencing the consequence of their own sin, to discover they are morally bankrupt and do not have the moral resources within themselves to find His favor. God wants people to trust Him, not themselves, for His favor. A critical theme throughout the Bible is that a man is justified by faith, not by his own self-efforts.

These problems are at the heart of bigotry. The Pharisee looked at his religiously correct life and concluded that all was well between himself and God. From his perspective he believed all the right things, he did all the right things; and consequently, he determined that he was different than the tax-gatherer. He sincerely believed he was made of a different moral fiber than the tax-gatherer. He sincerely believed he was made of different stuff than other people. He was truly self-righteous. Notice how the Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people.” Being self-deceived, the Pharisee wrongly discriminated between himself and the tax-gatherer; although the Pharisee didn’t realize it, he was exactly like every other person, a sinner exactly like the tax-gatherer. But viewing himself as different than the tax-gatherer allowed the Pharisee to look upon the tax-gatherer with contempt, disdain, arrogance, ridicule, and intolerance. The Pharisee was truly a bigot.

The tax-gatherer, on the other hand, conceived of himself as a sinner. As he stood in the temple and prayed to God, all he could do was stare at the ground, beat his breast, and say, “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” The tax-gatherer knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he desperately needed the mercy of God.

How we view ourselves at any given moment will play a significant part in how we relate to other people. If we are self-righteous and trust anything other than God, we will certainly fall blindly into the same trap the Pharisee did. Whether we trust our religious correctness, our theological correctness, our political correctness, or any other ‘correctness’, the result will be the same: like the Pharisee, we will view ourselves as different than others and, consequently, treat them with contempt and intolerance. And that is bigotry.

If, on the other hand, we can by the grace of God come face to face with the cross and recognize our own personal need for mercy, we will have a much better place from which to view ourselves and others—no matter who they are, how they act, or what they believe.