Christians and Free Speech

free speech

by John Ellis

Several weeks ago, after the horrendous terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a Muslim cleric named Anjem Choudary wrote an op-ed in which he claimed that, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.” I’m not qualified to deconstruct the validity of Choudary’s statements in light of the teachings of Islam; nor am I interested in doing so. In fact, I’m not even interested in expressing opinions about Anjem Choudary’s op-ed piece; that’s not what this article is about. The reason I bring up Choudary and his op-ed is because while reading it, I was struck with the question, “Should Christians support free speech/expression?”

To be clear out of the gate, and to tip my hand[1], the obvious and correct answer is “yes.” Now, if you’re perfectly content with not exploring the what I believe is the obvious and correct answer any further, then I will harbor no hard feelings if you click on another article at this point[2]. But, if you’re like me when I first read Choudary’s op-ed, you want to explore the obvious answer in the belief that there is value found in the reasons why Christians should support and promote free speech and expression.

As I reflected on the question, I kept going back to Choudary’s statement. Looking past the lack of nuance, I believe that the claim that “speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires” is a statement that I wouldn’t immediately recoil at if it was uttered by a Christian teacher in reference to Christians[3]. Divine revelation, specifically the Divine revelation as administered through the Word of God, the authority of the church, and the sacraments[4], should, at the least, shape, if not determine, the speech and actions of Believers. In other words, if we believe that truth is revealed to us from a source outside of ourselves, which means that truth is neither the sole product of social constructs nor of our own individualistic making, then shouldn’t the opposing viewpoints be disallowed on some level as harmful? If truth exists, and as Christians we believe that it does, shouldn’t that truth be protected from contamination by untruth?

Two things – and the first thing is fairly simple. We are not called to protect truth. We are called to proclaim the Truth, with words and deeds[5]. Now, and the first thing just became less simple, defining “protect” may be in order. If “protecting” means to engage non-truth with gracious interaction that proclaims the Truth with words and deeds, then, yes, we are called to protect the truth. Let’s be honest, though; when people talk about “protecting” something, they don’t usually mean gracious dialogue. Protecting usually refers to some sort of hedging in, in this case, a means of keeping untruth out. That, of course, would mean strictures on people’s speech and all forms of expression.

But, once again, we are not called to protect the truth. Truth, even though it may not seem like it at times during the short term, does not need protection. And that brings me to the second thing.

Truth exists apart from us. We do not determine truth. Knowledge[6] is not a product that depends on our efforts; it is revealed to us – gifted to us. Of course, many, if not most, of the streams of modern epistemology reject the claim that knowledge is a gift of God and revealed to us by God.

The rejection of the God of the Bible as the source of all truth can be seen in the modern distinction between fact statements and value statements. For some, according to theologian Dr. Michael Horton, “Only statements of fact (propositions) really counted as knowledge claims; statements of value were merely subjective and therefore meaningless.”[7] On the opposite side of that coin, others have recognized that humans are products of variables within specific times and places, and, hence, truth, if it can be called truth in this construct, serves as value statements within social constructs. For these people, propositional statements, fact statements, have little or no value due to the reality that humans cannot transcend their immediate context and experience. These two competing paradigms[8] are essentially saying the same thing – truth, if it exists at all, is a product of humans. That creates problems.

Within modern epistemologies, who gets to define "hate speech" and how "hate speech" is defined will, by necessity, keep changing.
Within modern epistemologies, who gets to define “hate speech” and how “hate speech” is defined will, by necessity, keep changing.

In his essay, “The Message of the Hungarian Revolution,” philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote about how the Stalinist regime believed that truth should be subservient to the Party’s goals. Of course, according to Polanyi, this belief had been deeply rooted in the Soviet system prior to Stalin’s rise to power. “Marxism-Leninism taught that public consciousness is a superstructure of the underlying relations of production; public thought under socialism, therefore, must be an instrument of the Party controlling Socialist production.”[9] Translation – since the plans and goals of those in power are ultimate, free speech can’t be allowed. The possibility for contradictions to those plans and goals is too dangerous to allow for the risk.

As easy a target as Soviet Russia makes, their rejection of free speech didn’t happen in a vacuum; the West, and its stated desire for equality and freedom, is not inoculated from the excess of the repression of speech. You see, the West’s definitions of equality and freedom are products of the belief that knowledge is a human product. As soon as something challenges those definitions, free speech becomes a threat. If truth isn’t grounded in an absolute Transcendence, if instead it’s grounded in obviously fallible humans, then truth can be overthrown. Truth, in that case, needs to be protected. Thankfully, truth is a gift of the Creator God and doesn’t need our protection.

A Christian’s defense of free speech is also grounded in our anthropology. Truth is revealed, yes; but humans are finite and fallen[10]. Our ability to discern truth is impaired. Any epistemic claims of certainty should be met with skepticism and the recognition that the individual may very well be guilty of reconstructing the Tower of Babel in an attempt to set him or herself up next to God – epistemic certainty is the purview of the Trinity. Placing strictures on speech and expression is making claims of certainty – we know for sure, and no other voices are needed nor should be allowed.

Free speech is an act of humility on the part of God’s children. An act of humility that recognizes that while truth is absolute and the product of the transcendent God of the Bible, we humans are fallen and our ability to know has been negatively affected by sin. When people see truth as subservient to humans, free speech is threatening. When we recognize that truth is a gift of God, free speech is not a threat but a humble recognition of our limitations.

[1] I don’t want there to be any confusion about this. But chances are that even though I believe that I’ve been very clear with this article that I believe that Christians should support free speech/expression, chance are I will still be accused of being opposed to free speech. Such is life on the interwebs, I guess.

[2] Assuming, of course, that you clicked on another article on this website. Besides, the counter doesn’t care if you read this whole article or not; it’s already counted your eyeballs as a “view.”

[3] I may raise my eyebrows a little, and then ask for the statement to be fleshed out some more.

[4] Calm down, my fellow Protestants. If you don’t know me well enough to know the context that I’m writing in (which I hope is a lot of you, otherwise it’s just my friends reading this), know that I too affirm sola scriptura. But, we Western Evangelicals have fallen into the trap of a subjective and individualistic epistemology in which we determine truth based on what I and I alone discern from the Bible.

[5] Somewhat of a tangent, but this is another area in which I want there to be no confusion about what I believe, strongly believe – the Gospel confronts Image Bearers and asks for an affirmation, an affirmation that includes the whole being including the intellect, and a decision. Will I in faith repent of my sins and bow the knee to King Jesus and accept His perfect life, His death, and His resurrection as the basis for my justification before my Creator God? If an Image Bearer is confronted with that Gospel question and answers in the negative, that Image Bearer is currently under the wrath of God and at risk of spending eternity under a just and righteous God’s wrath.

[6] Knowledge and truth are interchangeable. You may disagree with that, but if so, know that you will probably disagree with much of this article, and website, for that matter. For my Christian friends who are wary, for very good reason, of Foundationalism, know that I’m not claiming that human knowledge = certainty. Keep reading, the article, I’m planning on speaking to that.

[7] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 118.

[8] Look, I realize that all of you amateur epistemologists are cringing at the lack of any fleshing out of my claims. But, and for you non-epistemologists, those amateur epistemologists probably live on one side or that coin or other, and believe (for one side of the coin) or feel (for the other side of the coin) that I’ve been unfair. I haven’t. But that doesn’t matter because this article isn’t about epistemology, it’s about freedom of speech and I’m quickly, or as quickly as I can, working to my point about why Christians should support free speech. If you want to study epistemology, read Michael Polanyi (whom I’m about to reference) and Esther Lightcap Meek (whose book I’m planning on reviewing).

[9] Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, ed. Marjorie Grene (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 24.

[10] Humans were finite before the Fall. It’s not a sin to be finite. That’s important, not necessarily for this article, but in general.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s