Has free speech ever really been free? The growth spurt of ‘safe spaces’, the label of ‘hate speech’, and the push back against speech-induced violence have created a reactionary surge in America to protect our 1st amendment rights. While the goal of safeguarding open dialogue serves the cause of Christ, and the advance of his kingdom, we cannot neatly tuck gospel proselytizing under the umbrella of free speech.
Few, if any people, would advocate completely open and free speech with no consequences. For example, we do not allow people to yell out ‘fire’ in a public space. We have rules against libel and false witness. People who issue threats against others’ lives or property face punishment. Christian schools do not allow professors or clubs to promote LGBT agendas. Turns out we have quite a few rules governing how people speak. Speech never has been, nor should it ever be, one hundred percent “free.”
If we bear this in mind, it becomes easier to understand those who argue against, and wish to ban ‘hate speech’, which they define as attacking a person based on things like gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. In their eyes, such bans simply serve as a logical, 21st century extension of protecting a human being against direct threats to his person.
This begs two questions: what constitutes a direct threat against someone’s person? And more foundationally, what is ‘free speech’?
In a robustly relativistic culture, in one sense, every statement, every sentence anyone utters ‘threatens’ the hearer’s existing belief paradigm. If all truth is up for grabs and individually defined, then your flat, close-minded assertion that, for example, ‘a rabbit is a mammal’, could theoretically ‘threaten’ me, if my unwavering belief that rabbits are sui generis (in a class to themselves) is close enough to the core of my being. Functionally, we can all be grateful that politically correct boundaries have not swollen to such absurd territory. However, we must not naively believe that because words are not actions, they cannot pose a threat. Nor should we be surprised when media, universities, and the world at large reveal that they have an established, if fluid, set of doctrines, or accepted beliefs, which they will vigorously defend from antithetical truth claims. This is nothing new.
In Jeremiah’s age, his message, though true, and immensely practical, that God would give Jerusalem over to the Chaldeans, was not received too well. The leaders saw that if people believed Jeremiah’s words, it would have direct consequences on their actions and their motivation to defend the city. So they chucked Jeremiah in a pit. (Jer 38) This was a man speaking unpopular words of God’s judgment on a sinful people. The response of the leaders, though compounding their guilt, was by no means irrational. We cannot pretend that words do not have power. God promises that His Word will always have an impact, and will not come back void. (Is 55:11)
This brings up the second question, which is what does ‘free speech’ mean? If free speech entails the ability to live free from hypocrisy, free from speaking out of both sides of our mouth in order to stay alive, free to seek for truth, free to express minority opinions and desires, then this is a noble and good cause. If, however ‘free speech’ means equal validation of every truth claim, or even a commitment to promote a level playing field for every voice to receive an equal hearing, then we are expecting a scenario not only humanly impossible and chaotic, but also immoral. Christian leaders of businesses or institutions are doing a great disservice and harm to those they influence if they so much as indirectly imply the possibility for many truths to coexist in parity. All ‘truth’ is not created equal.
However, the gospel does not triumph through coercion. The gospel triumphs because it is the truth, and the truth sets people free. Christians need not clench up in fear and raise the drawbridge when we see false worldviews approaching with their dangerous conclusions in tow. We can, by the open statement of the truth, commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2) Christians should embrace debate and healthy controversy because we trust the inherent superior attractiveness of the genuine light of Scripture, and the saints whose actions reflect a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. The Christian message loves and promotes an arena of free speech, because Scripture will announce itself like a lion let out of his cage. The gospel contends for hearts and minds, not primarily through shutting down falsehoods, but through shining a spotlight on its own glory, its coherence, its demonstrable power in changing and transforming lives.
This article was first posted on Reformation21