A Christian view of freedom of speech

This is the text of a short talk given to the Altrincham Interfaith Group on 15th September 2022. There is much more to say but this is what I managed to fit into 12 minutes.

Words have power. That is undeniable- they can build up, they can inspire, they can tear down and they can hurt. In a Christian worldview words are powerful enough to be creative. We read in Genesis that God created through his word; he said “Let there be light” and creation began. The New Testament gives us further insight in that Christ is the ‘Word”; he was in the beginning and through him all things were made. 

Freedom of speech has been described as the foundational right; indeed it is the First Amendment to the US Constitution. But what does that mean? It is suggested that freedom of speech underpins all other rights- there is no freedom of religion and belief without the freedom of speech. As a Christian, however, I am not convinced that this can be taken to its logical extreme; that we are free to say whatever we want with little or no consequence. 

Jesus Christ taught:

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man (Matthew 15:11).

Speech has the potential to cause harm and divide. As a Christian I need to be conscious of the way that I speak and what I say. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith to which I belong, there is a further encouragement from the Lord to:

…strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings (D&C 108:7).

In my speech I have a responsibility to build up, to strengthen. For me it is impossible to talk about the freedom of speech without talking about the responsibility that goes alongside. I may believe that people, including myself, have the freedom of speech but it is imperative that I consider the impact and motivation of the words which I speak. What am I trying to achieve through my words?

Freedom of speech does not mean, as a Christian, that I only speak that which is palatable and acceptable to others. There are responsibilities that I have in “standing as a witness” of God. We read in the Gospels some of the Saviour’s interactions with leaders of his day:

O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh (Matthew 12:34).

He often condemned what were seen to be outward religious hypocrisy that belied a person’s heart. This is hurtful, how can we justify a freedom of speech that calls out the way that some people live? I think it is to do with intention. What is the intention behind the words that we speak? And, also how do we say them? A scripture of my faith encourages just this approach:

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy (Doctrine and Covenants 121:43).

There is truth that must be stood up for; but there is an approach to such that should emulate Christlike love and charity. While I believe that Christ condemned the way that some people acted; his love meant that he was willing to die for all people including those who nailed him to the cross. 

I, like, many others have spoken in anger. I learned a long time ago that responding through anger never solves a problem; rather it exacerbates it. We can express displeasure, but always the way that we speak should be measured. Only then can we ensure that our freedom of speech is not designed to hurt. That does not mean that people will not be hurt by some of the words that are spoken, but that we are able to learn and have measured discussion. 

There is a danger in today’s world that the free interchange of ideas is being limited. There are acceptable ideas and those which are beyond the pale. This has always been the case. Within political discourse there is something called the ‘Overton Window’. This is essentially the idea that there are boundaries of opinion, that if a politician expresses anything outside of it they are unlikely to be elected. This window changes over time and sometimes narrows or expands. Just this morning I read of a member of the Scottish Parliament who was censured by his party for expressing support for those arguing for further restrictions on abortion. The rights and wrongs of his viewpoint aside, the letter of censure raised some very interesting issues. The letter said:

We would like to make it clear that we absolutely respect your right to hold your views on abortion and your right to freedom of speech and expression. We do not, however, believe that you have the right to impose these views on others. The verbalisation of your views has caused great distress and trauma to many women and have also been regarded as misinformation by medical professionals. 

I do not understand the right to freedom of speech but opposing the verbalisation of those views. Those are two opposite attitudes expressed in the same sentence. Do we, as a society, and I as a Christian have a right to impose limits on expression and speech?

In The Book of Mormon we read of a man called Korihor who sought to lead people away from the faith. He had the protection of the law to teach what he wanted, but there were limits. He taught:

every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime. And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

Korihor, it appears, was inciting people to ‘commit whoredoms’ which seems to be a catchall phrase that might link with the teaching that whatsoever is done is no crime. He has incited people to commit crime and therefore can be held responsible in front of the law. We have examples in our society of people who have taught and preached horrendous things that have been seen to incite others to act in ways contrary to the law. Indeed, this kind of rhetoric led to the second impeachment of Donald Trump; whatever the rights or wrongs of the impeachment it highlights that we have a responsibility for the things that we say and the impact that they have on others. It also shows how difficult it is to prove causal links between the speech of one person and the actions of others. In the UK there are limitations to the speech that we use, in particular while recognising the right to freedom of expression Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”. Over the past 25 years this law has been revised to include speech that might incite “racial and religious hatred”, “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” and any language that “encourages terrorism”.

Those who are charged with our governance and the maintenance of society should not overstep their authority and ensure that these freedoms are protected regardless of their personal views as to the acceptability of different views as long as they do not harm others.

Returning to the idea of personal responsibility. There are limits, we can speak what we believe to be true as long as it does not cause harm to others. More recent examples include Joe Rogan in the US who expressed the view that Sandy Hook was a hoax, and that vaccines were dangerous. The first was proven that he knew what he was expressing was a lie, and the second led to the death of many who refused any treatment or vaccination.

As a Christian it is incumbent on me to allow everyone to have the freedom of speech that I enjoy. What this means is that I should be willing to stand up for the rights of those with whom I completely disagree. Joseph Smith taught:

The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter day Saints would trample upon the rights of the other denomination <Roman Catholics> or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. (“History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1666, The Joseph Smith Papers).

An example of this is in the musical, The Book of Mormon. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints involved in Religious Education I am often asked about my response to the musical. At this point I admit that I have not seen it, and I have no plans to do so. Sometimes this is met with incredulity. Speaking to some people who have listened to the music, there are funny parts of the musical, but overwhelmingly it is a satirisation of aspects of my faith filled with profanity, sexual references, and an offensive view of both members of the Church and, from what I understand, Uganda. As another of my friends has commented: “I have had my faith made fun of for forty years, I don’t know that I want to pay for that privilege.”

Why am I not campaigning for it to be taken off the stage? The Saviour taught to ‘turn the other cheek’. Anger and recrimination will not accomplish anything. While seeking to protect myself I allow others to criticise aspects of my faith. I would hope that this is done out of love, not out of hate. That leads me on to freedom of speech on social media which has exacerbated the situation beyond measure. I think the Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas had it right when he suggested that our interaction with the ‘other’ must be face to face. Only then will walls be broken down and we will recognise the impact of our freedom of speech. 

I have perhaps spoken of a utopian ideal. We’re not perfect- freedom of speech only works when it is accompanied by the responsibility of speech. In a world where our words can build up or tear down, I must, as a Christian, build up.


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