Freedom of Speech Round Table: Revising Our Definition of Freedom
As Christians, our relationship to freedom of speech is complicated. On the one hand, it is certainly a gift. C.S. Lewis once remarked in Mere Christianity that it’s good Christians cannot impose their views of marriage onto non-Christians, because Christians would not want Muslims to forbid drinking alcohol. In an ever-secularizing world, freedom of speech is a necessity: I have to be okay with the existence of acts of speech like “Immersion (Piss Christ)” by Andres Serrano, because the principle which allows his work to exist allows me to preach the Gospel from the pulpit in my parish.
To assess freedom of speech as an Anglican will inevitably involve the blending of freedom of speech and religion, given the historic relationship between the Anglican Church and the English Crown. The intimate arrangement between Church and State means the concept of freedom of speech as understood by modern Americans is not historically inherent to Anglicanism. The 1662 Act of Uniformity led to what is now called the Great Ejection, where Puritans were forced out of the Church of England. The 1661 Corporation Act and 1673 Test Act required English officeholders to receive communion in Anglican churches. Universities often required assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. The tides began to change in 1688 with the Toleration Act, which allowed some Protestant nonconformists to worship—so long as they pledged allegiance to the Crown and acknowledged its supremacy. In 1791, things opened up for Roman Catholics with the Roman Catholic Relief Act, followed by the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act, which tolerated non-Trinitarian religion. These moves towards free speech and practice of religion were not always well-received. For example, the infamous “Seven Bishops” were prosecuted for seditious libel for refusing to read King James II’s Declaration of Indulgence (1687) from pulpits. That declaration was the first step towards the development of free speech in England.
However much some may wistfully long for the days of the Act of Uniformity, there really is no going back to that in the modern era. Freedom of speech is here to stay. Christians should, I think, as a result, make use of their freedoms in a way that contributes to the greater good of society. But it is difficult to endorse a view which makes freedom of speech a good in and of itself, without taking some pause to consider its downsides. First, freedom of speech means that ideas compete in a marketplace and, therefore, are subject to popular, democratic support. Because the state is committed to the freedom of the individual more than the content of the speech itself, ideas and acts of speech deemed acceptable are up to a kind of popular vote. This may seem to empower to the individual, but it also means that content is subject to cultural whims (this is, of course, true in most situations—but freedom of speech certainly accentuates the phenomenon). Consequently, speech celebrated in a society is almost purely descriptive (a statement of what that society is at a given time), not prescriptive (what it should aspire to be). This is true even in hortative acts of speech. Finally, it is not surprising that a culture that so highly values the right to free speech finds itself described as “post-truth.” Language is a means by which we create social realities. Freedom of speech, then, when paired with the proliferation of partisanship, allows us to live in our own bubbles where we create realities distinct from the realities of others.
So, the remaining question is how the Christian should orient themselves towards freedom of speech and the society which celebrates it. Certainly, as mentioned above, it is something we should value in our particular cultural situation—but as a necessity, not an ideal. Very often, with freedom of speech, the emphasis is on the right to speak, not to interrogate what should be said. Both questions are, of course, valid to certain degrees. But the primary focus from actors ought to be more on their ethical responsibility in speaking, rather than simply exercising their right. Oftentimes, abstention is wiser than indulgence.
And this raises the question of the definition and telos of freedom in the first place. What is a Christian definition of freedom? It is not to do whatever one wants. Rather, freedom is found in proximity to the divine. As Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe says, “We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone, we are free because God is more present—not of course in the sense that there is more of God there in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us.” Participation with God makes us free, not the exercising of various rights. Just because something can be said does not mean it should be. In fact, when the can takes precedence over the should, Christians do the most damage to the message of the Gospel. I’ll leave the particular questions of if and how speech should be legislated to smarter people, like Ehrett. However, I would encourage Christians to be the first and most rigorous in terms of self-policing their speech, because we should be the first to understand the true nature of freedom. And I say that not as someone who has that balance figured out (far from it, in fact) but as someone who at least sees the need for it.
 Herbert McCabe, God Matters (New York: Continuum, 2012), 14.