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Free Speech Round Table: The Quiet Courage of Free Expression

Nobody likes free speech. This may seem incongruous or even controversial in a theological roundtable dedicated to weighing the relative merits and Christian response to issues of free speech, but I am convinced that it is true. Free speech guarantees that you will hear something you don’t like, or even that deeply offends and troubles you. You have to listen to mean people tell lies, sometimes about things you believe in.

And despite this, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe that both Citizens United vs. FEC, which allowed for unlimited financial contributions to political action committees (PACs) and Texas vs. Johnson, which eliminated the prohibition on desecrating the American flag, were rightly ruled. I don’t like the outcomes of these decisions. I think PACs have had a net-negative impact on the electoral process, and I think that desecrating the American flag does something dangerous to our national identity and the very idea of sanctity. And this is precisely why free expression is Constitutionally protected. Things that people like don’t need protection, things that no one likes do.

My colleague John Ehrett makes a compelling case for free speech as a good that flows from the Christian values of truth and goodness. I would argue that free expression is important not only because of what it gains, but because of what it avoids. Constitutionally-protected free expression and the other freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment exist because the Founders lived in a culture that knew what ours has forgotten: that man is terribly fallen, the will to power is part of our nature, and that we are constantly driven to exploit others for our own gain. Free speech, religion, and assembly are the Achilles heel of tyrants and dictators. It is why enslaved African-Americans in the American south were prohibited from learning to read or write. It is why totalitarian states are so quick to jail, execute, and “disappear” independent journalists. It is why the first thing the Communist governments of the 20th century did was outlaw religion.

But the real brilliance of Madison and the other Founders is not the recognition that mankind wants to rule—for that is obvious prima fascia—but that, under conditions of the Fall, men desire to be ruled. Humans are constantly looking for saviors in this life— and we are happy to give up our freedoms if it means gaining power for our appointed earthly leader. In a 2019 investigation into global press freedom, Freedom House found that, “In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.” It is precisely the populist leaders, those supposed men and women of the people, the ones who promise to lead us into a brave new world, who are most likely to become tyrants. Tyrants do not need to take our freedoms; we hand them over willingly.

What inevitably flows from handing over these freedoms is that the tyrant—be it an individual dictator, a corporate conglomerate, a few oligarchs, or a mob—becomes the one to police speech, religion, and assembly. And that tyrant is fallen, just as all of us are fallen, and is likely further corrupted by the corroding effects of power, prestige, ambition, and ultimately sin. The result is disastrous not only for freedom in the abstract, but for discourse, community, trust, and fellowship.

Our desire to follow tyrants seems to be deeply rooted in our nature. Here again we are reminded that sin is a wasting disease. All desires, including our desire to be ruled, originate in our desire for God. As sin works in our wounded nature, we turn away from the true object of desire and tell ourselves that kings in this world will give us what we desire. But Christians must remember that we already have a true King and a righteous Judge.

As my colleagues have pointed out, not all speech is good, upbuilding, or faithful, and just because we have a political right to engage in unrestricted speech does not mean that our speech should be unrestricted. Christians must remember that the Great and Terrible day of the Lord is approaching, and that on that day that we will be held to account not only for our actions, but for the words behind them, as the Epistle of James cautions. Ben Winter is right: Christians do need to be responsible with their speech.

I would argue, however, that responsible Christian speech goes beyond what we choose not to say. We are a people called to speak out. Those of us with privilege and power have a duty to speak out for those who do not. And sometimes that may mean countering speech that we find offensive. To say that someone has the right to say something does not mean that what they said is right, and it does not mean that it should pass unheeded. Rebuttal is not censorship; it is the strongest weapon against offensive speech.

We are called not only to speak out for the material welfare of our brothers and sisters, but for Christ himself. “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven,” Our Lord said. “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” I will be the first to admit that this is a frightening commandment. Tyrants, after all, hate that we have another object of worship and devotion. It undercuts their temporal power and shows them to be powerless in the light of eternity. While Americans still enjoy a great amount of religious freedom, I fear that this is not a certain thing. We no longer live in the comforting embrace of Christendom.

Our free expression of our faith may be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but that does not mean that it is guaranteed. The witness of Christian martyrs in Pakistan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere are a sobering reminder of this fact. Here in America it is unlikely that proclaiming the Good News will get you killed, but it could have social and professional repercussions.

But this is no excuse to deny Christ before men. Because our King is not of this world, we do not need to fear. As is often the case, the Book of Common Prayer puts it best: “Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of all enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness.” Because we do not need to fear, we do not need to get angry, or to engage in the overheated rhetoric that too often passes for analysis. We can witness to the Gospel with strength, civility, and calm. We can speak out fiercely, but gently. For gentleness allows for a fierceness that mere kindness does not. And thus, in a world that seems to be gripped by tyrants, we can witness to the truth of another King and another way.

Barbara White

Barbara White

Barbara is an Episcopal priest serving as Associate Rector for Worship and Formation at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to entering ministry, Barbara worked in public policy and corporate communications. Her interests include Christian metaphysics, the King James Bible, eschatology, and third-wave coffee. Barbara and her husband Joshua live in Louisville with two impious felines.

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