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Free Speech Round Table: The (Substantive) Christian Case for Free Speech

The problem of liberty is a frequent motif among right-of-center political commentators these days. According to a growing number of writers informed by the Christian (primarily Catholic) theological tradition, the “traditional” or “libertarian” American case for personal freedom—understood in the sense of an abstract commitment to certain procedural limitations or an ill-defined ideal of absolute autonomy—is no longer sufficient. Rather, any arguments for social policies or practices must be founded in a substantive account of the common good.

In other words, it is not theologically sufficient to simply assert about a law “this is an infringement on my rights.” Here, “rights” is a functionally bloodless term, and so must be fleshed out for any such assertion to be morally compelling. (This critique would apply in particular to recent voices on the center and left who have defended free speech as a liberal value against alleged instigators of “cancel culture.”)

Many of the critics who take this line subsequently argue that most of the freedoms Americans take for granted—from economic liberties to freedom of the press—are far too expansive and need to be substantially corralled. As it were, they share that instinct with the proponentsof “cancel culture,” who broadly seek to suppress speech that violates certain norms. But though I won’t argue the point here, there’s good reason to think that some of the Catholic critics’ conclusions don’t really follow as principles of natural law, but rather flow from an overreading of splenetic encyclicals from some of the Roman Church’s darker chapters.

In all events, I do share these critics’ intuition that the traditional American language of “freedom” needs a richer metaphysical foundation. “Freedom from” outside constraint is, no doubt, a different sort of thing than “freedom to” pursue the good. But importantly, an ironclad distinction between these two conceptions of freedom can only be maintained if one purports to possess a fully exhaustive, determinate account of the nature of the good. I know of no Christian, or Christian tradition, that would make such a claim. Accordingly, any meaningful “freedom to” seek the good (ultimately, God) entails a commitment to a certain degree of “freedom from” constraint, because the good (God) is imperfectly known by human beings.

With that understanding in mind, I will here defend the claim that a largely unrestricted conception of free speech is a substantive moral good. The Christian value of free speech may be seen by way of two principles: the principle of truth and the principle of beauty.

The principle of truth needs little theological defense. At the heart of Christian faith is an affirmation of the essential unity between God and Truth: Jesus defines Himself, after all, as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (Jn 14:6)  Almost the entire book of Proverbs is an invitation to cherish and internalize truth.

But it is now quite commonplace to witness a reduction of the imperative to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) to merely “speak . . . in love.” This reduction, in turn, is frequently rooted in the assumption that any foundationalist claim to access “objective” truth is a screen for power plays. If there is no underlying truth to speak, social relations become a matter of merely policing the manner and mode of discourse.

This is the denuded condition of discourse that critics of “cancel culture” fear. And that fear flows from the Christian recognition that, in seeking to grasp and articulate the world, it is not always enough to merely be “nice”; sometimes hard and painful truths must be spoken, even if they will hurt the hearer in some ways. As Proverbs 27:6 puts it, “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

And so, “freedom from” prior restraints on speech is the logical corollary of the “freedom to” speak the truth.

But what, then, about hate speech? A number of thoughtful writers, including prominent legal philosophers like Jeremy Waldron (a Christian, incidentally), have advocated for laws that levy penalties on particularly derogatory forms of speech. For our purposes here, let us suppose that a proposed hate speech law prohibits speech that is deemed derogatory of any identifiable group, racial or otherwise.

As well-intentioned as such a policy might be, I would reject the imposition of such a law, because I submit that there are circumstances in which speaking the truth in love requires that an individual seek to deconstruct illegitimate group identity claims. Galatians 3:28, after all, points out that within the body of Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Here is an example. To my mind, to embrace and defend one’s “whiteness” is to perpetuate the lie that there is some biological reality that is the “white race,” as opposed to a historical construction used to develop an illegitimate system of social caste. There are people of German ancestry, there are people of Irish ancestry, and there are people of Russian ancestry (as well as people of European ancestry writ large)—but the categoryof “white” has never been fixed, static, or meaningfully biologically grounded. It has operated as a sort of catch-all term to refer to those not Black, and its boundaries have fluctuated over time. Thus, white nationalism and white supremacy are not only morally evil; they are built on conceptual quicksand.

And yet a hate speech law prohibiting attacks on any “racial group” would probably serve to silence the argument I just outlined—because my argument delegitimizes “whiteness” as a category, and in so doing delegitimizes any “racial group” understanding itself as “white.” As such, a hate speech law would operate to prevent individuals from speaking the truth—that the embrace of “whiteness” as a biologically fixed identity is, at bottom, a lie.

To address this, one might be tempted to propose “asymmetric” hate speech laws applying only to members of “historically privileged” groups. Any such proposal, however, would immediately give rise to ad hoc applications and pervasive line-drawing problems. The expression of hard truths—descriptions of reality spoken in love, but profoundly challenging to their hearers—would be seriously chilled.

The principle of beauty is rooted in a similar recognition: that there are elements of the created order—an order within which God is continually present—which are at once arrestingly beautiful and deeply unsettling to our everyday sensibilities.

By this, I mean the fact that there is undeniably a hard beauty at work in films like First Reformed, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Silence, or books like Infinite Jest and Blood Meridian, or musical albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. I wouldn’t give any of these to children, but is it a misuse of one’s Christian freedom to create human artifacts intended to be engaged by those of a more mature age? I think not. One presumably would not dwell on the graphically erotic imagery in the Book of Ezekiel in a Bible class taught to kindergarteners.

Created beauty, of course, is a mirror of its Creator. And it is why, for Christians, the ultimate destiny of human beings has traditionally been described as the “beatific vision”—an ever-deeper encounter with the infinite God Himself, the Source of all beauty. The human inclination to draw near to the beautiful is, when rightly understood, an invitation to draw near to God. Free speech matters because it opens up the horizon of that invitation: a restriction on free speech, however well-intentioned, has the effect of introducing an essentially ad hoc limit on the range of possible manifestations of the beautiful. To those who would say this leaves too much room for blasphemy, I note that the opposite of devotion is not blasphemy, but indifference. Could Charles Péguy’s castigations of the churchmen of his day, or Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent reporting on Catholic sex abuse cover-ups, really be described as “blasphemous” for simply offering bracing challenges to ecclesiastical authorities? Beauty is found in the courage of those who face up to painful realities, rather than fleeing from them.

I haven’t hit on some of the issues that tend to arise in discussions of free speech and Christian principles (such as the question of pornography). Nevertheless, these reflections strike me as sufficient to demonstrate that one can make a strong case, on Christian theological grounds, for the relatively unrestricted freedom of speech. In all events, it certainly seems to me that, rather than arguing for the importance of absolute freedom as an end in itself, Christians should be basing their political convictions on a sturdier foundation.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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