John Leo
Tom Hanks thinks Christians shouldn't become irate about "The Da Vinci Code." He says it's just a story, "loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense." He's right, but so is an official of the Christian Council of Korea, who said, "'The Da Vinci Code' is a movie which belittles and tries to destroy Christianity."

Isn't "destroy" too grand a word for a Tom Hanks entertainment? Maybe, but this thriller is mounting the powerful argument that Christianity is rotten to the core, based on lies and political conspiracy. It is surely one of the most effective attacks on Christian faith in generations. One of the cardinals at the Vatican said, in effect, we've had this kind of assault before, but not addressed to such a large audience of religious illiterates and uncritical minds.

Sony and director Ron Howard repeatedly brushed off requests for a disclaimer at the beginning of the film. But disclaimers are common in stories that liberally mix fact and fiction, and there should have been one here. Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" had one, mostly in gibberish, and in that story Jesus is merely tempted to consort with Mary Magdalene. He doesn't marry her and raise a long line of European royals.

The handling of Opus Dei was crude as well. The organization has a controversial and somewhat spooky image even within Catholicism, yet it gave great access to the best reporter at the Vatican, John Allen, for his recent book "Opus Dei." Allen's book was ambivalent, but gave Opus Dei credit for much good work. Among its many activities, the Opus Dei operates 15 universities. The group's bent is authoritarian, but it is not the sinister and murderous cult depicted in "The Da Vinci Code." Using a fictional name would have been fairer.

So the calls for the movie to be banned, or at least boycotted, are understandable, but wrongheaded. But where is the muscular pro-censorship lobby that usually leaps into action whenever "hate speech" is detected? After all, eccentric historian David Irving is sitting in an Austrian prison for two speeches he gave denying the Holocaust. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk narrowly escaped prosecution for "denigrating Turkishness," i.e., he thought the slaughter of Armenians by Turks during World War I was genocide. And a Swedish pastor was convicted (though cleared on appeal) of violating a hate crime law that specifically included sermons against homosexuality as hate speech.

"The simple practice of reading biblical texts teaching the sinfulness of homosexuality is now against the law in Sweden," said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Eleven European nations have laws that criminalize "hate speech." After the Danish cartoons controversy, the European Union indicated it would try to draft a media code of conduct. "We are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression," said EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini. "We can and we are ready to self-regulate that right." Uh-oh. Here comes more censorship posing as voluntary restraint.

The fondness for censorship that doesn't quite look like censorship surfaced in an op-ed piece this month at the Baltimore Jewish Times. Dr. Robert O. Freedman called for the creation of an International Religious Court that could ask governments to penalize insults directed at religions or religious figures. "All governments must agree that the negative depiction of religion is out of bounds," he wrote.

But why? All belief systems should be equally open to criticism. Ordinary civility should make us cautious about attacking religions that so many people hold dear. But if you believe that any religion is dangerous or nonsensical, you should speak out.

Europe has put itself into a box on censorship. The ban on Holocaust denial was a mistake that launched what law professor Eugene Volokh calls "censorship envy." Multiculturalism worked hard to spread the envy. Now Europe is itching to ban negative comments against all religion whose adherents are likely to cut your head with a rusty saw when criticized. Since this doesn't include Christianity, double standards are clearly being set up. Wouldn't it be simpler just to defend free speech across the board?


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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