Our civil liberties are under siege. From the religious right, right?
That’s the impression you’d get from quite a number of books published in 2006. In Theocons, Damon Linker warns of “secular America under siege.” American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips sounds the alarm about “the peril and politics of radical religion.” In The Baptizing of America we can learn from James Rudin about “the religious right’s plans for the rest of us.” In Thy Kingdom Come, Randall Balmer laments “how the religious right distorts the faith and threatens America.”
And then there’s Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. As Harris explains, “The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”
Are “Christianists”—Andrew Sullivan’s newly coined word for Christians who, like Islamists, want to use the power of the law to impose their religious principles on others—poised to seize control and strip us of our fundamental freedoms?
Well, let’s turn from books published this year to some hard news about freedom of speech around the world in 2006. Or at least around the Anglosphere, where cultural heirs to the English common law are generally supposed to enjoy religious liberty and freedom of speech.
On December 14, a Court of Appeal in Australia set aside a ruling of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) and ordered a retrial in the case of two Christian pastors. The VCAT had ruled that Daniel Scot and Daniel Nalliah’s statements critical of Islam were likely to incite hatred and ordered them to apologize. On April 13, the highest court in Saskatchewan province ruled that Hugh Owens would not, after all, have to pay $1,500 Canadian to three men offended by his newspaper ad citing Bible verses against sodomy. And in the U.K. on May 5, 74-year-old Edward Atkinson was sent to jail for sending graphic pictures of aborted fetuses to a hospital in King’s Lynn, Norfolk.
There was better news for free speech in the United States in 2006. The same month as Atkinson was sentenced to jail (and, for good measure, taken off the National Health Service hip replacement waiting list), a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania was agreeing with an earlier jury verdict when he upheld the right of Pastor Jim Grove to speak against homosexuality to participants arriving at a PrideFest in Harrisburg. And a whole crop of religious-liberty cases around Christmas—the school bus driver on Long Island forbidden to wear a Santa Claus hat, the Seattle airport authority that responded to a rabbi’s request for a menorah by taking down their Christmas trees, the first-grader told he couldn’t sing a Christmas song at show-and-tell—seem to have been resolved in favor of free speech and religious liberty by public outcry, appeals to common sense or, at worst, a letter from the First Amendment lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund.
It doesn’t seem like it’s Christians who are “intolerant of criticism,” does it?
Whatever happened to “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? That Voltairean principle, it seems, may not survive the thorough secularization of Western societies.
Isn’t it odd that intolerant Christians are defending free speech rights in court? While the presumably more enlightened and tolerant folks who don’t like what the Christians say are resorting to the law to shut them up?
As a matter of fact, it’s not a historical anomaly for the Christians to be on the side of civil liberties. If you know more about the history of free speech than the notion that the Enlightenment freed us from religious oppression—or the popular story about how Europeans, exhausted by the Wars of Religion, decided for tolerance because they realized that the establishment of religious truth wasn’t worth all that bloodletting—then you may know about John Milton’s Areopagitica.
The Areopagitica is an early high water mark in the history of the free press. It’s a pamphlet written by a Puritan urging the Puritan Parliament of England to allow unlicensed printing. The Areopagitica predates not only the Enlightenment but even the end of the war over religion in England. And its argument for freedom of the press rests on explicitly Christian grounds. Religious truth, Milton urged, is so important that truth-seekers need all the light that even bad books might shed on that truth.
Christianity played a crucial role in the establishment of the civil liberties we enjoy. And Christians are on the front lines defending those liberties today. These are important facts to remember, when evaluating warnings about “Christianists” and “theocracy.”