Free Expression in the 21st-Century World

I have just returned from Dalian, China, where we were advancing our partnerships with several universities in the region. While I was away, an obscure video on YouTube that satirizes the Prophet Mohammad resulted in protests throughout the Muslim world and perhaps directly led to the death of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. At the very least, the video served as a catalyst for anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in much of the Arab world.

Americans have found it difficult to understand the level of anger felt by many in the Muslim world over what many view as a poor video constructed by an ideologue who represents only a small fraction of opinion in the United States. We have watched while some Arab leaders have called for the American government leaders to censor the film and arrest its architect. Iran has started blocking YouTube within their country until the video is denounced and removed. As I read through the various editorials in American newspapers, it was obvious that our view of “freedom of speech” is not shared or understood by much of the world and that the consequences of “free speech” policies in America may now have broader implications for American society, and specifically, for Americans serving abroad. It was also clear that Americans probably do not understand the value and importance of religious faith in much of the rest of the world.

Truth can stand by itself

Our early founders debated the extent to which individuals should be granted freedom of expression, particularly in terms of religious expression. The American government was formed at a time when governments “protected” Christianity and its theological arguments by penalizing those who took different religious positions. Thomas Jefferson argued that the protections should be removed. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he suggested that “the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.  . . . It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.”

Certainly not all the founders agreed with Jefferson, and it took many years before the concepts suggested by Jefferson in the 18th century became the normative view of freedom of speech and religion in American culture. For Jefferson, and for many Americans today, words were and are not “injurious” to others. If a person is wrong in their assertions they should be countered by more reasonable arguments – “truth can stand by itself” and needs no protection.

A 21st-century challenge

Yet in the 21st-century world we have seen over the past few days that words and pictures expressed in a video can be sent across the world and can result in immediate physical harm to others. We are faced with a new challenge: How do we find ways to express and live out our commitment to the Jeffersonian ideal of “free inquiry” while living in a world that may not share the assumptions of western democratic societies? How do we express our views while maintaining respect and value for people of other cultures?

Thirty years ago, I sat in a college history classroom at a state university around the first of December. The professor walked into the classroom and made a statement that was unrelated to the class. “We are now entering the time of year that some people in this culture refer to as Christmas. It is an interesting time for me. I do not understand how anyone could believe that God sent his son in the form of a baby to save the world. There was no child in a manger, no virgin birth, no cross, no resurrection. There might have been a peasant prophet, like many others at the time, that certain people later made into a hero figure and constructed a religion around, but none of this other stuff is true.” The class remained rather silent and the professor turned around and started into the lecture that he had prepared for the day.

As a student, I thought the professor’s comments were unnecessary and unwarranted. His comments were offensive, but we were unable to challenge him because most of us knew that “poking” fun of religious faith was the pastime of many American professors. Their consistent picture of the future was much like that presented by John Lennon in his song Imagine (“imagine no religion”) – a world where people simply survived on “reason” alone and faith had no role. In roughly 200 years we have moved from a culture that enforced Christian faith to one that now regards religious commitment as a burden on society.

The world of pop culture in America and the West has often parodied religious faith – Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ, the recent production of The Book of Mormon, and of course Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In recent times, Christians have not responded as violently as some in the Arab world.  Clearly, though, we do not care for the disrespect of religious faith that has become characteristic of the intellectual elite in the West.

Probing the limits of freedom of speech

In a recent editorial in the USA Today, a professor suggested that, in this era, the “freedom of speech” could no longer cover videos like that produced against the Muslim prophet. She went as far as to note that the writer should be placed in jail. I had to wonder whether her conclusions would have been the same had she been a part of my class 30 years ago. Should an American professor be free to “trash” Christian perspectives even though the perspectives were totally unrelated to the subject of the course? Perhaps because the video’s author provided a right-wing extreme view it was easy to suggest his arrest. His actions may have resulted in the destruction of American property and life.

At the same time, it was interesting that I also had a copy of the Los Angeles Times that hailed The Book of Mormon Broadway show as a parody of Romney’s religion. I had to think that were the Broadway show a Monty Python version of The Life of the Prophet, their conclusions might have been quite different. It seemed to me that while many were questioning the specific action of speech expressed in this video, few were thinking about the broader issue of how Western cultures think about and value the religious faith perspectives of others.

The value of peaceful, thoughtful dialogue

I am a Christian and lead a Christian university. I actually believe in those “crazy” ideas my professor criticized so many years ago. At the same time, I have also come to see the wisdom in Mr. Jefferson’s position: “truth can stand by itself.” We do not argue for or seek the enforcement of our beliefs by government, but we do desire to be understood and valued. In that context, I share the concerns of my Muslim brothers as people of faith. Although we do not agree theologically, we are part of covenant communities of faith that join together around shared faith commitments. We understand and believe that God exists and is active in our world. Most of us also believe that the answer to cultural parody of our religious commitments is not violence but peaceful, thoughtful exchange. It is our hope that we help develop a world where people of different values and commitments, secular and faith-based, can dialogue together about the things they hold most important.

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One Response to Free Expression in the 21st-Century World

  1. Fred Gregory says:

    Well said!