RICHMOND, Va.-- It's peak season for free (or very expensive, if you're buying TV time) political speech.
Presidential candidates fill the airwaves and cyberspace with arguments for their election. Their campaigns issue claims, promises, pleas, attacks and statistics hourly -– some true, some false, some absurd. Their supporters verbally duke it out in the public square.
The political cacophony may get tiresome, but it's one of the glories of American democracy. The alternative to free political speech is silence, fear and oppression by the state. Despite the global spread of democracy, hundreds of millions of people still live under such tyranny.
The same goes for religious speech.
In America you can freely make the case for every kind of faith imaginable, or no faith at all. You can proclaim Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, witchcraft or atheism. You can invent and market your own cult. You can preach almost anywhere, almost anytime.
But free religious expression in our nation didn't come easily or cheaply, and it won't endure without vigorous exercise and defense. State church tyranny imported from Europe was the main opponent of true religious freedom in America's early days. Today the threats come from other quarters – including secular extremists who see biblical faith as "intolerant," evangelism as "hate speech" and cross-cultural missions as "cultural imperialism."
When American evangelicals raise concerns about free religious expression, critics often laugh. There's a church on every street corner, they say. You can't switch the TV or radio dial without hearing a preacher proclaiming the Gospel. Christian books and CDs sell in the millions.
Fair enough. But Nat Hentoff, a tireless champion of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech for more than 50 years, isn't laughing.
"How many Americans know that before the Constitution and our revolution, 'Massachusetts hanged Mary Dyer for her Quaker views'?" asks Hentoff, quoting a new history of the First Amendment. "I would add that before [James] Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson surfaced in Virginia, Catholics were not allowed to hold office and priests were barred from even entering the colony."
Baptists, who had experienced the lash of persecution by state-controlled churches in Europe and America, played a key role in helping Madison and Jefferson forge religious freedom in Virginia – and in the new American nation when independence was won.
Hentoff defends the right of contemporary Americans, religious or otherwise, to say and think what they please. And he emphatically parts company with his friends in the American Civil Liberties Union who favor the expanded "hate speech" legislation being pushed by some members of Congress. The proposed law would add extra prison time, not for the commission of a violent crime, but for the words that accompany it.
"Once our republic began, James Madison expected that no American would be punished for his 'thoughts,'" Hentoff warns. "But 'hate crimes' laws … are what Madison feared. If these added penalties for thought crimes … reach the Oval Office, the president should veto the legislation."
You may be wondering what "hate speech" has to do with religious expression. After all, aren't proposed "hate speech" laws designed to punish violent bigots who spew venomous epithets as they attack various minorities? Maybe, but who decides what kinds of speech – and thought – are hateful? Will words and actions always have to be linked for prosecution, or will the logical next step be to criminalize words alone? Some advocates of speech restrictions view statements such as "Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation" as bigoted and hateful. Such statements, some believe, actually incite violence against religious minorities. Hence, they qualify as "hate speech" to be outlawed and punished.
Let's hope such extreme interpretations never become law. But if you want a glimpse of what it's like to live under draconian speech codes, visit any of the hundreds of college campuses where they are used to punish students or faculty members who speak words that might conceivably offend numerous "protected" groups. This goes on in the very institutions that are supposed to encourage our brightest young people to engage in free inquiry and spirited debate about the nature of truth.
Perhaps the greatest current threat to American religious expression, however, is the self-censorship practiced by believers. A recent study confirms that most Americans approve of free religious expression -– as long as it makes no demands of others or judgments about them. Too many Christians buy into that philosophy with their silence. Too many of us fear offending someone more than we care about telling him or her the truth. We don't want to be thought "intolerant." We don't want to go against the relentlessly pluralist grain of society.
But we can't have it both ways if we believe the Gospel of Christ. It is good news to those who believe it and an offense to those who reject it. It will always be controversial.
If American Christians, who still enjoy the blessing of free expression, voluntarily silence themselves, what message will that send to persecuted believers around the world struggling to find their voice?
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. Listen to an audio version of this column here http://media1.imbresources.org/files/45/4545/4545-24458.mp3
© Copyright 2008 Baptist Press. Used with permission.