During the past few years, a steady litany of complaints about cancel culture on college campuses and Big Tech censorship has droned discordantly in the backdrop of our collective consciousness. The wretched and wrenching events of January 6 proved an unnerving crescendo.
First came the deplatforming of individuals and groups associated with the violence at the Capitol. Soon after Amazon unceremoniously scuttled a bestselling book from Ryan T. Anderson, respected president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
As people of the Book and followers of the Word, Christians have always shown a natural concern about public speech. We must remember that for at least nine-tenths of world history, the church has labored and often flourished in regimes that allowed little of what we call freedom of speech. The church has often helped to encourage and maintain such regimes.
If we aren’t to allow the ideal of free speech to become an idol, we must remember how rare and fragile it is—and remember that absolute freedom of speech is neither a moral right nor a social good. Only after dispelling that illusion will we see clearly enough to work and fight effectively for this precious gift in the difficult years ahead.
Not an Absolute Moral Right
Absolute freedom of speech is not a moral right. It’s possible that for some modern Americans this will seem surprising, but it shouldn’t. After all, there can be no moral right to commit wrong, although there may often be a legal right. And clearly a great deal of speech, expression, and writing is wrong—whether by spreading falsehood, seducing to sin, tearing down the innocent, and much more.
The Book of Proverbs warns us that “when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19), and the Bible brims with warnings about the evil unleashed by a loose tongue. The apostle James offers the strongest warning of all: “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. . . . It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6b, 8b).
One can only imagine what he might’ve said if he’d seen modern social media’s spread of deceit, gossip, boasting, and cursing. Speech is a dangerous thing indeed in a sinful world. We should hardly be surprised that most societies in the past have gone to great measures to restrict it.
At the same time, like all evils in this sinful world, evil speech is the corruption of a wonderful created good. It is the fundamental human power that distinguishes us from the rest of creation and unites us to God. By speech God brought the world into being, and by speech Adam named the animals. By speech the incarnate Word revealed his redeeming work to men, and by speech his faithful apostles spread it throughout the known world.
They were enabled to do so because pagan Romans were much more tolerant about free speech than zealous religious Jews. The tragicomic narrative of Acts 22–26 is a wonderful object lesson in the benefits of a more tolerant free-speech regime.
Thus, as Christians, we must clearly affirm that freedom of speech can be a great good. But it is an instrumental good, a means to the end of proclaiming truth and encouraging righteousness. It is not an end in itself, as if the mere freedom to open our mouths were sacrosanct. We have a moral right to speak truth in due season. We have no moral right to slander, deceive, curse, or insult. In order to secure our moral right to speak truth, however, we generally need to defend a legal right that includes a right to speak falsehood.
In order to secure our moral right to speak truth, we generally need to defend a legal right that includes a right to speak falsehood.
One of the classic statements of this point comes from John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 essay “On Liberty.” Although not a Christian in his personal life or in his general system of thought, Mill makes important arguments that dovetail with Christian (and especially Protestant) convictions that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
The goal of speech must be the discovery and spread of truth, Mill writes. But he reminds us the very reason this is necessary is that we don’t all agree on what’s true. If we’re at all uncertain about the truth of our views, we should respect the freedom of another to offer an alternative account, so that the real truth of the matter can come to light. Even when we’re certain of the truth of some issue, there are still important advantages to permitting a free discussion in which false ideas have room for expression.
For one, Mill points out, true beliefs are liable to harden into stale and unreflective dogmas if not forced to constantly sharpen themselves against errors. We can best understand our beliefs only if we regularly put them to the test. For another, people will not come from falsehood into truth unless genuinely persuaded, rather than merely silenced. This requires giving them the opportunity to argue and be refuted. Over the long run, Mill argues, truth will always triumph over falsehood unless falsehood is upheld by force. Moreover, the right to censor or suppress speech is an enormous power to entrust to fallible hands.
Speech Limits Are Inevitable—and Good
Still, some important caveats are in order. Mere fallibility cannot disqualify people from administering justice. And although truth may triumph in the long run, it is also true, as Mark Twain quipped, that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots.” Never more so than in a social-media age.
We’ve witnessed this frequently in the past year: the ability of bad actors (or confused individuals) to broadcast dangerous lies or insinuations that rapidly developed a life of their own, taking root among millions and proving almost impossible to dislodge. No one has a legal right to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. By the time truth has triumphed, dozens may have died in the stampede.
Even true statements have an appropriate time and place to be shared (Eph. 4:29), and if handled carelessly in fraught situations, can do grievous harm or create panic. For such reasons, governments tend to limit freedom of speech more during wartime or national emergencies. This principle is certainly ripe for abuse, but it may be needed to protect tens of thousands of lives.
Moreover, speech that takes the form of art, such as music or drama, often aims to shape our emotions more than our beliefs. Thus it has an irreducibly moral component we cannot afford to ignore. We can hardly pretend that depictions of coarse violence, or obscene sexual content, don’t have a moral effect on an audience. Indeed, it’s intended to, and wouldn’t be consumed if it didn’t cater to—and consequently intensify—our baser desires. Maximalist arguments for free speech ignore this virtue-shaping component of speech, to their peril. “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote.
We live in a society awash with every form of morally degrading perversion freely available on any digital device and often actively propagated to our children. Before we start complaining too loudly about the prevalence of Big Tech censorship, we should first demand why Big Tech, or our lawmakers, have been so unwilling to censor such perversions. America is fairly unique in refusing to place any barriers between hardcore pornography and our children, lest we risk curtailing constitutional freedom of speech.
America is fairly unique in refusing to place any barriers between hardcore pornography and our children, lest we risk curtailing constitutional freedom of speech.
For most of America’s history, such constitutional protection was never interpreted as anything like absolute. On the contrary, sedition, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, and incitement constituted significant exceptions to the right, and some of these exceptions still apply. From this larger historical standpoint, the surprise of cancel culture is not that free speech encounters limits, but that the limits now enforced have morphed so suddenly and fiercely against views that until yesterday seemed commonplace.
In order to protect good speech in a fallen and fallible world, we must often permit evil speech—when we cannot restrict it without doing more harm than good. And yet there is no abstract universal answer to the question of how much we should do so. It is a question of prudence, and one that might look rather different at the level of a small, private institution than of a large nation.
The great challenge of the moment is that we have carelessly ceded control of our economy and society to monopolistic private actors. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook can claim to be mere platforms or publishers enforcing internal standards, but they actually wield wide social power without legal and democratic accountability.
Conservative Christians need to repent of the way a maximalist understanding of economic liberty—ignoring both biblical guidance and the wisdom of tradition—has empowered this powerful information monopoly. And we need to undertake the hard work of building platforms and institutions rather than lazily relying on networks that falsely promise a universal platform with no strings attached.
Defending Free Speech in a Post-Christian Culture
More broadly, however, we need to recognize that much of the challenge we now face is simply that the standards and values of our society—especially those in places of power—are increasingly at odds with those we hold as Christians. From this standpoint, complaints about censorship are unduly focused on the symptom, not the cause.
Every society will, one way or another, enforce some standards. We cannot be that surprised if, having failed to persuade our political and cultural leadership that Christian truth is at least a social good, we are increasingly excluded. Tolerance requires relativistic apathy, as in ancient Roman society. Or, if you believe some things really are false and evil, you can show great courage and humility, trusting that the God who is greater than you ultimately controls history.
Our post-Christian society has dangerously married moral relativism to a sense of righteous zeal inherited from its Christian past, without any of the Christian humility that comes from the comforting faith in God’s providence. Accordingly, it is hellbent on a moral crusade to enthrone relativism by force of will.
Our post-Christian society has married moral relativism to a sense of righteous zeal inherited from its Christian past, without any of the Christian humility that comes from the comforting faith in God’s providence. Accordingly, it is hellbent on a moral crusade to enthrone relativism by force of will.
In countering such a strange beast, absolutist in its repudiation of absolutes, Christians must be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. We must maintain a balance of conviction and humility as we fight for the good of a culture of persuasion. In such a culture there is a real difference between light and darkness, in which the light can face the darkness without fear.
This means a willingness to name and denounce forms of genuinely perverse or lying speech, especially when it comes from within our ranks, rather than baptizing every falsehood in homage to an idol of freedom of speech. It means a commitment to heaping coals of fire on the heads of our enemies by the grace and truthfulness of our speech, and our patience with their errors, rather than proving we can fight as dirty as they can.
But it also means cultivating a shrewd worldly wisdom about how to use the courts, the laws, and unlikely allies to carve out space for truthful proclamation, just as Paul did before Felix and Festus. We are unlikely to agree on the best path through such a challenging landscape. Some may favor strategic alliances with libertarians who champion certain freedoms of speech that we would deplore. Others will prefer to stake out a moral high ground, refusing to defend the rights of provocateurs who shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves censored.
Such debates will affect our decisions in coming years about voting, boycotting, protesting, and preaching, and we should beware of dogmatically insisting on one strategy. We can be grateful for the diversity of gifts in the body of Christ, for we will need the help of them all in the dark and challenging years ahead.