Religion and Freedom of Speech

Following the horrific events in France last week, I began to think about the issue of religion and free speech. While the tragedies in France extended beyond issues of free speech, the freedom to say what you wish certainly played a major role in the Charlie Hebdo affair, the satirical French newspaper whose offices were attacked by Muslim terrorists for “defaming” the Islamic prophet, Mohammed. Sadly, most religions do not have a good track record when it comes to dealing with dissidents. In our day Islam provides the most glaring example of restricting and punishing free speech, and it’s not only radical Islamicists. Almost all Muslim countries, most of which are not considered radical, still limit free speech, especially when it involves criticizing Islam.

Historically, Christianity’s record was also abysmal. Consider the cases of Jan Hus, a predecessor to Martin Luther, who was burned at the stake; Galileo, the father of modern science, who was tried and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for criticizing the Pope’s view of science; or Roger Williams, a religious reformer, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even Judaism historically has not been friendly to free speech. Consider the early Chassidim of the 18th century,  who were excommunicated from Jewish communities for preaching “heresy” or the Reform movement of the 19th century, which to this day is harassed and discriminated against by the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 18th century, when nation states were established based upon individual rights, that speech became a protected form of communication. Consequently, today most western nations are not religiously based, though they do provide freedom to practice one’s religion generally without state interference. Religious communities in western democracies have a great deal of latitude with respect to their practices, leadership and even finances, and religious leaders have significant influence over their members. Religious communities, by their very nature, set boundaries as to their beliefs, practices and affiliations. Such communities rightly expect their members to abide by such boundaries. But sadly the freedom to express differences within religious communal settings is typically very limited and is often perceived by religious leaders as provocative, divisive and rebellious. With little accountability this can lead to far worse abuse such as sexual abuse, financial improprieties, intolerance, cultic tendencies and spiritual abuse.

I’ve been active in religious circles for over 45 years, much of the time in significant leadership positions. I’ve become increasingly wary of authoritative spiritual leadership. The greatest sign of potentially abusive leadership is when leaders seek to restrict speech, often couched in spiritual terms. The argument is that the restrictions protect the integrity of the congregation. But more often than not, they’re simply justifications for the leaders to do what they want without question.  Two passages in I Peter speak to this issue, the first one about Yeshua:

“When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” I Peter 2:23

“To the elders among you, I appeal to you as a fellow elder, a witness of Messiah’s sufferings and one who will also share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” I Peter 5:1-3

Religion remains a very powerful force in this world. Lately, we’ve seen some of its worst examples. But many of the greatest acts of self-sacrifice and human advancement have come from religious people and leaders. If God said to Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together,” then shouldn’t those who represent God listen to the voices of others in their midst, including those who criticize? Interestingly, the great prophets of the Bible often criticized the religious leaders of their day. In addition, there’s a reason freedom of speech is embedded in the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution alongside two other provisions regarding religion.  Freedom of speech and religious communities must go hand in hand.