Jan 21, 2009

Stand your ground on Mars Hill

by Dan Grubbs

Too much is misunderstood about two of our most important freedoms as Americans — especially how they relate to each other. They are our freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

I want to reinforce the notion that religious tolerance does not dictate that we must respect other’s beliefs. Writing it that way may disturb many, but the word people hang up on is respect. However, our foundational national values simply mean that I must tolerate other faiths. Somewhere in our politically correct culture we’ve changed the meaning of toleration, which now manifests itself as a censorship of anything that does not show respect for another’s beliefs.

Nowhere does religious toleration mean revere, honor, speak well of, cherish, respect or remain silent about it if I don’t agree with it. Religious tolerance does not mean that I must not hurt someone else’s feelings if I disagree with their viewpoint. If I must remain silent because I disagree, then that is censorship. If I must remain silent because I might even offend, then that is censorship.

The right to offend is necessary

Do I have the right to violate law or inalienable rights in my expression? Of course not. But, as author, Lionel Shriver, succinctly wrote, “Freedom of speech that does not embrace the right to offend is a farce,” (Opinion Journal, Dec. 28, 2004). It’s ironic that Shriver, a London-based writer, clearly understands something that was one of our foundational motivations for revolution against England more than 225 years ago.

What does religious tolerance really mean then? Consider a recent demonstration against a play performed in Birmingham, England. The play, “Behtzi,” was written by a young female Sikh. To some in the Sikh community, the play was offensive. Others supported the work. During a showing, at least 400 Sikhs stormed the theatre, clashed with law enforcement there, destroyed property inside and out of the theatre and injured several police officers in the melee. The play was suspended and later cancelled after death threats were made to the playwright.

Do people have a right to protest and boycott the play? If lawfully done, yes. Does the playwright have a right to express her views of the Sikh community? If lawfully done, yes. Reports indicate that protesters entered the building and destroyed equipment and injured police officers. Is this a lawful expression of viewpoint? I hopefully believe Americans would say it is not. Can we tolerate a play that negatively characterizes the faith of a people? I hope that Americans resoundingly say we must tolerate such freedom of speech. We need to determine
where tolerance was demonstrated and where it was not.

But, if such tolerance dictates that I must not offend, then the right to free speech is significantly diminished. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to dishonor those who died, and are dying, for my right to lawfully express myself about religious thoughts, even if they offend.

Tolerance is not synonymous with respect

I used this simplistic example for obvious reasons. I believe the numerical majority of our nation would agree that the protesters were wrong to resort to violence, vandalism and terrorist threats as a legitimate exercise of free speech; and, that the playwright has a right to express her thoughts even if they offend others. When it comes to our rights as free Americans, there is no hallowed human right that dictates my beliefs must be respected by others. Our national foundations only ask us to tolerate them. We cannot twist the definition of tolerance to fit
temporal changes.

Some might argue that the right of free speech has certain duties to the common good. That sounds very logical at face value. However, in practice, it is a matter of perspective. Shall we look to our own national history? I’m sure that to the British government and monarchy, suppressing Colonial speech against the Kingdom was in the common good.

The fact is, protecting and exercising civil liberties exactly means that we will offend people because we don’t all think alike! Debate and discourse is a healthy thing for a nation with Hellenistic footings that espouses democracy. However, protecting the psyche of an individual or a community does not outweigh the need to protect the right of the citizenry to express itself freely in speech or in practice of faith.

Dialog is critical to the truth

One group of Americans will offend atheists when they discuss a Christian world view. Other Americans will offend Catholics when they claim Christ was a sibling of Lucifer. Is this a bad thing? I submit our Constitution portrays this as a necessary condition for our republic. Why can’t we all just get along? Let me state this as clearly as I can. Discourse, and the polemics that accompany it, is precisely getting along. It is what has and still separates our great nation from others.

I have taken much space here to establish a mind set. This is important to my forthcoming point because I observe a stark irony when our Constitution outlines freedoms of speech and religion and then is conveniently forgotten by some when an evangelical Christian wants to express thoughts and beliefs that might offend. Why has our nation changed the notion of religious tolerance into suppression of legitimate expression?

Denial that this has happened is easily corrected by an honest observation of our society. This is no giant leap. Show up at any break room, community center, street corner or talk show in this country and start proselytizing about Christ’s redemptive work and there will be an outcry of intolerance. Talk about the angel Gabriel teaching Muhammad the words of God and the same outcry turns into a defense of the Muslim to evangelize.

Why do some feel that religious tolerance means we have to respect the true Rastafarian talking about his faith and in the same breath claim that an evangelical Christian is being intolerant when talking about his?

This is as incongruent as thinking can become, and very dangerous ground for a republic whose moods are often determined less by rational individual thought than by the sound byte. The new notion of religious tolerance is figuratively leveling our Mars Hills in order to remove the necessity to defend what we believe as individuals. It takes work to intelligently support an atheist position against a knowledgeable Muslim or evangelical Christian. With today’s definition of religious tolerance, the atheist can claim that the Muslim is offensive and dispose with any discourse.

Those who defend the first amendment and find themselves wanting to restrict the expression of Christian thought in the public forum should recognize their burgeoning hypocrisy. Public and free discourse about Christianity, Islam or Buddhism cannot be restricted because of the desires of any particular audience. It is, again, ironic that a significant population who decry Christian public discourse as intolerant are ready, often eager, to support the public discourse of those who feel Muhammad is a profit of God.

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