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Free-Speech and the Christian Response

by Chris Buck on February 20, 2024

"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." Benjamin Franklin wrote this in 1722 in a letter to the editor of The New-England Courant. As was not uncommon for the time, he wrote under a pen name in this letter, signing it Silence Dogood. Now, in this instance, Franklin wrote under this anonymous pen name not for fear of repercussions for his words but because his older brother owned the Courant and refused to publish the letters of his younger brother. I’ll also mention that Franklin was only sixteen years old when he wrote these letters. 

But today, we have a situation that perhaps the wiser-than-his-years teenage Franklin may have indeed foreseen. It is not a new phenomenon that our government and our society at large sometimes struggle to find the balance between free speech and the desire to control or prevent offense or injury. The inherent tension between allowing free speech and keeping society civil has been in a back-and-forth tug-of-war for centuries and is only magnified in this technologically connected world. Speech, both constructive and hurtful, can now be amplified by orders of magnitude with a click of a button. Easier than ever before, we can now offend or encourage people we will never meet. We, therefore, must take care of our words and attempt to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).  

There have always been limits to our freedoms in this country. We have accepted that in a Constitutional Republic, we must give up some of our rights so that all people might enjoy the benefits of our natural rights to life, liberty, and property in an ordered and secure country protected by a responsive and limited government. So, for example, when our government tells us that we do not have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater just to see what happens and that we can’t incite people to break the law with our words, we understand that this imposition on our freedom is reasonable.  


The reality, however, is that some in our nation and globally have ramped up efforts to censor speech they find personally offensive. Often, their definition of “offensive” simply means something they disagree with. One can see how quickly this could be politically abused. However, that potential abuse has not stopped the increase of both governmental and societal pressures to prevent certain types of speech they don’t agree with.  

A recent example comes from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which issued guidance to all executive branch agencies (almost 3 million people work for the executive branch), stating that all employees must use a person’s preferred pronouns in order to prevent an “unlawful hostile work environment.” Federal border patrol agents have been instructed not to use any gendered pronouns when speaking to individuals illegally crossing the border until they have asked what their preferred pronouns are. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises on its website that the “intentional refusal to use someone’s correct pronouns is equivalent to harassment and a violation of one’s civil rights.” In this logic, violating the civil rights of an individual breaks the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, a few years ago, had its definition of the word “sex” expanded to include gender identity. The consequence of this is such that, according to some laws in the U.S., you can’t be forced to say the pledge of allegiance (West Virginia v. Barnette), but you can be forced to publicly state the opposite of what you believe to be scientifically true—that a person can be whatever gender they call themselves.  

And this leads us to the inevitable problem with classifying certain types of speech as “hate” or “misinformation.” Thankfully, as of yet, we do not have “hate speech” laws in this country, but there are many who are pushing for exactly that. If we go there, someone, and in this case, the government, must be in charge of determining what sort of speech is considered “hateful” or “misinformation.” This would fall to both elected officials as well as unelected bureaucrats to make this determination. And while I believe most people could find much common ground in determining these factors, the reality is that once we open that pandora’s box of giving the government the power to determine what constitutes hate speech, we have now ceded authority to the government to compel what is “right” or “correct” thought.  

Protecting Free Speech  

Allowing a free marketplace of speech means that in protecting my own free speech, I’m also protecting the speech of the person I disagree with. Freedom of speech isn’t truly freedom if you only want it for the things you agree with. Christians, more than anyone, should embrace challenges to our faith. Sometimes, they may come from a place of anger, but we can use these challenges to push ourselves and others to dig deeper--into the truth of the scriptures or the coherence of logic and persuasion. This competition of ideas expands our vocabulary and the depth of public conversation. 2 Timothy 3:12 says that we should expect persecution, but in Matthew 5:38-39, we are instructed to also turn the other cheek and not repay evil with evil.  

Within our legal system, limiting speech has only been utilized when profound damage or harm would result from incitement. The people of the United States have historically guarded their freedoms with extreme jealousy, incomparable to most of the rest of the world. It is largely what has allowed us to be the “city upon a hill,” a beacon of freedom and protector of natural rights for those oppressed and unheard.  

Freedom is a double-edged sword. In this case, the freedom of speech can bolster both, the power to tear down, and the power to build up. For Christians, it cannot be ignored that our fine line between freedom to do and the freedom to do as we should is narrower than for other people. We engage with others ethically by showing the love of Christ while also not compromising or degrading the truth found in Scripture. As we know, the truth can sometimes be painful. Scripture can be offensive to some because scripture is offensive to sin. Still, we must stand for the truth of the Gospel and of Scripture. What is the alternative? If we live in fear and allow the government or society to force us into teaching a compromised gospel, we are corrupting not only our own faith but the faith of future generations. 

Free speech promotes human dignity as we can voice our beliefs, concerns, and questions without fear of being punished by our government or “canceled” by our culture. Free speech encourages creative problem-solving, fosters deeper reflection, and can even act as a release valve for frustrations. Our natural rights come from God, not government, and we must not consent to being limited by our government. But more importantly, we must follow the truth that, while we have the freedom to say what we want--if we are to be consistent as followers of Christ--we must also use that freedom in a way that will bring honor and glory to God. 

Tags: truth, faith, grace, government, constitution, rights, abuse, free speech, first amendment, biblical worldview, republic, censorship, civil rights, cancel culture

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