Freedom of speech is a good and noble idea which many Christians have campaigned and even died for over the centuries. But it is an increasingly complex issue in an age of social media trolls, radio phone-ins and website interactivity. One person’s idea of a legitimate and fair comment might be highly offensive to another. Deciding what is offensive is subjective. Christians have different attitudes to what is and isn’t acceptable. Many would point to the teaching of Jesus about how we should treat each other as a good guide. In the Bible book, Luke, he says, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you…’ Christians following this teaching not only think people should treat each other well but they also believe that God should be respected and treated as holy. The ancient Hebrew cultures described in the Old Testament part of the Bible regarded blasphemy, or showing disrespect for God and religion, as incredibly serious and worthy of a death sentence. It is ironic that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was accused by religious authorities of blasphemy, although he was actually crucified for alleged political offences.
The first Christians, in the 1st century AD, proclaimed their faith publicly even when doing so was against the law.
The first Christians, in the 1st century AD, proclaimed their faith publicly even when doing so was against the law. The first Christian martyr, a follower of Jesus called Stephen, was stoned to death for publicly condemning the religious leaders for executing Jesus. Many others in the early church were killed because they refused to be silent about their beliefs. But as Christianity grew and became the established religion, attitudes changed. Christians tried to stamp out other faiths and the Church also persecuted fellow Christians who had different views to theirs. John Southworth, a Roman Catholic, was executed in 1654 for refusing to stop preaching. The Protestant, John Bunyan – who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress – was jailed in 1660 for preaching without a licence.
The Christian attitude towards tolerance was deeply influenced by the 18th philosopher, John Locke. He argued that no-one but God could evaluate the rival claims of religion and that it was impossible to enforce a particular religion by violence.
Democratic political systems and nations have thrived in an atmosphere of tolerance, where free speech is permitted.
Democratic political systems and nations have thrived in an atmosphere of tolerance, where free speech is permitted. Progress towards just and fair societies around the world has been enhanced by humanity’s right to protest against and call out injustice. In the UK today, very few Christians would want to curb freedom of speech. They would even want aggressive opponents of religion to be free to express their viewpoints. Their hope would be that this liberty to discuss such issues helps people find their way to what Christians consider to be the truth about God, Jesus and their faith. The vast majority of Christians would be content for the legal system to set limits so that people and organisations cannot be defamed in the name of free speech. The internet is more difficult to monitor and society has yet to find ways to ensure that freedom of speech cannot not tip over into personal abuse without sanction.
However, there is dismay among Christians that the freedom of speech that they encourage means that Jesus is routinely mocked. They are offended and wounded when the name of someone they love deeply is trashed. There are still anti-blasphemy laws in the UK and, although some people are pressing to have them abolished, the majority of Christians would rather have them extended to cover all beliefs than see them abandoned.