News & Politics

Why Free Speech Is a Christian Virtue

Caryn Rivadeneira

A friend recently shared a post by a Christian literary agent with this premise: If they want to sell books, writers should refrain from sharing political opinions and commenting on—or even liking—political articles.

The proposal is not a new one. And it doesn’t apply to writers only. Lots of professionals in many fields are encouraged to ease off political opinions lest they tarnish their employers’ or their own reputation. We want people to like us, not necessarily to know what we think or how we feel. That’s not how we sell products.

While I get why Big Business shies away from potentially divisive speech, I have to admit: the idea of asking writers, especially Christian writers, to stay mum on ideas and opinions (even wild and woolly ones) on strongly held beliefs or even surface-level curiosities chills me to the core. Not just because speaking up and speaking out are what writers do, but also because this advice, from a Christian agent to Christian writers, is as worldly and material and fearful as it comes.

We Christians can do better.

Years ago, I learned that tenure was created in part to protect professors from their own wild and woolly thoughts. The idea was that academics needed to hold off-the-wall, troubling views as part of their trade. But of course, off-the-wall and troubling views can get a person in trouble with the public and among colleagues. Thus, the protection of tenure, which grants them the academic freedom to think and speak bold and even terrifying ideas—without fear of losing their jobs.

Though tenure operates differently today (and to be honest, I’m not sure a kindergarten teacher needs the same academic freedom as a physics or theology or creative-writing professor), I’m intrigued by it. Frankly, I’d like to see a tenure of sorts extended far beyond academia.

After all, it seems “dangerous” thinking is everywhere we turn. In fact, the only positions that aren’t seen as dangerous or troubling are ones that square with the groupthink of the circles we run in. From the uprisings on college campuses, silencing or physically hurting people with “bigoted” ideas, to the uprisings on Christian blogs, trashing other Christians and their “heretical” ideas, we see attacks on free speech and free thought everywhere. 

If your opinion or ideas offends us, we seek to shut down and shut up. But in this, there is no seeking to understand. There is no empathy. There is no love. Not of our neighbors or our enemies.

And that is what should trouble us. The opinions and views of others may bother or even scare us, but more scary is the impulse to shut down these views instead of hearing and considering them.

What if we turned it around? What if we responded to tricky or troubling or merely different opinions by turning our cheeks and offering a cultural tenure?

What if instead of telling writers to shut up, we dared to buy their books, even when we disagree with their political views? What if we read and engaged and asked questions? What if instead of condemning, we sought to understand how someone arrived at that opinion? What if we learned to offer bon mots rather than biting words?

This is, after all, what tenured professors (good ones, at least) hope to hear when they share a wild theory—thoughtful engagement and even disagreement with an openness to converse. And, of course, it’s what Christians hope to hear when we share our wild theories.

I’m not talking about positions on gay marriage or abortion or baptism, the kinds of views that are seen as especially weird or offensive in our day.

I’m talking about the core of our faith.

We believe—and this week, we celebrate—that God sent his Son to heal and love and teach and walk among his people, to be tried and convicted for proclaiming himself the Son of God, to be beaten and crucified, and to rise again. Why? So that we might be forgiven. So that those who accept the grace Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection afforded us might one day join him in heaven.

That’s offensive stuff. It’s gory. It’s violent. It’s ridiculous. It’s exclusive. Frankly, what we believe—think about the practice of Communion (John 6) for a moment—is far more troubling than any political position.

Even worse, perhaps, are the people like me who believe this nonsense not because it makes any logical sense but because we have experienced God. Because we have heard God’s voice and felt his presence.

You could argue that Christian writers would sell a lot more books if we toned down our faith talk too. We’d reach that bigger audience this agent says we should be going for. If we just made ourselves less controversial, less opinionated, and more likeable.

But who wants that?

Instead of focusing on being more likable, what if we make ourselves more curious, more understanding, and more loving? We could start by encouraging and deepening the conversations some think we shouldn’t even be having.

What if we responded to tricky or troubling or merely different opinions by turning our cheeks and offering a cultural tenure?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Education, Politics