“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith
I have become skeptical whether many of us self-professed Christians believe in free speech…even in our interactions with one another!
Conservatives, whether that is of a political or theological stripe, like to criticize liberals (a word that I am using in its popular not historic sense) lack of commitment to free speech. We like to crow about the illiberalism of liberalism. I am afraid, however, that we are blind to our own hypocrisy. We are like the owners of a landscape company who lack credibility because our own backyards are full of weeds.
So, I am skeptical whether many of us self-professing Christians truly believe in free speech. You may be skeptical about my skepticism, so let me offer a few examples.
Do Not Discuss Trump!
Christians have told me they have lost friendships with fellow believers because of differences over President Trump. Others have told me that there is a well understood rule to not speak about controversial issues (again, Trump was the dominant reason given) both with friends and family members. Thanksgiving meals got even more challenging these past five years! Consider these alarming words from an eminent historian at Wheaton College:
“A 2017 poll found that one in six respondents had even cut off communication with a family member because of disagreement over the 2016 election…A survey shortly before the 2020 election found that fully two-fifths of respondents didn’t personally know a single individual who planned to vote for the candidate they themselves opposed.”
(Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy, p. 7, emphasis his)
[Doreen and I had a candid conversation with two of our closest friends this past weekend about our deep differences over Trump. We walked away with greater respect and our friendship solidly intact. I am sad to say our experience is rare.]
We are deeply divided yet remain content to hunker down in the silos that protect us from seriously considering opposing views. Interacting with those outside our own tribe is viewed as a sign of weakness, a dangerous step towards waffling on the orthodoxies of our group. The “inner ring” that C.S. Lewis wrote about can be an unforgiving place to plop your tent. There is a way out of the parochial or provincial thinking of such echo chambers, but it is a road as one famous book title described, “less traveled.” Alan Jacobs writes:
“But there are healthier kinds of group affiliation, and one of the primary ways we can tell the difference between an unhealthy Inner Ring and a healthy community is by their attitudes toward thinking. The Inner Ring discourages, mocks, and ruthlessly excludes those who ask uncomfortable questions.”
(Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, pp. 58-59, emphasis his)
I have been present in many Sunday-school classes, small group Bible studies, and other Christian gatherings where an honest question was brushed aside. I have also found that thinly veiled mockery is not just the province of non-Christian gatherings. Believe it or not, I heard professors in both seminaries I attended mock students. I was also once the target of such mockery. This particular professor realized that he was wrong about the facts, so he apologized in his office, but the mockery took place in front of eighty of my classmates.
It seems that the brushing aside or mockery of a legitimate question are due to two main reasons: it is perceived as a threat to the cohesion of the group and/or those doing the brushing aside do not have a satisfactory answer. They do not want to be exposed on a subject they really should know something about.
Is Christian Education Still Available?
Jacques Ellul famously said that propaganda is effective because most of us do not want to consider the far-reaching implications of the truth. The truth stings before it heals. The truth corrects and who is excited about being corrected? It is one reason the ancient Greeks had two words to describe true education: mathein pathein or “to learn is to suffer.” It is painful to learn that you are wrong.
I taught part-time at a rigorous prep school. I taught juniors and seniors. I was encouraged to stoke debate since this was the time in the classical trivium where debate is welcomed. This so-called rhetoric phase is the culmination of the classical model.
I loved teaching and my students appreciated my candor. It is a wealthy school. I broached their socio-economic assumptions about life in both my Bible and apologetics classes. I found out to no surprise whatsoever that this was a ticklish issue to speak about openly. I did not let that influence what I believed was proper wrestling with a critical issue. As time wore on it became painfully clear that there were other important topics that were not allowed to be debated. In no small measure, it was one of the big reasons I left.
I have been doing several interviews on my recent book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. In one of the first interviews, I was asked a question that included a popular Christian trope: The world “out there” is not interested in the study of history or in being thoughtful. The interviewer then said that this makes it nearly impossible for us Christians to have any reasonable conversation with those who do not know Christ. Lack of thoughtfulness was assumed to be only “out there.” I gently corrected the interviewer by saying that the lack of thoughtfulness is also a big problem among us professing Christians. To his credit, the interviewer retracted his comments.
Whether it is in stifling serious questions or believing that only outsiders lack a desire to think well, we Christians must ponder our own less than stellar example. Do we professing Christians believe in free speech? Some honest reflection about that question seems warranted.
David George Moore is the author of Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. https://www.amazon.com/Stuck-Present-History-Frees-Christians/dp/168426460X