Is there a biblical defense of free speech?

March 14, 2018

Free speech is a hotly debated topic in America right now. There are growing concerns that appreciation for it is in decline. Would you say there is a biblical defense of free speech that should motivate Christians to defend such a principle? Second, why would you argue for the legitimacy of free speech against concerns that free speech may harm the dignity of individuals in society?

Is there a biblical defense of free speech? Or, should Christians accept that there are forms of “hate speech” that should be legally proscribed—that the state should create and enforce “speech codes” that police what we are and are not allowed to say?

I’m going to defend the biblical grounds for a strong and robust right of free speech, but before that, let me describe a few related issues that often get tangled up with debates about free speech.

Clarifying related issues

First, whether or not we have a right to free speech is separate from whether and how we choose to exercise that speech. I believe in a nearly absolute right of free speech, but I also urge every citizen—especially my fellow Christians—to “let your conversation be always full of grace,” (Col. 4:6). I think you have a legal right to be rude and that you should never exercise that right.

Opposing political correctness by being intentionally crass and insulting does no credit to the cause of free speech or to the Christian public witness. Even while we oppose legal restrictions on our speech, we should celebrate and uphold cultural norms about politeness and gentility. Supporting free speech is not inconsistent with non-governmental sanctions—like social ostracism and cultural pressure—against those who use their speech to insult, demean, and dehumanize others. The question we are considering is narrowly about law.

Second, while I argue for a nearly absolute right of free speech, I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that there are certain, very limited cases in which the government can restrict speech: proscribing “fighting words” that may incite imminent violence, and protecting national security. These are very marginal cases tied directly to the government’s responsibility to uphold public order. They are exceptions that demonstrate the broader principle that the government should almost never interfere with our speech.

Government’s God-given authorization

How do we defend that broader principle? As in so much else in political theology, it is helpful to begin with two things: with sin and with the specific authorization God has given to government.

What has God authorized government to do? What has he commissioned it for? God commissioned government to execute what Jonathan Leeman calls the “justice mechanism” of Genesis 9 and Romans 13: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” God authorized human beings to hold each other accountable for criminal violence. Government is our institutional mechanism for doing so. Government exists, at root, to uphold public order.

God has not authorized the government to enforce right worship of himself. He gave that task to the church.

That doesn’t mean the Bible mandates libertarian politics—that the government must only do what is minimally necessary to uphold public order and nothing else. We can collectively choose to authorize our government to do other things to “promote the general welfare,” but there are limits. Sovereignty is not a plenary authority to do whatever government pleases. It is a limited grant of power from God to government for specific purposes. That means there are things government may not do.

Specifically, God has not authorized the government to enforce right worship of himself. He gave that task to the church. States that try to enforce right belief and worship are overstepping their jurisdiction, merging the functions of church and state. “God has not authorized human beings to prosecute crimes against himself,” in Leeman’s formulation.

Because government should not try to enforce right worship, it also may not regulate speech solely on the grounds of its truth or falsity. The government does not have authority to decree what is truth or to punish expressions of falsehood. This is doubly true when you consider the doctrine of sin. Which government and which public official would you trust to infallibly determine truth from falsehood and to police such expressions objectively?

What about harmful speech?

But there is a much harder case. What about regulating speech on the basis, not of its falsehood, but of its effect on others? Most advocates for restricting speech argue that certain kinds of speech harm people. If true, that would seem to fall within government’s jurisdiction.

Some critics oppose this idea because they claim mere words cannot actually harm people. They want government to step in only in cases of actual physical harm. That argument carries some weight, though others have argued that the psychological distress caused by hateful speech does cause physiological harm through stress and anxiety. Regardless, I think the critics’ dismissal of the possibility that words can cause harm is a cop-out, a way of avoiding the issue. We should face the hard case square on.

Let’s assume for a moment that words can cause harm. Is that grounds enough for the government to regulate them? I still think the answer is no. It seems to me that the difference between harmful and false speech is illusory. Speech cannot be harmful if it is true. Hurtful speech is only truly destructive if it has no redeeming truth to it. I might speak a hard truth to a friend who is offended to hear it, but who benefits from it anyway. When the government prohibits “hate speech,” it does so on the implicit claim that hateful beliefs are hateful because they are wrong. If these beliefs are right, though, it would be a kindness to speak them, even if we dislike hearing them.

That is why government regulation of hate speech is, ultimately, an effort to enforce right belief. Government calls some beliefs “hate speech” because it has previously judged such beliefs to be wrong and, thus, to have no possible value for society. This stands in violation of government’s limited jurisdiction.

The role of humility

Here is where J.S. Mill’s famously powerful argument for free expression is most consistent with the biblical grounds for free speech. He argued that no matter how confident we are in our moral judgments—such as our contemporary culture’s judgments about sexual liberation—we must always hold out the possibility that we are wrong and that some later generation will condemn us for our presumption and immorality. Mill counsels us to adopt an epistemological humility that Christians should embrace because of what the Bible tells us about the noetic effects of the Fall.

Mill uses his epistemological humility to argue for free speech. We will only discover our error and grow in moral maturity if we allow those who do not share our moral sensibilities the freedom to make their case. Because we cannot say with omniscient certainty that offensive words are false, and therefore harmful, rather than hurtful truths that need to be heard, we should allow all words to be spoken lest we deafen ourselves to corrective truths.

In other words, it is precisely the least popular opinions, the ones that fly in the face of contemporary moral sensibilities, the ones most likely to offend, that stand in greatest need of protection. Popular beliefs don’t need the First Amendment; unpopular ones do.

Once again, we can make the implications of this argument even sharper by bringing in the doctrine of sin. Government is made up of sinners; who, then, would you trust to determine which beliefs are truly wrong and therefore “hateful”?

Today, the argument for hate speech is most commonly made to ban racist and sexist language. All of us readily agree that such language is hateful and wrong, yet we’ve also seen cases in which beliefs about traditional sexual morality have been declared “hate speech” because it offends progressive sensibilities. That is an example of how dangerous it is to entrust the state with the power to declare what is right and what is wrong, and what we are allowed and not allowed to say and believe.

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of a monthly series sponsored by the Research Institute written by its Research Fellows that focuses on difficult ethical issues facing Christians in the local church.

Paul D. Miller

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a visiting professor with the American Enterprise Institute, and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24