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