Voices

Free speech, for some

In an era where "everything goes," why is Christianity suspect?

Issue: "Cool hot spots," May 17, 2003

I've been trying to think what it is that Christians have done to earn the restrictions that so many folks want enforced.

The role of Christian missionaries around the world, for example, has come under special media scrutiny in recent days. An internal editorial memo from Time magazine received wide circulation in evangelical circles during the month of April, purporting to show a Time conspiracy to show Christian missionaries in the worst possible light. A little closer look suggested the Time people might not have been as malicious as they first appeared-but given the behavior of others in the liberal media, the suspicions were understandable.

Sometimes the challenge has been very direct. The New York Times on April 6 posed the question in a big five-column headline: "Should Christian Missionaries Heed the Call in Iraq?" Reporter Deborah Caldwell noted that "Conservative Christians are puzzled by criticism of their efforts. After all, they point out, Christians believe they were commanded by Jesus to spread the faith and do so in a selfless, often courageous way."

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And National Public Radio's "Fresh Air With Terri Gross" was respectful, but barely so, when it hosted two Southern Baptists, Al Mohler and Charles Kimball, on May 5. Most of Ms. Gross's guests-however wacky and weird-get treated like celebrities. But Mr. Mohler was pictured more like a suspect in a crime, called on repeatedly to justify his presumptuous ways.

Sometimes this discussion focuses mainly on manners and discretion. Even evangelicals might have a lively discussion about how wise it was for Jerry Vines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to call Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Sometimes the conversation turns to the role of relief efforts and related integrity issues. So critics want to know whether Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse is really generous, or if the generosity is just a cover to provide an opportunity to slip in a proselytizing word. If Campus Crusade or the International Bible Society adds a single explicit word to their deeds, they are judged to have crossed some forbidden line; if they limit themselves to deeds, cynics say they're not being forthcoming. It's a lose-lose situation.

But how did the debate ever get pushed to such subtopics in the first place?

The real issue is this: Why can't Christians be allowed to make their case, wherever and whenever they want, just as robustly as others do? In an era when everybody gets to say just about anything, no matter what the offense might be, why should there be a special muzzle for Christians?

Very specifically, why do Muslims get to play by one set of rules, but Christians are restrained by another? By what possible measuring stick do we welcome Muslims to this country, even exempting them from taxes when they build a mosque here and otherwise carry on their evangelistic activities-but then agree to tuck our tails when someone accuses us of proselytizing a Muslim? After all, it's the Quran that suggests declaring jihad on a nonbeliever who doesn't prove responsive to adoption of Islam. However faithful Muslims might disagree on exactly what that means, it's hard to put a pleasant spin on it. In contrast, nothing in Jesus' teaching suggests anything so harsh. About the most severe response he proposes comes in Matthew 10:14: "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town."

But more broadly, what is there within the Christian faith that gives it fewer free-speech rights than those enjoyed by the homosexual lobby, the Democrats (yes, the Republicans too), Verizon, Greenpeace, UNESCO, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the NEA, and the AARP? Why do all of them have a free license to assault (or to nuzzle) you with their points of view-a license implicitly (and even explicitly) denied to evangelical Christians?

In short, why should there even be a question about Christians' right to make their case? Why the implied condemnation of motives when The New York Times headlines: "Evangelical groups want to help. They also want to spread the Gospel."?

But isn't that pretty much what everyone with an idea of any kind wants to do? If freedom means anything at all, it can't be selectively applied.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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