Was American evangelist Franklin Graham an outlier when, because of this Christian faith, he endorsed the Russian government’s censorship of speech (in his case speech pertaining to homosexuality)? Unfortunately, no. Russia, under Putin, has vastly expanded government censorship of speech—and more American Christians have endorsed Russia’s censorship.
In a May 7 opinion video, CNN reports the latest regarding Russian censorship:
Russia’s State Duma approved a new law that requires internet bloggers with more than three-thousand visitors per day to register with the government, providing their real names and contact information. . . .
[Russia] is also engaged in a war of words against so-called dirty words. A new law, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, will ban swearing in films, TV, theater, and other media, while books will have to carry warnings on their cover.
CNN rightly characterizes the Russian laws as Orwellian, reminiscent of the dystopian world of the novel 1984. The Telegraph rightly describes the censorship laws as “harkening back” to Russia’s Soviet-era communism.
But some Christians regard Russia’s Orwellian, Soviet-style censorship laws, not as grotesque violations of individual rights to be condemned, but as models for proper American governance. Writing for One News Now—a publication offering “news from a Christian perspective”—Bryan Fischer lavishes praise on the Russian censorship laws regarding profanity and the like, openly calling for government censorship of “profanity, vulgarity, obscenity [and] pornography.” And the popular conservative site GOPUSA reproduces his essay in full.
But people have a right to speak however they want, so long as they do not violate the rights of others in the process (e.g., by breaking into someone’s home to deliver a speech, or asking a hit man to commit a murder, or the like). Aside from the intractable problem of deciding precisely what speech is off-limits and what speech is permissible—many great works of literature (and even the Bible) contain arguably profane or obscene language—the government has no moral right to violate people’s rights to speak freely.
Fischer is wrong that the Constitution authorizes the censorship he endorses. And, although American states at the time of the founding often forbade profanity and blasphemy, rights violations at the time of the founding do not justify rights violations today. (Various American states also legally permitted slavery at the time of the founding.) As I recently observed, because rights are objective principles, “the Bill of Rights recognizes and protects individual rights—even if the Founders themselves misunderstood the nature of rights in a given area or passed laws that violated rights in some way.”
But Fischer is correct in observing:
The new [Russian] law, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, echoes the prohibition against blasphemy found in the Ten Commandments (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”) and will provide another example in which Russia’s public policy conforms more closely to biblical standards than Christian America.
The Judeo-Christian Bible does far more than authorize censorship of select speech: It demands the death penalty for blasphemy (see, for example, Leviticus 24:16). Thankfully, Fischer does not go that far in demanding legal conformity to biblical standards (although some American Christians do go that far).
As Fischer and many other American Christians are coming to realize, consistent religion cannot sanction a rights-respecting government. Ultimately there is no getting around the fact that the Bible, the Koran, and other religious texts explicitly call for flagrant violations of people’s rights.
Fischer’s angst aside, free speech, even when it is foul speech, is not a serious problem for independent, rational people. If you don’t like a book, you can refrain from buying or reading it. If you don’t like the language on a television show, you can turn it off. If you don’t like the language in a film, you can refrain from watching it or walk out when you’ve heard enough.
What is a problem is when government threatens to seize your wealth, lock you in a metal cage, or otherwise punish you if you speak in ways that politicians or bureaucrats or religionists forbid. Not only is any government act of censorship inherently rights-violating and therefore immoral; government censorship tends to restrict critical commentary about government, thereby virtually ensuring the slide into full-bore totalitarianism. (Does anyone doubt that the Russian government will enforce its censorship laws selectively to punish critics of the government?)
Religionists who follow their religious creeds consistently cannot support a rights-respecting government, as such a government violates the tenets of their religious faith. Many religionists are starting to realize this, and, as a consequence, some religionists are becoming more consistently religious, whereas others are becoming less so. Let those of us who love our lives, liberties, and freedom to speak our minds speak loudly against religious faith and the government oppression it sanctions.