Religious freedom is a basic human right. This is not terribly controversial by itself, but when we come to the details, things can get messy. At Duke University, a Muslim student group received permission to recite the Friday call to prayer from the bell tower of the neo-gothic nondenominational chapel on campus–only to have it canceled due to security threats. In France, the government has responded to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by announcing a crackdown on “hate speech.” Halfway around the world, Pope Francis gave one of his famous off-the-cuff interviews, raising eyebrows with his comment about punching someone for insulting his mother. Religious freedom has its limits then, but to borrow an old expression, the Blue Devil is in the details.The Duke Chapel bell tower
First off, Duke University is a private institution. They have no obligation to encourage or support religious expression. The school was founded by Quakers and Methodists and the chapel is an interdenominational Christian house of worship. However, like so many of America’s elite universities, Duke has become so hyper-secularized that it would be intellectually dishonest for the school to deny one religious group the use of facilities while permitting it for others. On the other hand, surrendering to threats of violence is the worst of all possible worlds and sets a dangerous precedent.
If anything, this episode demonstrates the importance of maintaining a strong Christian identity. If we do not believe that ours is the true faith and that Jesus is the son of God but instead that every religion has an equal claim to the truth, it stands to reason that the academy must encourage students to seek the truth however they see fit. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Autobiography:
And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner proposed, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon received to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy board, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested and in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.
This is a lofty ideal, but as the events at Duke show, it is more difficult to put into practice. The Friday call to prayer would not pose any conflict with Christian worship on Sundays, but as other communities have discovered, the demands of Islamic daily prayer are quite rigorous and can become a nuisance for nonbelievers. Still, it is far preferable to have church bells pealing to mark the hours alongside the Muslim call to prayer than to have all religions silenced in the name of fairness, or worse, some elusive definition of “security.” A world without bells–as some Muslims would wish it–would be a dull and joyless place.
In France, where they do not have the First Amendment and where the church bells are already being silenced, dozens of people have now been arrested for “hate speech.” Paradoxically, this crackdown comes days after millions marched in the streets of Paris in support of free speech. Such laws have been solidly rejected here in the United States and for good reason. The right to free speech without the right to offend is no right at all. Even defending the First Amendment will offend some people. If you place such a nebulous restraint on freedom of speech, you just can’t win.
In America, we uphold the rights of the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazis, and Hustler Magazine so that we can also defend the rights of Christians and Muslims–not only the right to worship, as President Obama so often misconstrues the First Amendment, but in all our daily affairs, even something as simple as facial hair. Although we oppose in the strongest possible terms anyone who supports Satanists for the grave peril they bring upon their souls, we nevertheless support their rights, at least in principle, but even that only goes so far. If their diabolical rituals involve the theft of the precious body of Our Lord or public lewdness, it is a crime.Pope Francis visiting a Buddhist temple (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano/pool)
Questioned about the Charlie Hebdo attacks specifically, Pope Francis basically reiterated parts of his remarks condemning violence from his public appearances in Sri Lanka, which is still recovering from decades of civil war and sectarian violence. This is all clearly stated in the Catechism, but perhaps in an attempt at humor, the Pope remarked that if his assistant insulted his mother, “He should expect a punch.”
In First Amendment jurisprudence we have the “fighting words” doctrine. However, even then, the doctrine gives the government the right to curtail fighting words, but it does not remove the penalty for assault and battery. Fighting is always wrong, but in certain extreme and circumscribed cases, the provocation can be wrong as well. To use football jargon, the penalties do not offset. Moreover, things like the Muslim call to prayer or Chrarlie Hebdo’s vile scribblings clearly do not qualify as fighting words. Pope Francis’ comments then are not particularly helpful for American Catholics who will need the First Amendment more than ever in coming years.
Pope Francis does hit [har har] on an important point though: Catholics should have a stronger identity so that we would feel like an insult on our mother the Church is a personal attack. We should be passionate about our faith! However, as Christians, Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek as Archbishop Leonard of Brussels demonstrated so powerfully when attacked by militant feminists. Though we may wish to throw a punch in defense of our faith as St. Nicholas did at the Council of Nicea in 325, we must master those emotions and in doing so serve as witnesses to the mercy of God. It is good for us to be offended by so much of what is happening in the world today–most notably the horrifying atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, because it is all so very ugly and inhumane. It is better still for us to show reasonableness and charity even when faced with so much darkness so that we may reflect the light of Christ across a world which so desperately needs it.