Opinion | Defending free speech is not “moral relativism”

This statement is the Christianized cousin of the secular idea that defending the free speech rights of those with whom one vehemently disagrees is, in essence, providing aid and comfort to racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia. From this perspective, your role as a citizen is first to determine whether a given speech meets with your moral approval, and then – and only then – to rally in its defense.

But this is dangerous nonsense. I’m the furthest thing from a relativist. In fact, my evangelical Christian religious beliefs place me in a group that includes a only 6% of American adults who hold a number of decidedly non-relativistic beliefs, including the divinity of Christ and the authority of Scripture. I am fully aware that if the terms of the debate in America were based on a religious or moral consensus, my views would be immediately driven out of the public square. And indeed, much of my legal career has been dedicated to protecting minority religious expression – including evangelical expression – from censorship on American campuses and in American communities. During that performance I learned three practical truths about free expression.

First, few people are more eager to take advantage of the right to free speech than those who possess deep moral convictions. When you watch a raging debate on campus, the last the thing you think is, “Watch the relativists fight.” Fighters have burning beliefs, for example, about the Gaza war, or about race and justice in America, or about LGBTQ rights. When I was with Christians, MuslimsAND Jews who faced exclusion and persecution, I have never represented a relativist. These people believed so much in their core values ​​that they refused to remain silent.

Second, humility is not relativism, and even people who believe in the existence of absolute truth should possess enough humility to recognize that they do not know all that truth. I have been an evangelical my entire life, but my faith certainly has not insulated me from error. I made some mistakes. I was wrong. And, by the way, I didn’t just learn from Christians. I have been deeply influenced by people from virtually every ideological and religious background. I am a better person in my relationships with people I disagree with. Imagine the arrogance of thinking that my tribe or sect – which is inevitably full of fallen and imperfect people – should be the arbiter of truth, much less freedom.

Third, prudent people know that they will not always govern. This is the most pragmatic case for free speech. In a democratic society, no party or movement has permanent power, and when you limit the freedom of your enemies, you give them the power to limit your freedom the instant you lose an election. An enormous amount of censorship would evaporate overnight if angry activists truly absorbed the lesson that the standard they seek to impose on others can also be inflicted on themselves.