Freedom of Speech

rockwell speech

Freedom of Speech

The man in this painting is Jim Edgerton, painter Norman Rockwell’s neighbor. When contemplating how to present the Four Freedoms, Rockwell recalls going to a town meeting. He said, “My next door neighbor, Jim Edgerton, had stood up at Town Meeting and said something that everybody else disagreed with. But they let him have his say. No one had shouted him down. My God, I thought, that’s it! There it is. Freedom of Speech.”

Freedom of Speech is a democratic ideal dating back to the ancient Greeks. It is the right to express thoughts and opinions without government restraint. Like Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech is enshrined in our American founding principles (within the First Amendment to the Constitution).

Throughout our country’s history, Americans have been free to express very popular and very unpopular opinions. Some opinions have been blatantly hateful. Some, indeed, have been designed to provoke oppression and unrest. Others have expressed opinions that are wildly unpopular in their day and age … but in the long run have provoked the nation to serious reflection and necessary change. The Civil Rights Movement is an example of this. Without the Freedom of Speech, the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., could have silenced – which some surely did try to do.

Two weeks before I was born, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “I have a dream …” Here was a Christian pastor proclaiming Christian truth, and a largely “Christian nation” eventually responded. Yes, our nation was way too slow to respond, including way too many hard-hearted Christians, but there was a powerful fruit to allowing people to speak freely! (I like to call this event – timed with my birth – as the last hurrah of Christendom in America. It’s not that Christians haven’t still held measures of influence, but by the late sixties, the era of free love took hold in America, bringing a new cultural orthodoxy which many view as unquestionable today.)

Freedom of Speech is the foundation of all freedoms. It is, indeed, the foundation of Democracy. Silence a people’s voices and it’s the first step toward tyranny.

The question is, do we still have the freedom, like Norman Rockwell’s neighbor, to say something unpopular and trust that people will not attempt to silence us? Sadly, this freedom is waning across Western cultures. Students report to me that modern American universities, once bastions of free speech, are often in the business nowadays of silencing speech if it doesn’t agree with the new cultural orthodoxy. (That’s anecdotal, see however more documented reports from the New York Times and the ACLU.) Nowadays, it’s often the comedians (like Adam Carolla, Jerry Sienfeld, and Dave Chapelle ) who speak first about modern culture’s hypersensitivity and the silencing of free speech. Essentially, they’re saying, “No one can take a joke anymore.” Yes, some jokes are truly offensive, but as folks like Seinfeld say, it’s “the [silencing] climate that’s [more] concerning … I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges – they’re so PC (politically correct).”

Not all that long ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said something that was very unpopular in some quarters … but was transformatively true!

And not too long before that, Norman Rockwell said, “My next door neighbor, Jim Edgerton, had stood up at Town Meeting and said something that everybody else disagreed with. But they let him have his say. No one had shouted him down. My God, I thought, that’s it! There it is. Freedom of Speech.”

For those accustomed to more spiritual, biblical devotions, why am I talking about the likes of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech? I told you a day or two ago that one of my favorite sites that reflects on Christianity and the World is Recently, lead commentator John Stonestreet cited a “very nice” and very popular cultural figure who was (intentionally or unintentionally) misquoting Scripture. Stonestreet absolutely does not want to silence this person. (He knows if we silence even one, then we might be next.) Rather, his passion is equipping Christians to understand false statements from the Bible.

He says, “What makes [this famous person’s] misapplication of Scripture to cultural issues so troubling and so effective is the incredible void left when many pastors won’t apply Scripture to cultural issues.” He said, “[This person’s misapplications are simply] filling a void that’s been left by pastors who only teach the Bible as a personal, private self-help book, in order to help us find our purpose, improve our lives, and feel closer to God.

Stonestreet wisely says, “A Christianity that is never directly and broadly applied to the cultural moment we live in is one that is eventually reduced down to emotive sentimentalism.” Too many Christians,” he says, “are left with the impression that Christianity is about being ‘nice’ and happy. [This culture figure seems] is ‘nice’ and happy. [This person seems to] appl[y pieces of the] Bible to cultural issues [and because] too many Christians never hear the Bible applied to cultural issues, [too many] pastors [are] leav[ing] their flocks cripplingly vulnerable when [nice people in culture] twist the Bible to their own ends.”

“There’s a scene in “Remember the Titans” in which Denzel Washington’s character tells his white assistant coach to stop coddling the team’s black players. He knows the racist hatred these young men will face. ‘You’re not preparing them for the real world,’ he says. ‘You’re crippling them for life.’”

Part of being a pastor is equipping you (and me) for the world. Thus, here are a few devotions that are more practical spirituality rather than just emotion and spirituality. Bear with me for a few days! I think it will be worth it.

In Christ’s Love,

a pastor who doesn’t want

to just be a pastor, as

John Stonestreet says, who

just “coddle(s) our emotions.”


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