A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Free Speech a Value

I've avoided posting on the controversy over a Danish paper's publication of cartoons protraying Mohammed and Islam in an unflattering light. I did so because when I take religion to task, I prefer to respond to my own religion as an insider.

It's too easy to go after faiths that one does not hold than scrutinizng one's own religious committments. I'm breaking my rule because the issues involved are larger than one religion and I'm disturbed by the claims in defending the reactions against the cartoons.

In particular the piece by Stanley Fish who argues that liberalism only allows for a privatized religion that has no affects in the public realm. I agree this is a problem but his conclusions don't follow. For instance, he claims that those argung for free speech are arguing for an "abstract principle".

Given the sort of struggle that has and is occuring for this principle, I'm not sure why it should be counted as "abstract" or not real. It's real for those who are arguing for censorship and certainly real for people who face death threats and intimidation for what they write or draw.

In comparison, those who are engaged in intimidation and calling for censorship are counted as having actual beliefs and values. Liberal values in this account are not values, they are only taken as a stand in for that which opposes actual values.

And since those who are burning down embasses have actual values they are to be more credited than those who argue for freedom of speech. But how did we get the idea of what does not count as a value? And is Fish really defending religious belief in this piece?

I agree that religion to be religion needs to have effects in the world, cannot be privatized but it does not follow that all such effects are praiseworthy. Recognizing original sin should preclude such a move. Our religious systems can not afford to be above scrutiny or criticism.
When we create an atmosphere or actual legal mechanisms which makes it impossible to do just that, we're not defending religion, we're crippling it. Because without the means of criticism there is no basis for self correction. Marty's work, the Infidel covers the ways in which such a process works.

In some ways liberals have acted as if their beliefs were the grounds for rationality, not a competing value or faith committment. This is what opens the door to treating such values as not real. A different route is recommended by Stout's book Democracy & Tradition.

He argues that liberal and democratic values have the same standing as any other values including religious ones. They must be argued for, cultivated, seen in the same light. If they are to survive it is becoming more evident that this route needs to be explored.

But like many of the clashes over religious faith, including this one, there is an assumption that one must go direction or the other. Either religious faith and censorship or free speech an going after religion. For those of us who are religious liberals a third route exists.

Religious liberals are not very popular in these clashes, don't really fit into either side really well. And we're not growing as those who trade in certainty and clarity on either side. But if we're going to negotiate the conflicts plaguing our world, liberal religion has some resources on it's side that ought to be looked into.

A third route, would take religious faith seriously and liberal values seriously, not asking either to be marginal but central in how one understands ourselves in relation to our world. As a subject I hope to follow this up with future posts.


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