I have run across the oddest comments lately by various people about the supposed erosion of freedom in the United States. Desmond Tutu is recorded in a recent Newsweek web interview, of making the following statement: “I was teaching in Jacksonville, Fla., [during the election campaign] and I was shocked, because I had naively believed all these many years that Americans genuinely believed in freedom of speech. [But I] discovered there that when you made an utterance that was remotely contrary to what the White House was saying, then they attacked you. For a South African the déjà vu was frightening. They behaved exactly the same way that used to happen here [during apartheid]—vilifying those who are putting forward a slightly different view.” One can find numerous commentators on TV and in the newspapers making the same sorts of charges.

Meanwhile, I have heard statements, particularly over the Christmas holidays, along these lines: “Christianity is under attack on the political, educational and media front.” So said one John Newby with NewsWithViews, an online site, on December 26, 2004. It was not uncommon this holiday season to hear report after report by religious commentators complaining about negative portrayals of Christians and Christianity in the media, and decrying the work of the ACLU to get Nativity scenes off of public property, and the like. A search on the web will find various sites devoted to “fighting back” and shouting about how religious freedom is under attack.

Frankly, people who say such things strike me as being wildly out of touch with reality. If Tutu’s rights had actually been infringed, then that would mean he was arrested, his writings burned, and that he had disappeared into a jail cell. After all, that is what happened to him in South Africa during Apartheid. Frankly, I don’t think that’s quite what he faced in Jacksonville. He seems instead to be simply upset that someone disagreed with him and expressed that disagreement and that somehow his freedom has been infringed as a consequence of that. Freedom of speech, last time I checked, does not mean protection from having our speech criticized by those who disagree with us. If he was really being oppressed, I think he would not be allowed to give an interview in Newsweek, nor would we have been able to read his complaint.

Likewise, if Christianity were actually under attack in this country, that would mean I wouldn’t find Bibles and religious books weighing down the shelves in the local library, Walmart and Barnes and Nobel. It would mean that the Christmas wrapping, cards, and trees would not be available any longer. It would mean that the churches that one finds every few blocks would have been converted to museums of atheism and I would have to fear arrest if I muttered “God bless you” when someone sneezed. And I would not have spent the last week at the convention center in San Jose with the youth group from my church who joined with four thousand other Southern Baptist Youth listening to loud rock and roll and rap done by famous and relatively well-paid Christian bands.

What Tutu seems bothered by, and what some Christians seem bothered by, is that there are people who actually dare disagree with them. Or that someone made fun of them. Or that someone said a harsh word. Or that someone argued against their political or religious point of view. Those who are bothered by public criticism of their words need to grow thicker skins and realize that they are not gods giving pronouncements from Mt. Olympus.

To me, such public arguing sounds remarkably like freedom at work. If I hear someone say something that I don’t like or disagree with, I can speak up and tell them they are a bozo. If I don’t like what someone writes, I can write against them. I can create a blog, I can pass out flyers, I can write a book or letters to the editor. I can create a website and shout at the world. And the government will never intervene. If people are speaking in public, I can heckle them. That might be rude, but hey, rudeness is part of life. I think there’s a rather long tradition of heckling in this country.

The story is told of Calvin Coolege that one night as he was sitting at the dinner table, his young son called him a name. Calvin just sat quietly, a thoughtful look on his face. His wife glared at her husband in shock. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?!”

“Well,” said Calvin. “If he’s speaking to me as his father, then I should probably spank him. But if he’s speaking to me as the President of the United States, he’s got a constitutionally protected right to call me anything he wants.” Since it is improbable that the people of Jacksonville are Desmond Tutu’s children, I think they can call him anything they want.

Freedom is a wonderful thing. But I think that some people have forgotten or fail to notice that they are free, and that they are surrounded by a bunch of other people who are free, too, who might freely take issue with what they say or think or do. That’s kind of the nature of freedom. It means everyone is free, not just me.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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