Freedom of religion requires freedom to offend

Does religious freedom include the freedom to give offense? Does our Constitution protect the offensive exercise of religion?

With a mob at the gates on 9/11, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued the following statement:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

This statement is now a political orphan. Both Obama and Romney have distanced themselves from it, and it has been expunged from the U.S. Embassy’s website (screen cap here). As no one stands by these words, they will be mostly ignored by the next news cycle.

Before these words fade, it is crucial that we consider their significance for religion, as well as politics. Both the left and the right would be remiss if we didn’t try to set all politics aside and consider the fundamental question about the nature of religious freedom, and religion itself, that they raise. For these words reflect widespread assumptions about religion, and could just as easily have been drafted during the Bush administration.

There are two obvious rejoinders to the statement. First, it relegates religious freedom to the realm of utter subjectivity by condemning “efforts to hurt religious feelings.” On this score, anyone could limit the exercise of opposing religions by claiming that their religious feelings were hurt (“What is a religious feeling?”). The second problem is that this standard of not giving offense has clearly not been equally applied by secular elites (see “Piss Christ,” et al.).

By condemning “incitement,” the statement’s title suggests that the author is mindful of these objections. The freedom of speech doesn’t protect yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, nor should we protect religious speech that does the same. And since Christians don’t typically riot when offended, offending them isn’t incitement. Were I a foreign service officer watching my flag burn, I might be inclined to take a similar approach to distance myself from the Christian bigot who yelled fire halfway around the world.

But the real problem with the statement is its failure to grasp the inherently offensive nature of most religious belief. It belies the widely held belief that “good religion” must be utterly private, banal, and non-offensive. We may limit the exercise of Terry Jones’s religion — even seek his persecution — because our definition of religion doesn’t include that kind of quackery. “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy” … unless those beliefs aren’t respectable, and respectable religion doesn’t make other people feel bad.

Christianity is a religion of love, but it is also a religion of redemption, and therefore offense. The Apostles clearly proclaimed Jesus as a “stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8), and Paul located this offense centrally in “Christ crucified, a stumbling block [offense] to Jews, and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The cross is foolish and weak; it offends both the reason and religion of us all.

The Apostles did not hijack the message of Jesus, who often gave offense (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:3). Jesus even asked his followers, “Do you take offense at this [teaching]? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:61 – 63). Jesus’ claim to be God, to have pre-existed in heaven, was his most offensive claim of all.