The Fallacy of Free Speech

In August 2005, according to a December article in the San Francisco Examiner, the private Calvary Chapel Christian School sued the University of California. The UC’s offense, according to Calvary Chapel’s lawsuit, was in not granting college credit for several courses taught from an explicitly Christian viewpoint; doing so, they claim, constitutes discrimination against the Christian viewpoint.

Consider, if you will, the implications of this lawsuit. Calvary is claiming that the UC should not be allowed to set its own admissions requirements – that if Calvary decides a course is appropriate for college credit, then the UC, and presumably every other university, is required to respect that decision, regardless of the course’s subject matter or content. This holds true even if the course is an American history course taught from a devotional, proselytizing viewpoint (for as we all know, Christian fundamentalists show no tendency toward fudging the truth when it comes to Christianity’s place in American history), or a a science course taught from a textbook that strives to “put the Word of God first and science second“. To do otherwise, it seems, would “violate the freedom of speech of Christian schools, students and teachers”. (I wrote some years ago in Why You Should Fight Creationism that creationists, if given the chance, would target private universities in an attempt to force their beliefs to be taught there as science. This is one of the occasions where I take no pleasure in being right.)

Since Calvary is still completely free to teach whatever ludicrously slanted or inaccurate courses they like, it might at first seem unclear how their free speech rights are being violated. But that confusion can be cleared up when one realizes that this lawsuit is another tentacle of an emerging strategy of the religious right. These advocates of Christian correctness have surreptitiously added a new condition: free speech is the right to speak your mind and have others accept what you say as valid. Calvary Chapel’s administrators offer courses that privilege the Christian viewpoint above others and that study Christianity in a devotional, rather than an unbiased, way (sample titles: “Christianity’s Influence on America”, “Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic”, and “Christianity and Morality in American Literature”. One rejected text was the Biology for Christian Schools textbook cited in “Thoughts in Captivity“). They then expect that other schools will accept these courses as fully valid curricula deserving academic credit, and when other schools do not do this, Calvary Chapel claims that this is “censoring” their viewpoint. Similarly, intelligent-design advocates say that ID is science and not religion, and believe that others should accept that and treat them accordingly, or else their right to free speech is being violated.

This is wrong. The extra condition that these Christians have tacked onto the definition of free speech is their own invention; there is no “right to be taken seriously” in the Constitution. On the contrary, just as your right to free speech means that you can speak your mind, other people’s equal right to free speech allows them to jeer at, scorn, and reject what you say, or call it false or a lie. And just because a Christian group says that their beliefs are scientific, that does not make them correct, as ID advocates found out to their chagrin in the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover court case. Free speech includes the right to be wrong.

The Calvary Chapel case is just one aspect of a larger strategy. The religious right has discovered the tactic of defining their religion in a way that allows them to force it on everyone else, and then cry that their rights are being violated when they are not permitted to do this. The final step, which is on full display in this article, is to claim that anyone who will not roll over and allow them to do exactly as they want is “biased against Christians” and “has taken sides in the culture war”. This label is then used as an excuse to automatically dismiss anything that person or group says in the future.

This suit also partakes of another religious right strategy, which is to raise cries of discrimination and prejudice loudly and often as a response to anything other than complete submission to their noxious agenda; anything less is considered intolerable. Groups that disagree with them in even a single detail are vilified and attacked as furiously as groups that disagree with them in all. (As the USA Today article points out, UC does grant credit for 43 other Calvary Chapel courses that meet its standards. Evidently this is not enough for them.) This forcible division of the world into white and black, friend and foe, with us vs. against us, is a common characteristic of simplistic fundamentalist thinking, but it also serves to agitate their base by portraying everyone who is not a full ally as an enemy that must be destroyed. Depicting UC as a reasonable group with whom they have some common ground, rather than a prejudiced liberal enemy of Christianity, doubtless would not arouse the unthinking fury among their followers they count on to put pressure on their opponents.

It is disturbing to imagine the academic nihilism and chaos that would ensue if this suit succeeded. If Calvary won in court, what would prevent any fringe group from demanding that its own heavily slanted, devotional courses receive full college credit or else? Could astrology advocates receive credit toward an astronomy degree? Would Christian Scientists apply to medical school and demand credit for courses that taught them to forsake all treatment in favor of prayer?

Or imagine the shoe was on the other foot. Imagine that Christian colleges such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or Bob Jones University received applications from students who had attended a private and explicitly atheist high school. This school teaches courses such as “Atheism’s Influence on America’s Founders”, “The Lack of Divine Influence on World History”, and “The Prevalence of Atheism in Great Literature”, and uses science textbooks that state, “This book always strives to put atheism first and science second.” When these Christian schools refuse to grant credit for these courses, the atheists sue them, on the grounds that this action constitutes unconstitutional discrimination against atheism. One can only imagine the hysterical screams of persecution and “judicial activism” that would arise from the right-wing Christian community. Nothing else imaginable would put the fundamentalist double standard, where any action that furthers their cause is acceptable and righteous and any action that does not further their cause is evil and Satanic, on clearer display.

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