Friday, February 10, 2006


Is free speech the principle that divides courageous Europeans from Muslim protestors who have torched buildings in Damascus and Beirut because of a handful of cartoonish depictions of the prophet Muhammad? Is Europe the continent where freedom to speak one’s mind reigns supreme while Arab nations exhibit rabid intolerance for opinions that don’t conform to their cultural status quo? Well, not entirely.

According to European newspapers, freedom of the press was the sole issue that motivated their reprinting the (relatively mild) caricatures of Muhammad that were published last fall in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. It appears, however, that Europe’s devotion to free speech only applies to persons who embrace the deeply-held cultural convictions of post-modern Europe.

This conclusion is borne out by the verdict recently handed down by a French court against Christian Vanneste, a member of France’s parliament who dared to declare that “heterosexuality is morally superior to homosexuality.” For this breach of secular dogma Vanneste was fined 3,000 euro and ordered to pay the same amount in damages to the three gay organizations that took him to court. In addition, Vanneste had to pay for the verdict’s publication in Le Monde and two other French publications.

This judgment, designed to squelch debate about a critical moral issue, mirrors a case in Sweden where a Pentecostal minister was found guilty of making critical remarks about same-sex intercourse—a conviction that was subsequently overturned.

It is hard to think of Europe as a bastion of free speech when the mere expression of ideas that contradict elite opinion is subject to legal sanction. The real difference, it seems, between European sophisticates and Muslim protesters is that they have different beliefs about what one can and cannot say—and different ways of enforcing their respective creeds.

The German newspaper Die Welt argued in an editorial that a “right to blaspheme” exists in the West—a declaration about as impressive, given the state of European religiosity, as a Saudi journalist touting the “right” to venerate Muhammad in the desert kingdom.

More to the point, I think, is the comment in France Soir that the offending cartoons were published to show that “religious dogma” has no place in a secular society. This unguarded comment coincides with a statement issued by a Muslim official in Germany: “It was done not to defend freedom of the press but to spite the Muslims.”

What secular Europe is really grappling with isn’t how far freedom of the press extends. The same editors who are agonizing over the publication of these cartoons wouldn’t give a second thought about printing offensive parodies of Christian themes. Their real problem is how to deal with a group that doesn’t take blasphemy lightly—with believers who are eager to fight back with bombs and swords.

The Danish paper that initially published the “blasphemous” cartoons has already apologized for giving offense to Muslims—though they apologized while asserting their right to act as they did. A contrition-sated defense of press freedom was also proffered by the Prime Minister of Denmark.

More dramatic backpedaling took place at France Soir, where the paper’s owner fired his managing editor “as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual.” In the middle of this sensitivity orgy Bill Clinton was moved to throw in his two cents worth by labeling as “appalling…these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.”

It’s pretty clear that European secularists (like their soulmate, the ex-President) aren’t prepared to risk death for the sacred “right to blaspheme.” When it comes to facing real danger, cowardly decadence is their cup of tea—and freedom of speech an expediency to be invoked when skewering opponents who don’t pose a clear and present danger.

America’s Declaration of Independence concludes with these words: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

To the 56 patriots who signed this document, faith in a greater power buttressed their courage and shaped their understanding of honor. To individuals for whom the word “Providence” is a risible delusion, sacrificing everything for the “right to blaspheme” must seem like an act of stupidity.

In this judgment they are certainly correct.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Kirk,
I am a former student of yours who chooses to remain anonymous for this ocassion due to the sensitive nature of my forthcoming comments. I am a gay man in his late twenties who attended Bishop's and who took some of your courses. I am very fortunate to have found a partner with which I have had a very stable monagamous relationship with for the past four years. What brought me to comment were a few questions that came to mind after reading many of your posts. Do you think homosexuality is immoral? If you do believe it is than do you also believe that I will punished in the afterlife? Do you believe that my partner and I should not be allowed to wed?

Eagerly awaiting your response,


RKirk said...

I’ve been pondering your questions seriously. Indeed, I’ve studied these issues in great detail for at least the last fifteen years. I’ve written an extended essay that addresses some of your questions. I may publish it in the next few weeks if you wish to look at an even more detailed analysis than the response below.

First of all I think it is important to say, as C. S. Lewis did in his popular book, Mere Christianity, that religious folks tend to focus inordinate attention on sexual flaws or faults but that their scriptures emphasize spiritual shortcomings—pride, selfishness, lust for power, heartlessness, etc. That comment is appropriately followed by the confession that immorality of this, and of the sexual variety, permeates all lives—including my own. We are all, to varying degrees, enmeshed in immorality.

Secondly, I think of most actions as being on a continuum or scale that terminates, at its apex, in an ideal. Nobody achieves the ideal, but it exists as the goal toward which individuals and societies strive and by which they judge their own moral circumstances. In my estimation (a view endorsed by the Judeo-Christian historical tradition) the “ideal” domestic relationship is a male-female marriage. And marriage, in my view, is an institution whose primary function is the creation of a loving, stable union of husband and wife within which children are raised.

Over the last half-century, however, marriage has been progressively redefined by feelings of affection. The inevitable consequence of that redefinition has been to undermine the child-rearing aspect of marriage. When heterosexual marriage is defined in this affective manner, there appears to be little to distinguish it from same-sex unions. But when one focuses on sexual fidelity for the sake of a family, it becomes clear that what applies to almost all heterosexual unions does not apply at all (biologically) when it comes to same-sex unions.

In concrete terms, however, not everyone is so constituted (or emotionally arranged as a result of social interaction) as to realize the ideal of marriage. In addition, some persons may be able to achieve non-marital ideals by virtue of the “gift of celibacy.” What I find positively destructive, however, is the insistence on making feelings of affection the basis for understanding marriage—and thus relegating sexual activity and reproduction to activities that, outside of marriage, are still ok. I think it is inevitable that the institutionalization of same-sex marriage will further lessen this vital linkage (since reproduction, by definition, is not part of same-sex intercourse).

On a more individual note, a rather unbiased study, done at a Vancouver hospital and published in 1997 in the Oxford University International Journal of Epidemiology, came up with these conclusions: “In a major Canadian centre, life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men. If the same pattern of mortality were to continue, we estimate that nearly half of gay and bisexual men currently aged 20 years will not reach their 65th birthday. Under even the most liberal assumptions, gay and bisexual men in this urban centre are now experiencing a life expectancy similar to that experienced by all men in Canada in the year 1871.”

This conclusion coincides with others that are available to persons who want to discuss, honestly, the health impact of same-sex intercourse. Unfortunately, our society isn’t interested (in this and numerous other subjects) in having an honest discussion. Instead, vilification of individuals who don’t toe the line that social elites favor is the order of the day.

Do my observations and this medical data mean that same-sex intercourse is “immoral”? I think it indicates that it, like sex outside of marriage, doesn’t live up to the “ideal.” The same is true, I would assert, of my divorced state of affairs. You won’t hear me, however, trying to justify myself by saying (as intellectuals like Constance Ahrons do) that “good divorces” are plentiful and that children aren’t really damaged by marital breakups. I don’t exhibit the ideal, but I try to do the best that I can under the circumstances. And, I continue to honor, rather than undermine, the ideal.

What I find most depressing is the tendency that all of us have to disparage ideals for the sake of justifying our own actions. When divorce began to be popular, intellectuals all over the place began to declare that single parents could raise children just as well as a married couple and that “quality time” was all that mattered. People yearning to justify themselves ate it up. But it wasn’t true. (Patrick Moynihan discussed this topic a bit in his well-known essay, “Defining Deviancy Down.”) I think the same things are being said now about raising children in two-adult homes where the sex of the adults is inconsequential.

As to your question about the afterlife, I have only the inclination to believe that, if there is something like the endurance of individual consciousness and rewards and punishments, we will be judged by one who will be more merciful and understanding than myself. (And I say this with the thought that I myself am inclined to be understanding, seeing as I am acutely aware of my own faults.) In short, doing pretty well, given one’s circumstances, is what I tend to expect of folks—not perfection. I can’t see how a perfect judge would be less understanding.

G.Rap said...

Excellent response to the former student, and in keeping with more than one religious ideal. If only the media had more voices like yours!