Free Expression and the Reformation of Morals

Rowan Atkinson, who famously played Mr. Bean, argues here for free expression and free speech. Comedians feel keenly the importance of saying what they believe must be said, including the thing that certain people believe must not be said. They argue fiercely for the freedom to say it, firstly for the sake of their art, but secondly for those without the microphone or the degree of public notariety that has secured them the ability to speak up and speak out. Comedians test public norms and make us revisit the reasons the norms are there at all. Some norms, after all, are built upon falsehoods, and are thus absurd and ridiculous. They only thing maintaining those norms is a mass delusion, a captivity of the mind. Humor sobers us; a good belly laugh drops the scales from our eyes.

It feels as though we are living at a heightened moment of censoriousness in our history, not only because posting the wrong thing on social media can lead to swarming behavior and the heaping on of oppobrium from strangers, but because our awareness of outrage elswhere is felt more acutely right where we live. In other words, we not only know the norms and customs governing the place where we live, but the norms and customs being enforced and upheld elsewhere, those touted in a globalized digital village that is a “no place,” or perhaps an anti-place.

As a result, we self-censor not only on the basis of the known opinions of our peers, but on the basis of what others believe “out there.” And with the ubiquity of cameras, recording devices, and internet feeds, we know we are only a moment away from shaming and infamy, regardless of our degree of celebrity. One only need think of the label “Karen.”

I am of the opinion we are not only presently navigating how best to protect free speech and free expression. I believe we are also navigating a crisis of authority, the dissolution of community, a weakened sense of identity and belonging, and the lack of a shared, consensus view of what constitutes custom or manners. I’m am glad there are those who are defending free speech, arguing for its importance. Free speech is foundational for arriving upon sound answers regarding who we should listen to, to whom we belong, how we understand ourselves, and what we can agree upon as the good, true, right, and beautiful. Discourse can result in discomfort. But discomfort can precede discovery. Civility must be modeled; its shape, too, will be debated.

William Wilberforce, who is well known for his work as an abolitionist, also founded The Society for the Suppression of Vice. In his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes of this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity, Wilberforce took it upon himself to criticize his fellow citizens and advocate not only the Christian faith, but the reformation of manners. He argued not only for religious reform and assent to certain Christian beliefs, but a different way of speaking, acting, and relating with others in society. His positions, no doubt, were debated fiercely!

As discomfiting as it may be, we are in a transitional moment, and old questions are being revisited in light of new problems and new technologies. Before we can reach a shared understanding of free speech, we must debate. Debates are often messy, until consensus emerges. And even when consensus is established, given enough time, the reasons the consensus was arrived upon will be forgotten, a challenging point of view will emerge, and the debate will begin again. This is the cycle of human societies. We experience a crisis. We implement solutions. We enjoy a brief moment of stability. Then, we find, or create, a new crisis. Many new crises are old crises, experienced afresh by a new generation, demanding old wisdom be recovered and applied anew.

Spokespersons for Christ have a role to play in this conversation, not only as defenders of free speech, free expression, and, I would add, religious liberty, but also in advocating a way of life, a way of relating to others within the society. We must reject what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. We must protect the speech rights of others, even if we disagree. But if we disagree, we must offer counter-arguments with respect to what we believe is right toward the end of building a consensus view. These arguments will be offered in words, but also through lives testifying to another Lord and another way of life, and communities—churches—displaying redemption in effect, a foretaste of the world to come. And we must model the kind of civility, respect, long-suffering and patience that we would hope to find among those with whom we will disagree. We must not return evil for evil, but instead overcome evil with good, trusting that truth, ultimately, will prevail.

The Moral Significance of Having Children

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

The birthrate in the United States has hit its lowest level since 1979. Some chalk this up to the pandemic. But others speculate that “the economy, immigration rates and lacking pro-family policies are possible reasons.”

We’ve probably also heard silly statements similar to this one.

Economic conditions, lack of geographic stability/a shifting global population, environmental concerns, and government policy can affect family formation. But are these symptoms? Or is there a deeper malaise?

Is there some other reasons we do not wish to have children?

In A Community of Character, Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay, “The Moral Value of the Family, and said:

Like it or not, one of the most morally substantive things any of us ever has the opportunity to do is to have children. A child represents our willingness to go on in the face of difficulties, suffering, and the ambiguities of modern life and is thus our claim that we have something worthwhile to pass on. The refusal to have children can be an act of ultimate despair that masks the deepest kind of self-hate and disgust. Fear and rejection of parenthood, the tendency to view the family as nothing more than companionable marriage, and the understanding of marriage as one of a series of nonbinding commitments, are but indications that our society has a growing distrust of our ability to deal with the future.

Family formation is a moral responsibility, and it is a setting for significant moral formation. Hauerwas stresses the necessity of inter-generational ties, the importance of elderly persons in the lives of young parents and children, and the fact that families teach how to care for those we do not choose, “those we find ourselves joined to by accident of birth.” The family also teaches us how to practice hospitality and the welcome of the stranger, and through the telling of family stories we find ourselves incorporated into a history that preceded us, and that will continue beyond us. We are bound not only by birth, but by time.

Hauerwas challenges us to reclaim family formation and childbearing as a moral responsibility, where older parents pass on wisdom to younger parents, and where all family members pass on what is good and true about human existence to successive generations. Rather than passing off children to “experts,” it is time we care for children as families.

Hauerwas concludes the essay:

In closing, a brief mention of what I think religious faith has to do with marriage and the family. It is not merely that the Judeo-Christian tradition keeps people on the straight and narrow sexual path necessary to sustain marriage. On the contrary, I begin my classes on marriage with the observation that both Christianity and marriage teach us that life is not chiefly about ‘happiness.’ Rather, the Hebrew-Christian tradition helps sustain the virtue of hope in a world which rarely provides evidence that such hope is justified. There may be a secular analogue to such hope, but for those of us who identify with Judaism or Christianity, our continuing formation of families witnesses to our belief that the falseness of this world is finally bounded by a more profound truth.

Christianity provides a hope that goes beyond the state of the economy, the environment, migration concerns, or government policy. And, it provides the resources to help individuals work toward economic health and justice, creation care, stability and hospitality, and public policy that benefits the common good.

I have often reflected on the challenges of parenthood. Molly and I were not “ready” for children. I do not think anyone is ever “ready,” for even if we think we are “ready,” we will change. Our conditions will change. Speaking personally, part of the change rendered in me is the discovery of a love that binds and compels, that draws and drives, a deepening concern not first for my own interests, but for the interests of those who have been gifted into the world by God.

As Hauerwas observes, the world seldom provides reasons for “hope.” It is rather effective in providing reasons for despair. My hope, then, must be rooted elsewhere: in God and God’s coming future.

If you are considering marriage, be wise, firstly. But, I encourage you: get married. Make a commitment. With God’s help, keep it. And if you are married, even if you don’t think you are “ready,” please be open to welcoming a child into the world. Why? Because, with God, we have an everlasting hope.

“20 to 30 a Day”

Let’s make that an average of twenty five per day. Let’s say he works five days each week. I’ll assume he takes two weeks of vacation each year. That’s still 6,250 abortions each year. By one “doctor.”

I’ll put aside the legal questions for the moment, and consider this only as a moral question. This is a horror. This is a horror not only because this individual is responsible for around 6,250 abortions each year. This is a horror because we live in a society where this is imaginable and, the reporting on this story is meant to shame pro life advocates, and that the tone is intended to evoke sympathy from those who consider abortion as mainly a legal question, rather than as a moral question. If you consider this as a moral question, even for a moment, then: revulsion.