Intellectual Freedom and Resurgent Censorship

At Fresno State, we recently hosted a discussion of book banning with Professor Emily JM Knox, who presented a compelling case for the need to think critically about resurgent censorship. Professor Knox discussed efforts to remove, restrict, redact, and relocate books in libraries. She has made similar points in Congressional testimony in September, 2023, where she reiterated ideas found in her book, Foundations of Intellectual Freedom.

Here in Fresno County, county libraries are restricting access to certain books, that as a Count Board resolution states “contain sexual writings, sexual references, sexual images, gender-identity content, and other sexual content or content deemed age-inappropriate.” This effort prompted the Freedom to Read Foundation, the ACLU, and others to write a strongly worded letter opposing the plan.  That letter stated that the rule would violate the First Amendment and “impose an unlawful and invasive censorship regime on the constitutional right to access library books.”

The effort to balance freedom of thought with the desire to protect young people from harm is a legitimate conflict of values. There are well-meaning people on both sides of this debate. First Amendment rights are fundamental to an open society. And yet, there may be good reasons to restrict the liberty of children. We do not allow kids to buy alcohol, firearms, or pornography, or hang out in bars. But there are always risks when limiting liberty, and critics of censorship fear a slippery slope toward other restrictions of freedom of thought.

This issue seems to breed polarization. Some book ban proponents are conservative reactionaries, unhappy with society’s permissive views of gender and sexuality. A similar kind of “anti-woke” conservatism inspires those who want to ban books that discuss critical race theory. Meanwhile, the liberal critics of the anti-woke movement describe it as a war on truth and a war on black history. Liberals tend see censorship of sexual content as prudish, bigoted, intolerant, and closed-minded. But right-wingers claim that those liberals are anti-American “groomers” intent on destroying civilization. And so it goes in a polarized culture, where it is increasingly difficult to find common ground. 

For my part, I am worried about a slippery slope toward broader censorship and authoritarianism. The new censorship must be understood in connection with dangerous nonsense about ‘fake news’ and the press as ‘the enemy of the people’ (as I have described in my book on Trump and tyranny).

History provides some warnings. Censorship has occurred throughout American history. In one of my first publications, I discussed the Kansas state school board’s ban on the teaching of evolution, which occurred in the 1990’s. Given this bit of recent history and the rise of Christian nationalist ideology, we ought to be worried about resurgent censorship. 

Authoritarian political movements generally want to limit liberty. This is not a partisan issue. Although recent cases, and the Kansas evolution case, involve right-wing censorship, left-wing causes can also employ authoritarian tactics. Mao Tse-Tung once said that more books you read, the stupider you become.  During Mao’s Cultural Revolution books were burned. More recently, Chinese Communists have staged book burnings as the Party seeks tighter ideological control.

The antidote for this is to remain committed to the fundamental value of free, open, and critical inquiry. Philosophers have defended intellectual freedom, ever since Socrates was executed for asking critical questions. Philosophers think that persuasion is superior to coercion. We think that good ideas can defend themselves without the need for censorship. There may be, in some cases, a need to protect children. But in the long run, the best way to protect both truth and democracy is to affirm the importance of a broad conception of intellectual freedom. 

In my paper on the Kansas school board’s ban on evolution, I turned to one of America’s great philosophers, John Dewey, for inspiration. Dewey was a staunch defender of open inquiry and democracy. In conclusion, I want to share a couple of sentences from an essay on Intellectual Freedom written by Dewey during his visit to China over a hundred years ago:

A dictatorship can endure only when its people are denied the freedom to think, to speak, and to publish freely; to state the converse, the enjoyment of intellectual freedom would guarantee the overthrow of the dictatorship…. Freedom of intellectual life is not only indispensable to a democratic society, but is also the most greatly feared threat to a dictatorial government. In fact, we can say that this freedom is a necessary condition to human progress.

The Wrath of God and the U.S. Constitution

Fresno Bee, March 10, 2024

Alabama has crafted legislation that will allow in vitro fertilization (IVF) to commence again, in response to a February ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court that shut it down. That’s promising for folks who want to use IVF technology to become parents.

But the court’s reasoning reminds us of the need to reaffirm the basic idea of separation of church and state.

In his concurring decision, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme, Tom Parker, cited the Bible, as well as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and other Christian theologians to support his claim that “all human beings bear God’s image from the moment of conception.”

He concluded, “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” And “Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Some Christians will agree. Various Christian communities, including the Roman Catholic church, teach that IVF is wrong, along with abortion. One concern is that IVF results in extra embryos, what the Alabama high court called “extrauterine children.” If they are destroyed, the court suggests that this is murder.

IVF also violates “natural law” teaching about sexual reproduction. Natural law ethics holds that reproduction should only occur within loving, conjugal relations. But IVF involves masturbation and technological manipulation that supposedly violates the nature of sex, love and procreation.

Of course, not every Christian agrees with this moral analysis. Christians are not universally opposed to the procreative use of technology. Nor is every Christian opposed to masturbation, abortion or to methods of birth control that prevent fertilized embryos from implanting in the uterus.

Christians don’t all agree that life begins at conception. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas himself claimed, following Aristotle, that the soul is only present in the embryo at 40 days (for male children) and at 90 days for females.

The world’s diverse religious traditions teach different things about sex, genetic humanity and human reproduction. There is also a sizable and growing number of nonreligious Americans who don’t accept natural law ethics or the idea of a wrathful God.

That’s why invoking the wrath of God in a legal argument seems astonishingly un-American. The American government is the result of a social contract. It is a grand compromise created by “We, the people.”

Moreover, the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right to religious liberty while prohibiting the establishment of an official state religion. The only other mention of religion in the Constitution is found in Article VI, where religious tests for office are prohibited.

But in Alabama things seem otherwise. In a recent interview, Chief Justice Parker said, “God created government.” The founders would disagree. They viewed the government as the result of a social compact that aimed to produce domestic tranquility. John Adams said that the American states were “founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.”

One important reason to reject Chief Justice Parker’s theopolitics is the fact of religious diversity. This diversity includes a wide variety of Christian faiths. Adams himself had unconventional religious beliefs. He did not accept the doctrine of the trinity and was doubtful about the divinity of Christ. In a letter to his son, he claimed that the idea of an “incarnate God” had “stupefied the Christian world.”

Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries disagreed about religion. These days, Christians disagree about whether “extrauterine children” bear God’s image. And even in Alabama there are non-Christians. According to the Pew Center, 1 % of Alabamans belong to non-Christian faiths and 12% are non-religious. So, it is bizarre to claim, as Justice Parker did, that “the theologically based view of the sanctity of life” ought to guide the law of the land. This is a religiously diverse nation.

The founding social contract created a secular democracy that guarantees religious liberty and seeks to prevent the creation of an established state religion. This idea allows Christians to follow their consciences with regard to IVF, sex, abortion, and everything else. It also ought to prevent the government from imposing a religious doctrine on any one of us.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article286440505.html#storylink=cpy

Religious liberty, atheism, and the question of faith

Fresno Bee, July 30, 2023

The atheists are coming out the closet.  A new Gallup poll shows that 12% of Americans don’t believe in God. Only 74% of Americans say they do believe in God. The other 14% are not sure. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God, and the atheists and agnostics only made up 10%. 

The Pew Research Center published a report last year suggesting that in a couple of generations about half of the population will be non-religious and Christianity will be a minority religion. Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal poll found that only 39% of Americans said that religion was “very important” to them. That was down from 62% in 1998.

This radical shift in American values helps explain the Christian nationalist backlash among those who want to make American Christian again. As Christianity loses its dominance, it is understandable that some Christians want to demand that the U.S. be a Christian nation. But the idea of forcing religion on people seems doomed to fail in the modern world. The First Amendment to the Constitution prevents the establishment of any religion. It also guarantees the free exercise of religion.

Religious liberty means that individuals are free to choose their faith. This idea is deeply rooted in a modern understanding of religious belief. Modern thinkers tend to agree that external conformity to religious rituals is not sufficient for genuine faith. Rather, faith is thought to require consent and subjective commitment. 

In the late 1600’s, the British philosopher John Locke said, “All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.” He suggested that people may go through the motions of religious life without genuine belief. But external conformity is not real faith. That’s why trying to use violence, force, or law to establish religious conformity is wrongheaded. Locke famously said that with regard to religion, “all force and compulsion are to be forborn.” In fact, Locke suggested that external conformity breeds hypocrisy. 

Locke’s writings on government and religion had a profound influence on the American Founders, as I noted in a column earlier this month. The Declaration of Independence appealed to Locke’s idea of a right to revolution. And his thinking about religion appears to undergird the view of religious liberty found in the First Amendment. 

Again, the issue is that when people are forced to go through the motions of faith because they fear punishment or social disapproval, they simply become liars and phonies, lacking in authenticity. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard made this a central theme of his work in the 19th Century. Kierkegaard understood faith as an inward or subjective experience. For Kierkegaard, faith was a passionate existential commitment. Kierkegaard was also critical of the hypocritical conformity of those who simply go through the motions of faith. 

According to this modern understanding of faith, your religion is not about your ethnicity or your family identity. Nor is it a matter of which church you grew up in, or which Bible you have on your bookshelf. Nor is faith about what you wear, what you eat, or which holidays you celebrate. Rather, faith is about what you freely choose to believe in the depth of your soul and with the whole of your mind.

With this on the table, let’s reconsider the rise of atheism and agnosticism. If people don’t believe in God, isn’t it better that they are honest about that lack of belief? Do the Christian nationalists want atheists to just play along and pretend they believe? And if not, what would they propose to do about those who are not persuaded by the claims of Christianity?

It is best for people to be honest about what they believe or don’t believe. Only then can we have genuine and free conversations about faith. Of course, free and open conversations about faith may result in some people becoming atheists. But it’s better for people to make that choice freely than to try to enforce conformity and push nonbelievers back into the closet. The growth of disbelief is a sign of our liberty. It is also an opportunity for deeper discussions of faith, and of freedom. 

Faith, Freedom, and the First Amendment: Trump’s Proposed Ban on Socialists is Un-American

First Amendment

Fresno Bee, July 2, 2023

This past week, Donald Trump announced that if elected he will prevent “foreign Christian-hating communists, socialists and Marxists” from coming to the U.S. He also suggested he would do something about the un-Christian socialists who already live here. He asked, “What are we going to do with the ones that are already here, that grew up here? I think we have to pass a new law for them.”

The audience at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference cheered Trump’s speech. Which makes you wonder about the relationship between faith and freedom in America. Will Americans round up and expel communists, atheists, and others?

Or maybe we will divide the union by ideology. Florida Sen. Rick Scott posted a video warning socialists and communists to avoid “the free state of Florida.” He said, “If you’re thinking about coming to Florida and you’re a socialist or a communist, think twice. We like freedom, liberty, capitalism, things like that.”

This almost seems like a parody. And for those who study the history of ideas, it is absurd. Socialism is not anti-Christian or un-American.

There are important Christian socialists in the American tradition, including Francis Bellamy, a Baptist preacher who authored the Pledge of Allegiance. Bellamy’s original pledge did not, by the way, include the phrase “under God.” That phrase was added in the 1950s during another anti-communist era.

Christian socialists claim that Jesus was critical of the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of the poor. They cite passages in the Bible’s book of Acts, where early Christians sold their private property, lived communally, and distributed “to each as had any need.”

Of course, Christians disagree among themselves about this. Some Christians embrace socialism. Others preach the gospel of wealth. Some advocate for Christian nationalism. Others claim Christ was an anarchist.

Centuries ago, such disagreements would result in violence, as reformers were burned at the stake. We don’t do that anymore. Our secular system guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of thought.

An argument for secular tolerance can be traced to British philosopher John Locke. Locke thought that compulsion in religion was useless. Faith is internal and not subject to external authority. He said every man “has the supreme and absolute authority of judging for himself.”

Locke’s theory was limited in application. He did not extend toleration to atheists or Roman Catholics. A century after Locke, Americans like James Madison improved the idea and put it into the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents the political establishment of religion and guarantees the free exercise of faith.

This idea evolved to include toleration for Catholics, and non-Christians. Thomas Jefferson said that the state has no right over “conscience.” He explained, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Freedom of religion is linked to freedom of thought. The First Amendment also protects freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. Which takes us back to the question of banning socialists.

Would Trump’s proposed ban on socialists also ban their ideas? How would you prevent socialist ideas from being disseminated? Maybe we’d also need book bans as they do in “the free state of Florida.” Perhaps the Bible would be among those books.

Now Trump and Scott may suggest that socialists are somehow anti-American. But there is nothing more American than the First Amendment. Our Constitution allows us to argue, and think. Laws that target ideologies are un-American.

The assumption of our secular system is that the “free marketplace of ideas” is fundamental. That capitalist metaphor for freedom of thought means that if you disagree with an idea, you make an argument and let people decide for themselves. In this economy of thought, it is we, the people who sift and winnow ideas.

Sometimes bad arguments prevail in the short-term. But democracy rests upon the faith that good arguments ultimately defeat bad ones. The democratic faith believes that citizens are smart enough to discern right from wrong. It rests on the hope that citizens are wise enough to understand the difference between democratic freedom and dangerous demagoguery.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article276873328.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Liberty, Modesty, and The Morality Police

Fresno Bee, October 2, 2022

Morality is not external conformity. Let’s keep this in mind when thinking about recent protests in Iran against the “morality police.” Those protests broke out in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being detained by the morality police for wearing her hijab (a head covering) too loosely.

For Americans of the present generation, the notion of the morality police is hard to fathom. How strange that anyone cares whether women cover their hair.

Of course, societies have often attempted to control women’s lives, bodies, and sexuality. A hundred years ago in the United States, swimsuit police tried to prevent women from showing too much skin at the beach.

We’ve come a long way. Thanks to the secular principles found in the First Amendment, we are free to wear what we want. There is no morality police here because we view fashion as a form of free expression.

There are limits, of course. Schoolchildren are not free to wear pornographic or offensive T-shirts. Nudity is prohibited. And in a recent case out of Everett, Washington, the courts upheld a law prohibiting baristas at the Bikini Hut coffee shop from dressing like strippers. The Ninth Circuit Court drew a line at “pasties and a G-string” with your coffee.

But beyond those limits, our secular system holds that fashion, sex, and sexuality are private matters, not subject to policing. This is the result of a long struggle against a more restrictive worldview. And some Americans might prefer a return to modesty and conformity. Until recently, school districts prohibited girls from wearing tight leggings or yoga pants — including here in Clovis, which only changed its policy this year.

So, let’s not take the struggle for liberty and privacy for granted. It’s only been about 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned laws against sodomy, in Lawrence v. Texas. It’s only been seven years since Obergefell v. Hodges gave same sex couples the right to marry. And challenges remain. The court has called the idea of a “right to privacy” into question with the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

Behind these legal issues is a basic argument about the importance of liberty. This is related to a claim about the futility and absurdity of trying to police fashion, sex, and modesty.

Americans pledge allegiance to the idea of a country founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all. Liberty means that you can wear a hijab or a bikini. The choice is up to you.

And if I don’t like your choice, I can choose not to look. We forget this important point with regard to modesty. Rather than worrying about women flaunting their bodies, why don’t we insist that men stop ogling them?

There is no doubt that state power can dominate people. But police power does not actually create modesty or virtue. It is futile to use police power to enforce external conformity to norms of fashion, virtue, and modesty.

Clothing and hairstyles have nothing to do with the content of your character. It’s what’s inside your head and your heart that counts, not what you wear on the outside. That’s why the idea of fashion police is absurd. It is a meaningless exercise in enforcing conformity that is only skin deep.

Morality is simply not the kind of thing that results from the application of external force. The way to make people moral is to educate them, not to beat them into compliance. External force is useful for animals. We fence them in and leash them. But that’s not how you treat human beings.

Arresting people for what they wear (or don’t wear) also breeds discontent and further nonconformity. Women protested against the swimsuit police in the United States a hundred years ago. They are pushing the limit in the case of bikini baristas. And in Iran, women are burning their hijabs.

To force human beings to conform to some standard of modesty is degrading and ineffective. Secular systems of law respect our freedom to decide for ourselves about what we believe about modesty and how we adorn our bodies. This approach is respectful of our humanity, our rationality and our liberty.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article266575386.html#storylink=cpy