It’s time the West admitted free speech is dead

September 7, 2023 in Columnists, News by RBN Staff


Source: The Telegraph


We are making terrible sacrifices in a futile attempt to safeguard every characteristic under the sun


Christianity is under attack, from China to Pakistan, but I want to consider a case closer to home to emphasise that religious liberty is vulnerable even where we complacently assume it is part of the culture. Let’s visit Finland.

Päivi Räsänen is a doctor, longstanding MP and former interior minister. In 2019, police opened an investigation into her for “incitement against a minority”. The accusation is based upon a tweet in which she asked why the Lutheran Church sponsored a Pride event; a debate in which she said God intends us to be straight; and a booklet she authored nearly 20 years ago that argued homosexuality is a developmental disorder.

The Finnish police concluded that no crime had been committed, but the prosecutor-general decided to charge her anyway. In 2022, Räsänen went to court: three judges, no jury, no witnesses and not even a victim to say they took offence. The judges decided in Räsänen’s favour; the prosecutor, who won’t take no for an answer, simply brought the case back via appeal. The second trial wrapped up last week, and if Räsänen is found guilty, she could technically face jail, though the prosecutor has opted for a fine.

According to Paul Coleman, the executive director of ADF International, a religious advocacy group that threw its weight behind Räsänen, the prosecutor opened by insisting that this case is not about theology: you can quote the Bible as much as you like, the issue is how you interpret it, and Räsänen had done so in such a way that caused harm.

By Coleman’s account, the trial then became very theological indeed, with undergraduate-level questions such as: “What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament? Why are some passages of the Bible interpreted literally?”

It’s this line of inquiry that I think establishes Räsänen’s story as a canary in a coal mine. Until now, progressives seemed content to try to separate religion from the public sphere. But here we witness an agent of the state taking a big step into the private sphere, seeking not only to silence a point of view but also to challenge its intellectual basis and refute it.

There’s no escaping the inquisition. Räsänen might evoke the defence that she hates sin but loves the sinner, but the prosecution stated that this isn’t good enough in a modern society. Calling actions a sin insults the people who do them, and given that one’s identity can be defined by acts, it amounts to an attack on their very being. One might reply that many Christians feel a calling to evangelise, so stopping them from performing that particular action threatens their identity, too. Thus we see the consequences of European countries passing well-intentioned equalities legislation that seeks to safeguard every characteristic under the sun. Sexual preference is protected; so is religious belief. But what happens when they come into conflict?

For a while, we muddled through this conundrum, turning a blind eye to what some Christians still believe and preach, but the Finnish prosecutor appears to have chosen a side. Their crusade is somewhat patronising, for it assumes that gays and lesbians are a vulnerable species, incapable of ignoring or contradicting an argument. A handful of them, of course, might quietly agree with Räsänen. It’s a modern conceit that our identities are perfect binaries between Left and Right, spiritual and secular, but you’ll find plenty of gay believers in the church pews.

It’s important to note that I don’t speak Finnish. The trial was under-reported, so my understanding of it relies heavily on the translations of the ADF, whose critics will insist it has made the case seem more significant than it really is. The judges initially found in favour of Räsänen, so what is there to worry about?

That the case was brought at all, I’d say. And that it fits a pattern. Here in the UK, a street preacher was arrested in 2019; this year, a Tory councillor says he lost his job after tweeting that pride is a sin (indeed it’s the sin that led to Satan’s rebellion and humanity being cast out of Eden). A different Tory councillor, Anthony Stevens, tweeted his sympathy for these people – and was in turn arrested for an alleged hate crime. Stevens did not appear publicly to endorse the theology of either man; he was standing up for their right to express it. Not to be able to say something is bad enough. Not to be able to say that someone should be able to say something is surreal.

The older I get, the more my view of human nature darkens. The classic liberal take is that we are inherently tolerant, that if we scrape away old ideas and customs, we’ll become a society that is free and peaceful. But the evidence of history and what is happening abroad in, say, Azerbaijan or Ukraine, suggests that human beings are very intolerant of each other – and it’s good culture and strong institutions, cultivated over centuries, that keep us from each other’s throats.

Today, the culture is decaying and institutions are being captured, and the assumptions upon which a delicate liberal order rested are gradually being forgotten. I was taught that I had no right to be protected from difficult ideas, that it was my responsibility to interrogate and challenge them.

By contrast, the Finnish prosecution reportedly said of one of Räsänen’s arguments: “The point isn’t whether it is true or not but that it is insulting.” How dumb, depressing and scary.