Charlie, Christian, and the Bondage of Freedom

“[R]eligion is apt to provide another loyalty  than that claimed by the State . . . ”

        —T.S. Eliot

Two Muslims brutally murdered some French cartoonists for blaspheming their holy man.  Have we learned something new from this?

Yes, it turns out Muslims—the fundamentalist types, not many, but more than you’d think, although not the majority, but a significant number, in no way “all,” but in some sense “all”—don’t believe in free speech, although we Westerners today know that God wrote “Remember free speech to keep it holy” on tablets of stone, and emblazoned a desire for it onto all human hearts.  And free speech is, of course, the cornerstone of Western society (whatever that now is).  Ergo, the Muslims (some, not all, but a lot, though not too many) are attempting to destroy Western society, blasting away at its very foundation by silencing “journalists.”

Following the grim news in January that the foundation of our entire civilization had been threatened, it was not enough for us to denounce the evil that was the cold-blooded killing of mortal men, no matter what their line of work, by Muslim terrorists.  No, the nature of the crime behooved us to identify with the pornographers at the indefatigable French smut magazine Charlie Hebdo.  Conservatives naturally began with the caveat that we may find some of the products of their free speech—the ones that depict incest among the Holy Trinity, for example—to be distasteful.  (The pornographic depictions of Muhammad, on the other hand, qualified as “insults real or perceived,” according to one conservative writer.)  Yet even if you happened to find some of the journalistic enterprise of Charlie Hebdo to be distasteful, the argument went, you must nonetheless stand with Charlie Hebdo and say “I am Charlie Hebdo” in French, or at least find some way to express “solidarity with those dead journalists . . . ”

Ultimately, we were told that the Charlie Hebdo massacre teaches us the vital importance of pornographic insults, both to the Muslim god and to ours.  Celebrating shockingly dirty, blasphemous magazines is our way of standing fast in the liberty wherewith the Enlightenment has made us free.  How could we not identify personally with French cartoonists who depicted our Savior as a ravening sodomizer of His (and our) Heavenly Father?

One pauses to reflect on what it was that motivated David to take up his sling.

The killers of the staff of Charlie Hebdo executed their mini-jihad because of insults, obscene and perceived, to Muhammad.  Yet American conservatives cannot but think that this violence resulted from Muslims’ abstract dislike for free speech.  Indeed, they insist, it is because of Muslims’ illiberality that they must be fingered as the Big Threat to Western civilization.  Facing that Big Threat in the form of the Brothers Kouachi, National Review’s “the Editors” wrote that

[T]here is a very simple and obvious way to [respond]: Newspapers, magazines, webzines, blogs, and visual media should all publish not only the cartoons that originally appeared in Charlie Hebdo, but also those that appeared in Jyllands-Posten.  In other words, the murderers of today would achieve the opposite of their intention: They would resurrect the earlier “blasphemies” they believed they had effectively killed.

Will more of this sort of free speech somehow cure the jihadists’ feverish bloodlust?  Will it protect and keep safe the citizens of Western countries with large Muslim populations?  Or must we ignore these unpleasant realities, enduring whatever casualties may come, so long as “free speech” is fêted?  This is insanity.  It’s insane because it postulates that the only free society is one in which the people’s deepest-held convictions are publicly trampled:

Not that we favor blasphemy and promiscuous offense-giving (we abhor both in most circumstances), but they are essential as rights against other people’s certainties—and that in both directions.  The right to be offended is a guarantee of intellectual challenge and a promise of liberation from the prison of unconsidered opinion.  Paradoxical though it may sound, blasphemous or offensive speech is a God-given right.

Today’s Charlie Hebdo episode is yesterday’s The People vs. Larry Flynt, the American left’s celebration of transcendent porn for freedom’s sake.  In response to that film and its message, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg had previously written that

The argument from supposedly liberty-loving liberals goes like this: We protect “extreme” and unpopular speech because if that is safe, they’ll never get to our core liberties.  If they can ban trash, argue the slippery-slopers, what’s to stop them from banning criticism of politicians?

Goldberg also wrote that “the notion that smut is the canary in the coal mine of our liberties is a profoundly asinine and dangerous myth, and it may be costing us the things that really matter.”

I couldn’t agree more.  And yet we are now offered precisely the same argument from liberty-loving conservatives.  Out of the dankest clap-ridden cesspool of the Playboy Mansion’s grotto has crawled a dogma of conservative ideology, treated not as a pathological disease but as a divine blessing.

T.S. Eliot, in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, asks “whether any culture could come into being, or maintain itself, without a religious basis.”  Impossible, Eliot thought, because the “culture of a people” itself is “an incarnation of its religion.”  The two are difficult to distinguish.  Culture expresses religion in a social context, then turns around and influences it.  Religion guides culture, cultivating a vision of what is true in a particular people.  “[R]eligion,” writes Eliot, “while it lasts, and on its own level, gives an apparent meaning to life, provides the framework for a culture, and protects the mass of humanity from boredom and despair.”

Eliot here is talking not about Christianity in particular, but about religion in general, and his point is an historical fact: Every culture the world over has had its particular vision of transcendent reality, a guiding revelation, however heartily embraced at any particular moment, that imparts meaning to the lives and actions of its people.  Civilizations have flourished culturally under false religion, as ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome bear witness.  And as the Christian Faith has ebbed and flowed throughout various societies for two millennia, so too has the expression of it, the incarnation of it, in the people who have professed it—high or low, simple or decadent, depending on the earnestness of its embrace.

We know from whence the culture of jihad—the Kalashnikovs, the burqas, the cries of “Allahu akbar,” the ever-expanding sharia zones, the increasingly frequent incidents of violence—comes.

Whence the culture of “free speech” and Charlie Hebdo?

Only a society that has rejected Christianity can find such things as the right to “blasphemous or offensive speech” to be “God-given.”  This “right” is the product not of the Christian Faith but of Western liberalism.  Today, the false religion of Western liberalism is clashing with another false religion called Islam, because their people wish to occupy the same spaces.  Neither is tolerant of the other, and both are intolerant of Christianity.  One has Pussy Riot and Femen to desecrate churches, and the other has imams who preach murder in the name of Allah—and Kouachis to carry it out.

Western liberalism is not only a false but a pseudoreligion.  Its platitudes derive not from divine revelations real or imagined but from denatured Christian morality.  For centuries, the West has coasted on the fumes of biblical revelation and Christian doctrine, and now the tank is empty.  In Europe, the great church buildings are little more than tourist attractions, and in the United States they have increasingly become the strongholds of rainbow lesbians and social gospellers who cannot but praise Islam as a “religion of peace.”

No culture can long survive on the basis of Western liberalism.  Instead, the very ideology that demands abstract free speech with no divine revelation, even vestigially, to restrain it is the same ideology that cannot say no to Muslim invaders who wish to kill the purveyors of the sickest incarnations of free speech.  The West has sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.

A particular culture devoted to a particular religion can enshrine the “freedom of speech” because that religion guarantees that such freedom is not unfettered.  Certain blasphemies will not be tolerated.  Indeed, certain blasphemies are not tolerated in the post-Christian pseudoreligious West today: Engaging in “homophobic” speech, for example, makes one a candidate for open ridicule and discrimination, and is increasingly becoming a criminal offense.  But in pointing that out, we need not whine about the hypocrisy of it; absolute freedom of speech has never existed, anywhere.

Paradoxically, the phony insistence on tolerating open ridicule of all religion, that “sacred right” defended by today’s conservatives and yesterday’s liberals, is itself treated as the preaching of divine revelation.  It comes not from the delusions of Muhammad or the witness of the Apostles, but from the brilliance of the self-enlightened, philosophes from Voltaire to the Marquis de Sade, for whom inflicting pain was the purest pleasure, a symbolic gesture that represents the rejection of natural law and all traditional authorities.

At this writing, Saint Valentine’s Day approaches, and with it the nationwide release of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, a ham-fisted celebration of BDSM in which a woman chooses to be sexually abused by a “dom” named Christian in order to affirm her feminism.  Such unfettered freedom is no freedom at all, but only a willful bondage to the self-enlightened who hate Christianity and march in parades behind banners that read “Je suis Charlie.”

Aaron D. Wolf

Aaron D. Wolf

Aaron D. Wolf (1973-2019) was Chronicles' executive editor.  His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. He was a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) and The Paul Youngblood Show (, and has appeared on several other radio programs, including The Tom Clark Show (Wisconsin Public Radio) and Extension 720 With Milt Rosenberg (WGN).

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