Crimes of the Mind

Years ago I traveled to the Netherlands on a book tour for my novels. A well-known cartoonist had recently been arrested there and his computer seized by Dutch police because he had published a cartoon criticizing Islam. He had also criticized Christians, but those cartoons never sparked action.

Such shocking disparity exposes the problem with hate-crime laws: Under the guise of enforcing high-minded civility and tolerance, they club to death ideas that are deemed politically incorrect. They are an insidious menace to free speech. And they may be heading to a community near you.

In 2009 President Obama signed into law the first federal hate-crime law that threatens to imprison people whose illegal acts are found to be motivated by opposition to someone’s sexual orientation or religion. I have been tracking the handling of this new law, and there are subtle signs that future prosecution of people of faith may be on the horizon.

The hate-crimes approach, which targets disfavored ideas, is part of an increasing global trend. In Denmark a Danish-Iranian artist was recently convicted for condemning Islam as “misogynist.” In December, Danish-Palestinian poet Yahya Hassan was charged criminally for criticizing Islam under the same Danish penal code, which outlaws any “communication by which a group of persons are…insulted or denigrated due to…religion.”

Closer to home, instances in Canada of anti-Christian prosecutions based entirely on the expression of disfavored ideas have practically become legendary.

Although the U.S. government has stopped short of criminalizing “pure speech” simply because the ideas are unpopular, my review of nations that pass hate-crime laws indicates that such laws inevitably morph into prosecution of “hate speech.”

Since the passage of America’s hate-crime law, we have seen an increasingly vicious intolerance of otherwise lawful and responsible ideas simply because they are denominated as “hate.” Facebook, Google, and Apple have all adopted prohibitions against hate speech and removed certain conservative and Christian comments from their sites.

The left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has published its list of “hate groups” and cited legitimate Christian advocacy organizations like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association. Some government officials even rely on that list. The problem has become so widespread that I founded the John Milton Project for Free Speech, a venture of the National Religious Broadcasters.

In the waning weeks of 2013, the Duck Dynasty scandal broke, illustrating again the intolerance toward orthodox Christian ideas. Citing the Bible, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson voiced his support for traditional marriage and his opposition to homosexuality.

His comments went viral, and gay-rights groups protested. So A&E, the channel that airs the family-friendly (and decidedly conservative) program, banned Robertson from the show. Because the backlash against A&E was fast and furious, the network relented and negotiated Robertson’s apparent return. Yet the incident proves the willingness of powerful entertainment moguls to submit to dissenters whenever they cry “hate” against Christians.

This chilling effect against both free speech and religious liberty is exacerbated by the fact that charges of hate can be exaggerated and fabricated. In December, reports of phony hate crimes rose to a fevered pitch. In a December 26, 2013, article in The Daily Caller, “Report: Man falsified police report in alleged anti-gay attack,” reporter Chuck Ross wrote, “This marks a long list of hate crime hoaxes over the past year.”

It should come as no surprise, though, why allegations of hate so quickly shoot to the top of the headlines or why hate-crime charges have grown into such a powerful instrument to suppress free speech. The debate of ideas apparently has undergone a tragic paradigm shift of epic proportions: Instead of debating the merits of an idea, people prefer to express outrage over how they feel about ideas they disagree with. Protest against perceived hate has replaced rational dialogue. Subjective feelings have transcended objective discussions about truth.

But I still harbor hope. Here in America, there still may be time to stem the tide of intellectual and moral anarchy. However, it will require us to know what we believe; why we believe it; and then to make the loving, compelling case for it, even while our opponents rage against us and call us “haters.”

How, exactly, do we do that? We don’t need to look far. The Lord Jesus—reviled, persecuted, tortured, and crucified, yet all the while speaking the truth in love—gave us the perfect role model.

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