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Blasphemy Laws and Modern Uber-Politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 20, 2012

The recent suggestion by both the Maronite Catholic Patriarch and four Anglican bishops from northern Africa that the United Nations should outlaw blasphemy is highly dubious. As the Anglican bishops put it, there should be an international policy “that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts, and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.”

We have plenty of evidence, from every corner of the world, that laws against blasphemy, however defined, can be used in a highly selective manner, depending on who is in power. Christians are all too familiar with the use of blasphemy laws against them by Islamic governments, but it may also be worth noting that while many other governments (including Western governments such as the US government) are unconcerned about blasphemy proper, they tend to come down very hard on certain kinds of political mockery or intemperate political speech. It seems that lèse majesté is alive and well in our world. It is not quite the same thing, but it is worth reflection.

In any case, legitimate enforcement is problematic. What is the line between “insult” or “mockery” and insistence on uncomfortable facts? For example, Muhammad may not have been a pedophile but the historical evidence is quite clear that he consummated a “marriage” with a nine year old girl. Luther may not have been driven to rebellion against the Church by vice, but he did have a relationship with a nun. And what about opinion? Some commentator may really believe that Jesus was mad rather than inspired. These assertions may or may not be intended as insult or mockery. But they may be taken that way no matter how intended.

In the absence of an easy way to distinguish between a scurrilous attack and an honest opinion, or between an insult and a historical claim, it is hard to separate the problem of civility from the problem of truth. It is beyond the competence of the State to determine which religions merit what kind of respect, and it would be passing strange if every crack-brained religious idea were suddenly protected against well-placed jabs. Here again, it is often beyond human competence generally to distinguish ill-intentioned mockery from mere polemics.

Christians have generally learned to live with these problems. In fact, thanksgiving for insults is actually a part of the Christian territory. In practice, the greatest inequities tend to occur when insults are sanctioned or encouraged by the State—or, as will inevitably be the case, selectively discouraged. There is a legitimate recognition in these requests to the UN of the deep place of religion in the hearts of believers, and the need to respect religious beliefs in the interests of peace and security. But if someone makes a heated public or private argument that a particular religious belief is wrong, construing that as mockery punishable by law is exceedingly dangerous. Christians should be very slow to ask the State or the Uber-State to protect their own religious feelings, or religious feelings in general.

Making a point of publicly trashing religious objects or attempting to incite people to violence against a religious group could easily be prosecuted under laws which have nothing to do with religion but are designed to preserve the peace and protect all citizens from harm. Obviously, such laws ought to be enforced in an even-handed way. In communities in which religious feeling runs particularly high—and may be untempered by long-familiarity with pluralism—it is obvious that authorities ought to be particularly sensitive to those counter-activities which might lead to violence. Legally preventing people from pressing a verbal or symbolic attack in a volatile situation is very different from punishing them for daring to hold and express contrarian views.

On the other hand, let us not forget that punishing those who engage in physical violence against advocates of a contrary religious view is a primary responsibility of civil government. One can go only so far in attempting to defuse a volatile situation before the fact. After some act of physical assault occurs, the perpetrators must be apprehended and punished—and people ought to be taught, by both good laws and their prompt enforcement, that there are limits on even majoritarian behavior.

Unfortunately, almost everything related to social cohesion requires advertence to a standard of justice which is outside of and higher than the State. Otherwise we will constantly be faced with governments which determine what is offensive on the basis of what the governing class finds offensive. In our day, under the reign of legal positivism, the natural law has been banished from politics. All too often, governing elites find it impossible to imagine that right-thinking people should find certain kinds of mockery offensive, since they find the object of the mockery to be utterly without merit themselves. Thus “stupid” or “unenlightened” beliefs are always fair game, and mockery of the “right” things is viewed as mere common sense.

The day is long past when Western secular governments, including the apparatus of the UN, which for so long lived off the capital of Christian moral ideals, can be relied upon to treat any religion as worthy of respect. This is particularly true of Christianity, which modern secular governments are still attempting to flee. In this context, it is almost unimaginably foolish to look to either the State or the Uber-State as the friend and protector of religious sensibilities generally. For a deliberately secular politics, the higher the level of government, the worse this problem becomes. It is hard to imagine a less competent authority in religious matters than the United Nations.

That anyone should want to bestow the power of adjudication in religious disputes to the modern State is, it seems to me, ludicrous on its face. The very idea reminds me of this Scriptural passage:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation. (Mt 12:43-45)

If anything made in the image of the modern State sweeps the house clean, then the house will be left empty indeed. Who will protect us from the many evil spirits which, vulture-like, will come home to roost?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 24, 2016 7:34 AM ET USA

    Agreed. The Letter contains no harping, no activism, no political overtones, no condemnations, no glancing blows, and no threats. It is a welcome spiritual work that convinces with gentleness and truth, reflecting the hope that resides inside all who believe in and seek after the one, true God. It trusts that this God will reward those who pursue Him and that He will never leave us wayfarers without an ultimate destination towards Him and the communion of saints who always draw near to Him.

  • Posted by: benniep5 - Sep. 20, 2012 6:59 PM ET USA

    Amen, to protect Freedom of Religion we must protect Freedom of Speech, laws againest blasphemy can also outlaw evangelism, in fact under "Sharia Law" in many countries preaching the gospel is considered blasphemy, follow this link for an example of what I say, ...any such laws would be used against the freedom religion .... its a trap we need not to fall for..