In every ordered and civilized society the rule of law plays an essential role. Given that human nature is too often selfish and sometimes even cruel, laws are enacted to declare the boundaries between right and wrong. Laws form the lens through which society views the actions of those individuals who choose to live in the group.
You will notice that I said the “actions” of those in the group. Yet, today we are increasingly aware that not only actions but thoughts are becoming the stuff of prohibition. The question presents itself: If you think in a way that others dislike, but your behavior aligns with what the law prescribes, must you be punished?
For example, let’s say you disagree with the 55mph speed limit on the freeway. You think it is archaic given the speed and safety of new vehicles, and fervently believe the limit should be raised. Or maybe you think the government has no right to impose limits in the first place. Regardless of your view, I believe that if you drive within the speed limit you should not be penalized. Actions, not thoughts, must be the focus of legal restrictions. Thoughts must not be policed, even if expressed, if there is no corresponding illegal action.
Freedom of thought lies at the base of freedom of expression. When the framers of our Constitution imbedded in that document the freedom for Americans to think and say what they wanted to, regardless its offensive nature, they were reacting against the totalitarian governments of the past who denied their subjects that freedom. It is this freedom that has given life and breath to the American experiment, and made our country the place people from all over the world are anxious to enter. You can tell a good country from a bad one by whether folks are trying to come in or get out. One good thing about the flood of immigrants entering this land is what their passion to become Americans says about the greatness of our country. But, sadly, you and I have front row seats on a monumental change in our freedom.
We are now seeing men and women forced from their positions because of their opinions rather than their actions. And while the recent number of high profile corporate and industrial leaders has garnered media attention, it is almost certain those with politically incorrect opinions at lower levels are being turned out as well, without fanfare.
Now please understand. I believe many opinions are downright wrong, disrespectful, and even dangerous. I have mine, and you have yours, and we may never agree. But it has always been a standard American sentiment that
“I may disagree with you vehemently, and fight against your position aggressively, but I will also fight for your right to hold and express your opinion in this land.”
Over my years in corporate, academic, and church settings I have often been part of groups tasked with making decisions. I have noticed is that stifling debate also stifles creativity and progress. In situations where only one opinion is allowed, so much else suffers, but in society the first victim is freedom.
As a theologian and pastor I often hear from those who oppose me. And while I may disagree with their positions, their arguments have often caused me to go back and re-think mine. Either I become more assured as a result of re-examining the evidence, or I come to better my own position by making need adjustments. Either way I am better off!
My plea is that you would not be sucked in by the current sentiment that we all have to think alike, and that the expression of negative opinions needs to be severely punished. Actions, not thoughts, are to be the focus of law, even those public mores that remain unwritten. Without freedom of thought you cannot have freedom of speech.
And without freedom of speech America will cease to be special, a shinning light on the hill of civilization.
Guest writer, David Hegg is a senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in the Northern Los Angeles county area