“Give me Liberty or Give me Death!” During a speech to the 1775 Virginia convention, Patrick Henry makes this pronouncement to galvanized Virginians to commit troops to the Revolutionary War. This rallying cry represents a central description of American longing for freedom. In the past six months, this slogan reappeared in a very different context, namely on the signs and cries of protests over the various measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These new protests, on Capitol Hill and on social media, argue that freedom for unrestricted assembly amid COVID-19 mirrors Henry’s initial concern and know the constitution protects their protests under the exercise of freedom of speech. By exercising their freedom of speech, Americans hope to galvanize their representatives to reverse the protective state and federal measures in place. Though protected by the first amendment and in some cases expressing genuine concern (e.g., loss of wages, resistance to masks due to sexual trauma), their freedom risks deafness to those most vulnerable to the virus itself who might be unwittingly exposed to illness and death. Is this a good use of one’s liberty and freedom of speech? If freedom of speech can be an instrument of death, can it be called good or free? What benefit would such speech provide?

Such questions prompt an exploration of the original intention of freedom of speech and a possible theological response. In the United States, freedom of speech emerged as a foundational principle for democracy to resist tyranny. A crucial architect for this principle was James Madison. He believed that speech formed an absolute limit on governmental tyranny because free speech formed public opinion. As a significant voice in the Bill of Rights construction, one can readily detect free speech’s importance as it exists central to the first amendment. He writes in the National Gazette in December 1791, “Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.”1 The right to free speech provides a truly public limit to the government by forming the people to challenge and change public discourse on any issue. 

Madison’s account of rights, theoretically, has no limit. One can say whatever they wish. However, this “freedom” remains a bedrock of democracy to preserve broad equity among people. Free speech leads to the most diverse democracy capable of comprehensive governance where individuals say what they please free from coercion and the threat of tyranny.

 This account of freedom leads to many problems. For example, during a March protest of the stay-at-home order in Columbus, OH, a protestor attending the rally brandished a sign bearing racial slurs and attacks. In response, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine denounced the sign and affirmed this person’s right through freedom of speech in the first amendment.2  The problem inherent in this example is that freedom of speech allows for all speech, including racist speech. To formulate an ideologically diverse populace, the founding fathers made it impossible to distinguish free speech and racist speech. Such a condition is truly tragic for our time and situation.

An answer to this vexed display of free speech lies in a Christian account of the good capable of ordering a genuinely free speech distinguishable from evil, vicious speech. For the Christian, free speech is not found in the ability to speak, but in the essence of freedom. As Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (Galatians 5:13, NRSV) Paul’s theological account of freedom orders speech toward the service of another. In Paul, freedom is not the ability to do or say whatever one would like, but it is instead freedom constrained by the limitation of something else. In fact, to call freedom good means recognizing that which chastens negative freedom. As Augustine writes,

The highest good, than which there is none higher, is God, and for this reason, he is the immutable good and therefore truly eternal and truly immortal…Christians worship God, from whom all goods come, whether great or small, from whom all limit comes, whether great or small, from whom all form comes, whether great or small, and from whom all order comes, whether great or small. For it is certainly the case that all things are better to the extent that they are more limited, formed, and ordered.3

God alone is the eternal good capable of ordering, forming, and limiting our goods and freedom, which find their meaning in God. Freedom in speech, if it is to be good, must be formed by this reality.

Augustine and Paul’s theologically robust account of the good presses on Madison’s version of freedom. Freedom is not good when it is free from coercion but must be formed, ordered, and limited by God, who is good to speak the good. This is because freedom, properly understood, recognizes proper limits. The type of negative freedom from coercion envisioned in the modern account is a fiction. As theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “A choice made without rationale is a contradiction in terms. At the same time, any movement of the will prompted by an entirely perverse rationale would be, by definition, wholly irrational – insane, that is to say – and therefore no more truly free than a psychotic episode.”4 True freedom is not freedom from rationality, which is impossible. Instead, freedom lies in rationality that forms, limits, and orders our freedom. As Hart continues, “freedom consists in the realization of a complex nature in its own proper good… freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree.”5  Like the addict who chooses their addiction, humans are not free in their ability to choose evil. Instead, they are only free in their ability to good for which they are intended. Thus, humanity should not assume the presence of free speech when it willfully speaks evil just because it can, but only when it can express the good.

The question then becomes, how does one adjudicate between good and evil speech? For Christians, the difference becomes apparent in a speech order to the pattern of cross and resurrection. Karl Barth provides a helpful clarification for Christians on this distinction as couched in God’s interactions with humanity. For Barth, the whole of history is simply “that God became, and was and is human. And it happened that God, as this human person, had no success; instead he had to suffer and die as a condemned criminal on the gallows.”6 Barth stipulates that the crucifixion, namely Christ as the humiliated outcast hanging from the gallows, names a central description of the good for Christian ethics. If God is the highest good that chastens human activity, then it is a crucified God that does so. The good is there hanging from the gallows in Golgotha.

Yet, Barth’s emphasis on the good brackets the Christian account of evil. Evil, in Barth’s terms, contradicts the content and action of the crucified savior.7 Furthermore, Barth tempers Christian action with the form of Christ crucified.8 This is God in history and, thus, the moral norm of action must be attentive to and in respect of the crucified.

To this end, Barth also specifies the shape of a crucified free speech. It is to “repeat the summons to be humane.”9 In short, Christian ethics is the work of humanization. The cross opens the way to humanization by centralizing the crucified among us today. The good of Christian ethics serves this end. Therefore, according to Barth, the Christian tradition enables the ability to distinguish between a truly good speech and evil speech, and thus genuinely free speech. In short, free speech ordered to the good is one that humanizes the crucified of the world. 

The crucified pattern provides a means to adjudicate between these claims to the good to promote virtuous speech against vicious speech. However, it is essential to clarify how this speech contributes to the public good in solidarity with the crucified. To this end, I turn to Thomas Aquinas’s account of law. Free speech does not exist abstracted from the common good, and thus free speech, even in its theological emphasis, must contribute here. Therefore, one must treat free speech in a similar way to law. As Thomas argues, human law exists as a means to serve the common good of the human community.10 The common good is not ordered to private self-indulgence but only to the flourishing of all citizens. If free speech is virtuous, then its telos must lie here. However, genuine human flourishing, for Thomas, means happiness. He continues, “Since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must regard properly the relationship to universal happiness.”11 Laws and speech must relate humanity to its perfect, communal goal in happiness and perfection.

Happiness and perfection are not merely pleasurable states of mind for Thomas. He quickly states that happiness is not tied to wealth or money. This does not mean that Thomas dismisses the “goods” of work. Instead, Thomas argues that financial means can provide “food, drink, clothing, cars, dwelling.”12 These goods are not the chief good or final good toward which laws and free speech must be directed. Instead, Thomas argues that “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”13 As one freed to speak, one must keep this good in mind as one’s proper end.

Happiness, then, is eschatological. The fullness of a speech formed in the pattern of crucifixion is that the Christ crucified is also raised. Crucified speech orders itself toward resurrection, which enables true freedom. The full participation in the Divine Essence will only occur in the resurrection of the dead. However, an earthly, coordinated happiness through participation in the Divine Essence can emerge in this life. This happiness occurs through the practice of virtue because happiness “is the reward of virtue.”14 In his defense, Thomas summons the lives of the saints as examples: “The reward promised to the saints is not only that they shall see and enjoy God, but also that their bodies shall be well-disposed…Therefore good disposition of the body is necessary for Happiness.”15 Embodied life and its flourishing exist central to the formation of virtue, which includes how the body purifies itself to see God (Matthew 5:8). In this life, purification through virtue enables an approximate happiness in the body now that will be attained fully in the age to come (1 Corinthians 15:25-49). However, the attainment of virtue requires the body and bodily health (i.e., the body’s good disposition). Therefore, Thomas directs our attention to one truth: happiness for the community summons bodies, in the fullness of their bodily well-being, to practice virtue so that they can participate in the vision of God with great emphasis on the crucified in community.

In sum, free speech must follow the same logic of happiness and crucifixion. Free speech must encourage the preservation of bodily life, humanizing the crucified, and flourishing for the community to practice virtue. One cannot separate humanization and the encouragement of bodily integrity from the aims of free speech—freedom to speak means freedom to express the good with the crucified among us. Furthermore, Thomas helps readers see that the good of free speech, as with the good of law, profoundly encourages all community members’ bodily integrity. The advantage of such an account yields a community capable of virtue, and thus speech because virtue requires the body. In order words, only when the community recognizes the central role of bodily health and well-being can a community capable of virtuous free speech emerge.

Free speech, then, is essentially an act of solidarity. It is speech order to the crucified through humanizing words as an echo of God’s humanizing work. One of the original intentions for free speech in American democracy was the elevation of minority groups. However, free speech is often used as an excuse to further demean the bodily integrity of minority groups in all forms. Oppression prevents bodily participation in virtuous living and flourishing through a lack of power and health. Protests by oppressed groups (e.g., Black Lives Matter), instead of oppressive complaints, illustrate free speech as a public virtue because the former orients its speech toward bodily flourishing and happiness. This requires a nuance not available in public discourse. In the Christian sense, free speech means promoting the health of those most impacted by COVID-19, but also the ability to say Black Lives Matter and name that there are those, due to sexual assault, who struggle to wear masks.16 When the Christian community adopts a theologically robust account of free speech, as expressed here, onlookers can recognize the difference between crucified virtuous speech oriented to bodily integrity and oppressive speech that often expresses only a privileged inconvenience and racism. Thus, genuinely free speech joins in solidarity with the voices of the oppressed that already cry out.

The Christian community must respond to those who mourn COVID-19 measures that this earthly journey is, in fact, not a race. Instead, if happiness and flourishing require an eschatological imagination, then the appropriate analogy for earthly time is a pilgrimage. As Pope Francis recently stated, the free speech of the community must recognize that the “true pilgrim goes at the speed of the slowest person."17  A pilgrim knows that they travel with companions at different speeds, and the journey is not an opportunity for self-indulgence. Free speech, then, is solidarity with those on the journey.  

Photo Attribution: GoToVan from Vancouver, Canada / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

  1. James Madison, “Public Opinion” National Gazette. December 19, 1791. Accessed online 4/26/20. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0145.
  2. Meghan Roos, “Ohio Governor Condemns ‘Disgusting’ Anti-Semitic Sign at Coronavirus Lockdown Protest,” Newsweek. 4/23/20.  https://www.newsweek.com/ohio-governor-condemns-disgusting-anti-semitic-sign-coronavirus-lockdown-protest-1499796.
  3. Augustine, “The Nature of the Good,” The Manichean Debate. The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Ed. Boniface Ramsey. (New York: New City Press. 2006), 325.
  4. David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2019), 40.
  5. Ibid., 182.
  6. This quote comes from Matthew Frost’s unpublished translation Karl Barth, Zwei Vorträge, Theologische Existenz heute NF 3 (Munich: Chr Kaiser Verlag, 1946), 3-10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Pts. I-II. Q 90, Art 2, 994.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Pts. I-II. Q 2, Art 1, 589.
  13. Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Pts. I-II. Q 3, Art 7, 601.
  14. Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Pts. I-II. Q 4, Art 6, 607.
  15. Ibid.
  16. The nuance of a theologically robust account of free speech reveals itself here for victims of sexual assault. The goal of free speech names the complexity of moral convictions about the crucified among us. For more on masks and sexual assault, please read: Donna Ferguson, “Rape survivors say they are being stigmatized for not wearing masks,” August 10, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/aug/10/survivors-say-they-are-being-stigmatised-for-not-wearing-masks.
  17. Pope Francis, “Homily Luke 24: 13-35” Homily. Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral. Vatican City. April 26, 2020.

Hank Spaulding received his PhD in Christian Ethics from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the Associate Campus Pastor and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University as well as Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Ashland University and Ashland Theological Seminary. Hank is also author of The Just and Loving Gaze of God with Us: Paul’s Apocalyptic Political Theology which is available for purchase through book retailers.