In free speech debates, consider Christianity’s history of liberalism

A protester outside the US Supreme Court of Appeal objects to gay marriage. An incident at a Cape Town university has raised issues of religious freedom. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

There has been a flurry of condemnation in South Africa after the acting president of the University of Cape Town’s Student Representative Council declared her concern with same-sex marriage in a Facebook post.

Zizipho Pae has since been removed from her position and the university’s vice-chancellor has appealed for respectful debate about the matter.

Pae’s comments came after the United States’ Supreme Court of Appeal legalised marriage equality countrywide and nearly a decade after South Africa became the first country in Africa and the fifth in the world to legalise gay marriage through the Civil Union Act. It remains the only country on the continent that has granted this right.

But sentiment on the ground doesn’t entirely echo South Africa’s legislative stance through the Act and the country’s Constitution. Research conducted in 2013 shows that the majority of South Africans don’t believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.

Those who have condemned Pae’s statement have accused her of bigotry and hate speech. A group of students allegedly went to Pae’s student council office, tore down biblical passages she’d put up on her walls and replaced them with threatening messages. Her supporters say she is the victim of anti-Christian discrimination.

The reality of a pluralistic society is we will not always agree with each other’s views or convictions. But there must be a recognition of other people’s space to express their views. We also need to understand where these liberties - including freedom of speech - originated from.

Christianity itself was one of the key sources of liberal thought and practice that are championed by many universities today.

Christianity and liberal thought

It is acknowledged in political science that there are certain conducive conditions in which a liberal democracy can arise and then endure. There must rule of law, favourable or at least improving socio-economic conditions and a democratic political culture.

It is my contention that our values and culture will determine how we behave, interact and what institutions we develop and regulate. Within the literature on political culture it has been widely recognised that Protestant Christianity was an instigator of liberal thought. On balance, it tended to bring liberty into the social, economic and political spheres of life.

Early Roman and Greek societies were centred on the assumption of inequality. The core institution was the family and the eldest male held absolute authority. Merchants, women, slaves and non-citizens were excluded from citizenship and similar rights. There was no recognition of common humanity or of the value of the individual.

The arrival of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the disciples stirred revolutionary thought. The idea that every person is equal in value, each made in the image of God - regardless of gender, economic status or ethnicity - ushered in a liberty which broke across all these social boundaries.

In his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber examines the spread of Christianity and the influence of the Reformation. He particularly explores the diffusion of the faith’s ethics of hard work, responsibility and the dignifying of all professions - even the mundane - which led to the spread of economic prosperity.

Many of the ideas of early writers on liberal thought, like John Locke and Hugo Grotius, were based on their religious convictions. In particular, Grotius introduced the idea of natural law – a moral law by which even legislators were bound, based on the moral thinking of how a person ought to be treated.

Later, missionaries travelled the world to spread the gospel. To do so, they translated the Bible into scores of vernacular languages. In some cases they codified indigenous languages for the first time - in South Africa, these included Sesotho, isiZulu and isiXhosa.

They also established schools, which promoted the spread of education. Until 1960 many black South Africans were educated in missionary schools at a time when government schools deliberately provided inferior schooling to its black citizens. A number of men who rose to lead the now governing African National Congress were educated at mission schools.

They also contributed to the growth of the printing press.

More recently, political scientist Robert D Woodberry has argued and statistically shown that Protestant missionaries were a

crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organisations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.

Engage, don’t punish

How ought her detractors to have responded to Zizipho Pae’s comment on Facebook? For starters, they should acknowledge that she made the comment on a personal rather than a professional platform.

Secondly, it’s necessary to understand that the comment was based on her own faith and religious convictions. She referred to “sin”, a Christian principle that is drawn from the Bible.

Finally, it’s important to recognise that tolerance doesn’t mean we will like what others say - but we should give them the freedom to say it. People should, of course, respond and engage, but not punish Pae for her religious convictions.

Oxford University professor Larry Siedentop, in his book Inventing the Individual, warns:

We are in danger of taking this primacy of the individual as something ‘obvious’… something guaranteed by things outside ourselves rather than by historical convictions and struggle.

He’s right: when you attack one person for their faith, you risk overlooking all the good which has been done by that faith more broadly.

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