The terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo by Muslim extremists, motivated by disapproval of the French magazine’s habit of depicting the prophet Mohammed in cartoons, has created some strange bedfellows. The free speech fans of the left now find themselves being joined by the same conservatives who normally spend their time complaining about rap lyrics and Internet pornography but who suddenly find themselves to be free speech absolutists when the proponents of censorship are radical Muslims. Suddenly, the right not only will defend your right to offend others, but often argue it’s a moral duty.
Matthew Continetti of the National Review wrote, “I am buoyed by the spirit of defiance in the face of terror, and by the avowals of Enlightenment principles such as freedom of religion and speech and press.” Fox News’s Stuart Varney implied that President Obama didn’t go to the Paris marches because he hates free speech. Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote, “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”
Of course, Douthat, realizing his great affection for blasphemy will last only as long as needed to score this political point but wanting to reserve the right to denounce it when Christians are the ones being teased, tried to come up with an elaborate rationalization for why blasphemy is admirable when aimed at Islam but deplorable when the hurt feelings belong to Christians. It all goes to show how thoroughly phony this conservative enthusiasm for robust speech protections and a rowdy public discourse really is, because it will all be abandoned the second their own gods are mocked. Lest there be any doubt about that, here are some of the greatest hits of conservatives demanding censorship of what they believe are blasphemous messages.
1. TheSensationart show. In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art hosted a show of young artists called “Sensation.” One of the pieces in the exhibit, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, caused conservatives to go bananas, claiming it was a deliberate act of blasphemy that incorporated elephant dung in order to dishonor the Virgin. In reality, Ofili, himself a Catholic, intended no blasphemy and the painting was meant as a “a hip hop version” of traditional art depicting the Virgin. The elephant dung was simply incorporating an artistic medium Ofili picked up while traveling in Zimbabwe. (One suspects that what really set off critics was portraying the Virgin as black and the elephant dung aspect was opportunistically seized upon to stir outrage.) Cardinal John O’Connor played the victim during a sermon denouncing the painting, saying, “One must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church.”Mayor Rudy Giuliani invoked government force, threatening to shut the whole thing down. The Republican-controlled Congress did stop funding to the museum, but was stopped by a court order that rightfully pointed out this kind of censorship is forbidden by the Constitution.
2. Black Jesus. More recently, Aaron McGruder of Boondocks fame, helmed a show on the Cartoon Network titled Black Jesus depicting Jesus as a cheery stoner. Even though Eric Thrum of the AV Club described the show as “a low-key, ideologically family-friendly sitcom” that focuses on efforts to get a garden into Compton, conservative Christians threw a fit. One Million Moms and the American Family Association started petitions calling the show “blasphemy” and demanding that Cartoon Network shut it down. After admitting that the show was intended for adults and therefore supposedly outside of their protect-the-children beat, Monica Cole, director of One Million Moms, tried to justify the censorship effort anyway by saying it’s “extremely sad when mocking someone’s faith is someone’s entertainment.” Of course, that’s not what the show is doing, but as is typical with conservatives demanding censorship, actually understanding the object of their hate is not a requirement for hating it.
3. Much ado over wafers. In 2008, U. Central Florida student Webster Cook removed a wafer from a Catholic Church as a prank. People in the church tried to physically prevent Cook from absconding with the wafer and Catholic conservatives set new records in the art of overreacting by calling his action a “hate crime” and demanding that Cook be expelled from school for his act of blasphemy. The school declined, but the student government agreed to play its part in squelching the free expression of anti-religious sentiment by impeaching Cook from student government.
Angry at this act of childish bullying over what he described as a “frackin’ cracker,” biology professor and atheist writer PZ Myers asked people to send consecrated wafers to him so he could also blaspheme them and show that they are not magical items but just simple carbs. The anger then turned to Myers, with demands that he be fired for desecrating a cracker. Myers’ employer, the University of Minnesota Morris, declined to censor him. On July 24, 2008, Myers threw the wafer in the trash with pages of the Quran and The God Delusion, to show nothing is sacred. Neither God nor Allah nor Richard Dawkins has struck down Myers for his insolence.
4. Piss Christ. Artist Andres Serrano first displayed this piece, a photo that appears to be a picture of a crucifix submerged in urine, in 1989 as an act of devotion to Jesus Christ, as a way to remind the viewer of the bodily torment Jesus suffered during the crucifixion. But conservative Christians, always eager to believe themselves victims, have decided it’s blasphemy and have spent literally decades trying to censor it. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms used Christian paranoia over the piece as a pretext to attack art funding in general and the National Endowment of the Arts in particular, and Serrano lost his grant money. In the years since, whenever the piece is displayed, you can bet on the local Christian right doing everything they can to censor it, including Bill Donohue of the Catholic League having a meltdown in 2012 when an art gallery in Manhattan displayed it.
5. Conservatives attack John Edwards staffers. I had my own bizarre brush with censorship enthusiasts and blasphemy over-reactors in 2007, when a national campaign, started by Bill Donohue and carried on throughout the conservative media (including Fox News) demanded that I be fired from the John Edwards campaign for committing blasphemy on my personal blog. At issue was a joke suggesting that if the Virgin Mary had taken Plan B, misogynists would merely turn to another myth to justify themselves instead of Christianity. (They also attacked Melissa McEwan of Shakesville for being “potty-mouthed” in her criticisms of religious conservatives.) The denunciations and anger raged for weeks until McEwan and I resigned to end the ridiculous controversy.
To be perfectly fair, Donohue has been pretty consistent, releasing a victim-blaming statement denying that free speech rights should extend to blasphemers. But all the conservatives who were willing to play along with his crush-the-blasphemer antics when the blasphemers mocked Christianity are singing a different tune now, waxing poetic about the beauty of free speech and calling blasphemy brave. The double standard—brave if you blaspheme Islam, nasty if you mock Christianity—is breathtaking.
While the whole thing taught me that I’m better off as a writer than a campaigner, the larger lesson was that Christian conservatives are humorless and censorious when faced with mockery of their own faith. It’s surreal now to see the American right pose as if they have always supported those willing to tip sacred cows. In reality, they are swift to try to silence those who would ridicule their religious beliefs, or even, as some of these examples show, simply hold their beliefs up for examination. Luckily, Christian conservatives mostly turn to nonviolent means to silence their critics.
But don’t mistake the current enthusiasm for blasphemy for anything but a politically convenient pose. Next time someone mocks the Christian faith, expect all this support for blasphemers to disappear in a puff of smoke.