We have been here before. In fact, the illiberal proposal raises its portentous head with such frequency that it feels almost teleologically predetermined. From Labour’s assault on “hate speech” to Tory proposals for IPNAs (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance), we now arrive at ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’. Each of these has the justifiable objective of protecting individuals or groups from harm, but their chilling effect is simply to inhibit the expression of certain views. We know, of course, that the target is the self-styled imam who journeys from Pakistan to Finsbury Park to poison the minds of young Muslims with the Islamist ideology of division and hate. But we know, too, that definitions of extremism and apprehensions of hate are very much in the mind of the easily-offended beholder: we have seen too many individuals arrested, incarcerated or cautioned for no greater crime than displaying Bible verses, preaching the gospel of salvation or proclaiming a message of moral orthodoxy.
Consider the picture above. It was taken at the Conservative Party Conference last week and shows the Rev’d Peter Simpson (amongst others) of the Penn Free Methodist Church in Buckinghamshire preaching to those who are being lost. Set aside, for a moment, whatever you may think about his style of street mission or chosen mode of loving communication (which, frankly, isn’t so much preaching foolishness to the Greeks [1Cor 1:23] as exhibiting Ancient Greek to iPad Gen-X fools [Ps 14:1]), there are undoubtedly some who would like to see this sort of preacher gagged and his manner of public display outlawed. His words cause harassment or distress; his love is hate.
And it is indisputably offensive (not to say pastorally insensitive) to tell a woman who has chosen to terminate her pregnancy that “abortion is murder”; or to tell a teenager struggling with sexual identity that the “effeminate shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. Such views are not illegal, but they have become increasingly “extreme” as the culture has become progressively liberal and morally relative. We can debate the missiological usefulness of placing such secondary-issue stumbling blocks in the path of those who are seeking the Truth. But to make such placards subject to an ‘Extremism Disruption Order’ (which, let’s be honest, the police would certainly do should a complaint were received), endangers the freedom to proclaim the gospel itself.
For sure, “every one of us shall give account of himself to God” and “Righteousness exalteth a nation”. But if it be extreme to rail against evolution, abortion, homosexuality or same-sex marriage, how can it not be extreme to preach about the wages of sin and the narrowness of the path to salvation? The gospel is extreme: salvation is found in none other but Christ alone (Acts 4:12); the cross of Christ is a cause of offence (Gal 5:11). Christians are called to preach the Word in season and out (2Tim 4:2). And if we preach righteousness out of season, we are warned to expect to suffer the consequences (Mt 5:10; 10:22).
Theresa May’s conference speech contained these disquieting words:
..to live in a modern liberal state is not to live in a moral vacuum. We have to stand up for our values as a nation. There will, I know, be some who say that what I describe as extremism is merely social conservatism. But if others described a woman’s intellect as “deficient”, denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or rejected the democratic process, we would quite rightly condemn their bigotry. And there will be others who say I am wrong to link these kinds of beliefs with the violent extremism we agree we must confront. To them I say, yes, not all extremism leads to violence. And not all extremists are violent. But the damage extremists cause to our society is reason enough to act. And there is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence.
And so she pledges to “face down extremism in all its forms”. The illiberal authoritarianism is alarming: extreme Toryism fuses with statist Socialism, and the uniform consensus conspires to diminish the freedom of us all in the name of social cohesion. The policy is reasoned and moderate in expression, but the legislation will be almost Marxist in its application as it is wilfully misinterpreted and misapplied to Evangelical Christians (ie those who publicly proclaim the Good News) in exactly the same manner as anti-terror legislation has been invoked to eject a disgruntled pensioner from a Labour Party conference.
In 1999 Lord Justice Sedley championed the rights of people to express unorthodox views, and quoted Socrates and two famous Quakers in doing so. There is no breach of the peace if what is uttered is merely offensive. He said: “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence.”
It is one thing to seek to prevent violent crime and the incitement to violence; it is quite another to seek to prevent the expression of views which some may find extreme or offensive. It ought not to be a crime to express an idea in a peaceful manner simply because it is deemed to be extreme by some nebulous subjective assessment. There are all manner of pushy interest groups and hyper-sensitive souls just waiting to get upset about something and report you to the police in a state of distress. For the secular state to seek to define “extremist views” reduces freedom of speech and freedom of religion to the lawful expression of culturally orthodox utterances. The gospel of Christ is manifestly counter-cultural, counter-intuitive and, in a pluralist age of religious relativity and all-embracing spirituality, decidedly unorthodox. In what sense is the Christian who proclaims it not “extremist”?
We should relish vigorous debate about salvation and the verbal sparring elicited by the irruption God into the world and the implications of the death of Jesus. We should do so peacefully, graciously and compassionately. Those who oppose the Truth or disagree with our understanding of the Way ought to be free to tell the likes of Peter Simpson where he can shove his placards. But those of us who disagree vehemently with Islamist preachers ought to be equally free to tell them candidly what they can do with their understanding of Mohammed, their quranic hermeneutic and their malignant exposition of the Hadith – without being investigated by the police for the crime of ‘Islamophobia’. If Theresa May clamps down on the Muslim’s freedom to preach the perfection of Mohammed and deride the filthy kuffar, she simultaneously suppresses the Christian’s freedom to refute false prophets, ridicule absurd religious teachings and repudiate those who preach another gospel. You can’t debate inexpressible ideas or argue with a censored opinion.
There is no right not to be offended. Extremist opinion that does not involve a call to arms or incite people to acts of terrorism ought to be tolerated by the liberal democratic state. Otherwise those who seek to undermine our liberty and overthrow democracy have won. We might expect a Conservative Home Secretary to appreciate and understand that.