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Religious liberties and the origin of human rights (with Steve West)


WORLD Radio - Religious liberties and the origin of human rights (with Steve West)

Free speech. Religious liberty. Where do these rights come from? We’re joined by WORLD’s Steve West to talk about our liberties and their origins.

JONATHAN BOES: As we look at the news, this concept comes up again and again, it’s the concept of rights, free speech rights, parental rights, religious liberty, you know, in the United States where we’re recording this, the Constitution, and its amendments protect these rights. But where do those rights come from? And what trends do we see today that are challenging those rights? If only we knew somebody with an ear to the ground, on these trends, maybe somebody who covers these stories as a job? Well, that’s one of the great things about being here at WORLD News Group. We do. So, we’re excited to welcome WORLD’s own Steve West to the conversation today.

KELSEY REED: Former federal prosecutor, Steve West covers the roundup of religious liberty, free speech, and other First Amendment news for WORLD Digital. He writes the weekly newsletter Liberties, which covers all the main stories of the week in the Liberties beat each Tuesday. He’s a frequent guest on The World and Everything in It where he supplies commentary, reports on current liberties developments, and does the occasional music or book review. He and his wife live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ask him about the Beach Boys, and you’ll get an earful of trivia, but he’d rather talk about the Lord. We’re so glad that you’ve joined us today. Welcome, Steve.

STEVE WEST: Well, thank you, Kelsey and Jonathan. It’s a privilege to be here. I’ve listened to Concurrently, and now I have actually arrived. I’m on the show. So thank you for having me.

KELSEY: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

JONATHAN: And so, our first question is, is Pet Sounds the best album ever recorded?

STEVE: Oh, my. Oh, my. That’s such a tough choice. You know, people do say that. And it’s certainly a wonderful, if a bit melancholy, Beach Boys album. But you know, Sergeant Pepper is right up there as well. So, we’ll see.

KELSEY: We’re so delighted to have you. And I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more. How long have you been at WORLD? How long you’ve been covering the Liberties beat?

STEVE: Well, I’ve been at WORLD for five and a half years now, since 2019—January 2019. But really, I’ve known about WORLD for many, many years. I was the recipient of the very first issue of the magazine in 1986. And used to get some of the children’s papers even before that, and the predecessor, The Presbyterian Journal was something I subscribed to during law school. So I’ve known about WORLD a long time; met Joel Belz in 1986 when I stopped in to the office of WORLD in Asheville, and he showed me around and gave me a tour, just like people get tours nowadays when they come by the offices. So I’ve been around a long time. And I kept up with him over the years a little bit. But there were a lot of years, there were 34 years that I didn’t work for WORLD.

KELSEY: But were still involved. Listener, children of listeners: You need to keep that in mind. We might rope you in, too, someday, in one way or another. So we want to dive in to this area. Thank you so much for being willing to talk on the subject matter of your beat. And so, as we think about religious liberty, free speech, or even parental rights, can you help explain the origin of these rights?

STEVE: Yes, I think I can a bit. You know, these rights are rooted in human dignity, which is also grounded in our being made in God’s image. Now, we often hear about that, you know, that word, human dignity and human rights and those types of things. But we don’t hear about their grounding, but they are because we are made in God’s image. God’s free, so we are free even if our freedom is somehow mysteriously subsumed in his freedom. And even though, of course, humans we know are rebels and long to be autonomous. We’re sinful human beings—we want to be autonomous. So good government doesn’t create these rights, but it recognizes and protects them as in the First Amendment’s protection for religious liberty, the free exercise of religion, free speech, the freedom of assembly, and the 14th amendment’s guarantee of parental rights—which is a part of that, even though it doesn’t say parental rights, has always been: Parents always have the right to educate and bring up their children. All that the first amendment does is recognize that; all that the courts have done is recognize that. And so, if the government doesn’t grant us these rights, it also doesn’t have really have a right to take them away from us. The United States and other Western countries have sort of operated on that moral capital that comes from Christian principles really for a very long time, but have lost sight of that. And unless we recover the rootedness of human dignity in God, our being made in God’s image, we’ll completely deplete that. And you know, the only thing that’s left when you deplete that, that idea of being made in God’s image, is power: the power that human beings have over each other, the strong over the weak. And that’s such a foolish basis for governance, and very damaging.

KELSEY: I really appreciate where you are starting us out: This concept of human dignity that is rooted in God’s authority, that He is the one who has defined our worth, that we don’t define it for ourselves. It’s not defined by the power that we wield. And for you to help us understand that that’s what it devolves into when we lay claim to defining ourselves, that then it’s just might that makes right.

JONATHAN: And of course, if our rights aren’t rooted in a Creator, which is you know, what the Declaration of Independence even says, then they come from social constructs or social contracts. And if man created something, man can change it. So once you remove the idea of something above us, yeah, it seems like it all comes in jeopardy.

KELSEY: That issue of the problems that arise as we wrestle with different worldview replacements for the Christian worldview. We’ve spoken a number of times on Marxism as a replacement, which definitely affirms all of those power structures, that all that the world is about is about oppressed and oppressor—about power structures. So we see a number of problems. And with those problems, that’s where we often see litigation arise. It’s in these worldview conflicts and what we think should be right, based on our interpretation through our framework. So as you look over the landscape of litigation, over the rights that are supported by our governmental system, can you distill what’s happening into either a single drive or effort?

STEVE: I think so. As I look every week, I’m surveying all of the news feeds, I’m looking for the different stories, things that are going on religious liberty and free speech litigation or parental rights litigation. And, you know, there’s probably at least 20 stories a week to follow in this area. So it seems like there’s a great deal going on, a lot of clashes, as you say, of worldviews out there. But most of the religious liberty and some of the free speech litigation is really centered around protecting space for religious expression, on protecting people, religious people and religious organizations’ right to not only believe as their consciences lead, but to also freely exercise their beliefs. So just to give some examples from some of the litigation that’s occurred, that includes: a teacher’s right not to use or be compelled to use pronouns not matching a student’s biological sex; or a creator of wedding websites’ right not to create websites for same sex weddings; or a baker not to design and create cakes for same sex weddings; a medical doctor’s and nurse’s right not to perform abortions or provide so-called gender affirming therapies or treatments or body altering surgeries that they believe and are against God’s design. And it includes protection of churches and other religious organizations from second guessing by government officials or courts of their employment decisions or internal governance. And that includes requiring those kinds of organizations to provide group health insurance plans that cover elective abortions or gender reassignment, so-called gender reassignment surgery. Then in the parental rights area, it includes efforts by parents to opt kids out of controversial sex education instruction. An important ruling yesterday where the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said that parents in Montgomery County don’t have a right to opt out their children from such kinds of inappropriate educational classes. It may be the schools that refuse to notify or involve parents in any request or attempt by a child to transition to another gender, who expresses confusion about their gender. So all of these things are really areas where we’re seeking to protect religious, you know, people and organizations’ ability to exercise their beliefs. There was a Dutch theologian in the early 20th century that some of our listeners might know about, Abraham Kuyper, who talked about sphere sovereignty. And that was the idea that families, schools, churches, and religious organizations, businesses, and government, they each have their realm of governance, their sort of sphere of authority, with government as a coordinating authority, where those spheres sort of overlap or rub up against each other. And yet today, government has become omnipresent. I mean, government is everywhere, and everywhere intruding on some of these areas. Yet, in these efforts to preserve parental rights or church autonomy, religious autonomy, we can see some of this idea of sphere sovereignty and try to preserve the spaces of governance for these other authorities that got created.

KELSEY: As I’m listening, I’m observing. And I’m going to be harping on, unfortunately, this idea of authority. But I want to turn it towards the exercise of authority that we do, as parents, and by extension, that we do in the classroom—which is really intended to be a reflection of the authority of parents, who have willingly placed their children into a different situation, and so that is also supposed to be under parental authority. But that is an authority also intended to be reflective of the Father’s authority, His ultimate authority. That’s why we’re placed in families is to exercise that submission to authority, in all the ways that we point towards His goodness, and we fail, obviously, parent. It’s interesting to think of the amount of issues that we have in play, which are true failures of authority. But it’s not about canceling authority out so much as seeking a healthy expression of that authority, one that recognizes that we are not ultimate authority, and that reflects back into government. When we deny the authority of the One True God, we’re going to find something else to put in its place, in that power vacuum, as it were, that authority vacuum. It’s going to suck something else into it, and so: government in this area. We’re looking to it to be our God and to sort out our problems for us, and to make things work the way that we think that they should work. I’m noticing so many of those areas. So, parent, teacher, the question here for us as we continue to walk through thinking about these areas is: How does my authority reflect the authority of the living God? I’m really thankful for that pointing to Kuyper and understanding another portion of his theology where we recognize that the Lord is the one who is sovereign over all of culture, over every single piece of this creation. Every inch.

STEVE: That’s really correct, Kelsey. Those are great comments. And I’m reminded of, there’s the Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism, there’s an answer in the Larger—I can’t think of the number of the question—but there’s a question about the commandment to honor your mother and father, which is a commandment about authority, really. Is it the fourth? No, that’s not the fourth, that’s the fifth, I believe, that command. But anyway, in the Catechism, the answer to the question about that, there is a wonderful reflection, elucidation of what proper authority is. And so it really takes that and expands it quite a bit. And so I commend that to anyone. I actually remember, in the workplace, asking an employee to read that and think about that, as they complained about authority. So I think that’s a great place to go. You’re right: Proper authority is what we’re after, not—I think about the John Cougar Mellencamp song from many, many years ago—it started out with, “I fight authority.” That was sort of the rebel call of that song. And that’s not what it’s about at all. And Christians submit to proper authority over them.

KELSEY: Yeah, I was saying to somebody the other day, “I don’t have a problem with authority. I just have a problem with bad authority!” But as somebody who has been put into a position where I’m seeking to learn how to exercise authority, oh, it’s humbling. I am so often the bad authority who is learning, who is recognizing what it looks like to submit, and to then exercise that gentle and servant-oriented authority. I really appreciate that you are starting to talk about the workplace and how authority plays out in the workplace. So many of the problems are related to vocational expression. And by problems, I mean, the areas of litigation, the areas of conflict. And one area in which we may witness or have conflict ourselves is in the workplace, maybe it’s Sabbath observance, or some religious item of clothing. Help us observe and analyze these areas.

STEVE: You know, when we were a more homogenous culture, these things didn’t come up as often. So you see some of these conflicts arose from groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Seventh Day Adventists, historically, where Jehovah’s Witnesses will not take oaths, so they must give an affirmation rather than an oath, for example, in a court proceeding. Or Seventh Day Adventists have a Saturday Sabbath, which was a little bit unusual in our culture. It tended to be a Sunday Sabbath. And so they asked for accommodation. They didn’t want to have to work on Saturday. They’re happy to work on Sunday, because it was a regular day for them. So those kinds of conflicts would come up. But you know, more and more, it’s claimed by Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and sometimes it involves items of clothing or a beard or something, or headwear. And so all of these things kind of come up, and employers have to deal with such a variety of different requests for accommodations. And we have protections for accommodations now, as well, in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So someone can request a religious accommodation in a workplace that’s subject to Title VII, which is basically if there’s 20 employees or more. And it’s come up in other contexts, like when we had the vaccine mandates for COVID-19, and employers mandated them, and some Christians asked for—had objections to the vaccine and asked to be able to opt out of the vaccine. There was litigation over that. There’s also been requests for employee opt outs of “woke,” they call “woke workplace training.” So this is some of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training in the workplace, or anti-racist training, that seems to them racist, and I would argue that it is racist in nature. And so it’s objectionable to them and so they’ve asked to opt out. So, mixed results, I would say. And how do people look at these now? I think growing up in the early ’60s, most places were closed on Sunday as I was growing up. Then it started changing throughout the ’60s. There were still “blue laws” so that during the church hours, things were not open for the most part. So you didn’t hear about this a whole lot. You know, it was just there was an odd family [here and there] that was Seventh Day Adventist. So these folks down the street here, there’s maybe one Jewish family in the neighborhood; they’re different and all. But it was sort of like most people—they’re not in church on Sunday, they’re not working, so there wasn’t a conflict. So these accommodations can be viewed as sort of idiosyncratic and benign, that really don’t hurt anybody. Or they can be viewed as unfair, say, by other employees that are impacted, like some that might have to work on Sunday, because another employee was allowed to take Sunday off. So that’s been sort of one of the complaints as well. Last year, the Supreme Court upped the burden on employers. They want to argue it’s too big a hardship to them to accommodate some of these employees. Now they have to show that the accommodation would impose substantial economic costs on the employer. Whereas in the past, it was enough for them to point to any hardship posed to them or to some other employees in the workplace, or maybe just morale, that kind of thing. So it’s a bigger burden. Now there’s more protection in the sense of accommodating folks, but this is where it can come up and where other employees see accommodations, And it’s also an opportunity for witness. It’s also a place where there can be discussions about why do you need Sunday off or why are you wearing that, or why the cross, all of that. So there’s good opportunities here as well.

KELSEY: I’m noticing that there is an opportunity for humility, for this recognition that it is not merely “Christian rights” that are being protected. We can get in our own heads, in our own spaces, and get bound up by what we feel entitled to. And we can fail to be others oriented. Like you were pointing towards in your conclusion of these observations and this analysis, we can be so focused on “I, me, and mine,” that we can fail to look for the opportunity for the gospel to go out, and to look at the provision of freedom to exercise, and to learn, and to grow that is for all people. This amazing mystery that the Lord has unfolded for man, that we have the great privilege to learn, to be in a process of learning. We don’t have to get it all right, to know everything immediately about who He is, about His intentions for us, for the world, but that we as humans grow and change and learn. And that is something that’s not merely for Christians. It’s for those who do not yet know him, that there is a space that has been created in time for people to come to know Him, people to come to a life-transforming faith.

JONATHAN: And bringing this into the realm of not just Christian liberty, but religious liberty more broadly: I’d love to hear what you think about this, because of that cultural uniformity, here was a certain, privileged place Christianity held for many years, that now is not as prominent in American culture. And it seems to me that sometimes there is a sort of short-sighted political activism that would rather preserve that sort of Christian privilege, more than preserving religious liberty. And I feel like you sometimes see Christians arguing for policies that would elevate Christianity, but possibly damage religious liberty as a whole. Do you feel like that’s something you’ve seen?

STEVE: I think I would. I want to point back to what we were talking about at the beginning, sort of the theological roots of this—our freedom that God gives us being made in His image. So basically, what we’re saying here is that you have the freedom to worship idols, you have the freedom to say things that are offensive, untrue, to a point, of course, but so there’s this freedom that’s going to exist, and it’s freedom for everyone, you know, it’s freedom for the Christian to believe, as [he or she] want[s] to believe; it’s freedom for the Muslim to believe as [he or she] wish[es] to believe; for somebody to worship idols basically, of [one’s] own fashioning. So, you know, that’s the freedom that God gave us. Now, it’s bounded within His freedom, His sovereignty, but it’s freedom nonetheless, from the way we see it. So yeah, I think that’s right. And other people can look at us, if we’re trying to elevate Christianity in some way, as just trying to protect our own interests. You know, just another interest group out there, trying to do that try and have, well, they would say it this way, trying to force their worldview on everybody else. And so, we don’t want to be seen as just another interest group exercising whatever power they have, which is not a great deal, right now, for Christians, in general, anyway, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s a humbling thing. It makes us rely upon the Lord, which is where we should have been anyway, relying upon the Lord.

KELSEY: Some of the things that can come out of this posture of unreliance is this feeling of this need to fight you know, that entitled posture. If we’re not receiving what we believe is our due, then we will defend it tooth and nail. And so, so many of the efforts that you’ve mentioned in litigation, they seem geared towards defense, legal defense. Is this all we can do? Or, you know, what is the drawback of focusing on legal defense alone?

STEVE: Yeah, you know, there is a drawback to it. But I was just talking about, you know, our defensive posture can risk our portrayal as just another interest group, protecting our interest, or worse yet as bigots or haters, you know, extreme sort of rhetoric used by those, I would say, whose self-identity is threatened by lack of affirmation. So, sort of the song of our times and we are a discordant note, because we don’t sing the same tune as they see it. So there is that sort of sense that we’re trying to protect ourselves. Many people don’t know a religious person or they know one only at a distance, or their idea of a religious person is based on some inaccurate television or movie caricature. And I was just reading an article the other day, it reminded me about a show that I’ve watched, Young Sheldon, on television. Their several-seasons run about to wrap up. And you know, you’ve got this nerdy genius kid, Sheldon, who has no use for God, and a mother who is a Christian churchgoer, but portrayed as kind of anti-intellectual and backward—those are common caricatures. But it’s popular for a reason because of the chemistry of the characters and the fact that their caricatures have some truth that we recognize. There was an anti-intellectual strain in Christianity at one point in time; I would argue that’s mostly gone. There’s a lot of Christian intellectuals, a lot of people who’ve done a lot of work that are real recognize. But so, these are caricatures. Well, what I’m arguing about that is that a lot of people don’t know Christians, so they don’t know what Christians are like. That means it’s crucial for us to get to know people who seem like enemies, or who are indifferent but could become allies in protecting space for faith, even if that’s awkward, even if that’s challenging—it is. And even if they’re not of our faith, or of any discernible faith at all, if you have a friendship with someone who is really different, they can, if not agree with you, they can at least respect your view and actually protect your right to have that view and see that you’re not just protecting your interest. You’re protecting their interest as well. You’re protecting something that’s good for everyone: The right to be able to express yourself freely; the right to be able to exercise your faith whatever it is, or no faith at all, freely. And that’s an important thing. And that comes when people know each other. When people don’t know each other, it’s easy just to treat them as a caricature, to demean them really. And in its worst form throughout world history, when you begin to treat people as caricatures, and you begin to demean them, call them names, it’s easier to really treat them badly. And there’s some awful examples of that in history. So it’s important that we know other nonbelievers.

KELSEY: There are some awful instances of that hyper character…Yeah, I don’t know if I can say that… “hyper caricaturization.” I think I just made up that word. But when we exaggerate to such a high degree—and we’re seeing that around college campuses, even today—it’s not just a historical thing. Since October 7, many college campuses have been wracked with controversy, with those insisting that it’s a free speech issue, and others concerned about the spread of anti-Semitism. And it is so often from instead of knowing true people, it is through this, this hyper insistence that we know what type of people these are, and they’re only good or only bad, instead of in humility, really seeking to learn about one another with curiosity. So how do we think about what’s going on on college campuses? How do we help our children and students to think about this issue of free speech versus anti-Semitism?

STEVE: Well, I think that I would just say that when I do a Google search every day on the words “free speech,” so much of it is about what’s happening on campus. And free speech is generally in there somewhere, but much of what is happening on campus is actually not about free speech. There’s a lot of people speaking, they’re free to speak. But much of what is happening is not about that. Violence and targeted harassment of other students is never just about that claim of free speech, nor is occupying a building or impeding access to buildings free speech. Administrators can insist on reasonable time and place and manner restrictions—in other words: Here’s where you can protest; here’s the times you can protest; Here’s the way in which you can protest. So there’s some reasonable limitations they can place on that for the sake of everyone. And safety is an important concern. Yet, it can’t be a safe harbor for administrators that seek to shut down controversial speech, whether it’s Jewish students speaking or those who are supportive of Palestinian causes speaking, or just speech they don’t like. There’s been examples in the litigation of administrators trying to just basically shut down anything that’s controversial that might cause a problem on campus, or something they just don’t care for, don’t like. So that’s not right, either. So at the same time, the First Amendment won’t solve the problems of unkind or hateful or inflammatory, ill-informed or otherwise damaging speech. We look at all the scripture says about the tongue, how damaging words can be, how important it is to return a gentle answer for one uttered in spite, how we should use words to build up and heal and find common ground whenever we can. And there’s so much there about what to do and what not to do, what to say and what not to say—that the tongue is very, very important. Our words are very important and “free speech” will not solve any of those issues, which are really heart issues. You know, students today find that they have some measure of power. That’s what you see happening on campus, it’s an exercise of power on their part. Tomorrow, they won’t, or they’ll just move on, administrators will reassert themselves, or the establishment or whatever, or “the man,” whatever you want to call it. There are these power plays going on, it can’t be about power, it has to be about human dignity, about honoring our neighbors, even the hateful neighbors. We have to teach our kids that disagreement is not hate, not a threat to their identity as one made in the Lord’s image. They need to be able to stand on that firm ground. If they can stand on that firm ground, then a lot of things can swirl around them. They’ll be in the midst of some of these power plays and they’ll know where they’re grounded. And they’ll also know how to treat other people. Because they’re treating other images of God and according them the dignity they’re due, which has nothing to do with whether they’re nice, or say nice things to them at all, or whether they believe that their authority is valid over them. You know, God has placed them in authority over them or God has put them in their path as other people, and they treat them as [themselves], give them what they’re due, which is dignity. And if they’re an authority over them, give them what they’re due as those in authority over them.

JONATHAN: I really appreciate the distinction you’ve been making between the Constitution preserving the right, the freedom to do something, versus whether or not that’s actually a good thing to do—the idea that just because some things are rights doesn’t make it right. I often think just because we’re free to do something doesn’t mean we are free from the consequences of that thing. And so often you see people justify their own actions. “Well, I have the right.” But, yeah, you, you have the right to make mistakes. We have the right to free speech. But if you go on social media and exercise your free speech rights to bad-mouth your employer, you’re not free from the consequence of losing your job. You know, sometimes that goes deeper, we have the freedom to have whatever sexual partner we want. But if that results in the natural consequence of a child, there’s many people who think we should have the freedom to be free of that consequence. And I feel like that conflation of “right” and “right” is all over.

KELSEY: I also think of the scripture that talks about “A gentle answer turns away wrath” and what it means to be those who practice turning the other cheek. And I was thinking as you were speaking about the details of what we’re seeing on college campuses, I was thinking about one of our former episodes where we listened to some of the experiences of believing Christian teens that we know in some universities across the country. And what I heard, as I reflect back on what I heard, one of the things that I observed that I’m still unpacking, for me, is that they knew when to walk away, and to not engage in the loud voices and the tension of the moment, that they could make different choices, knowing that, like you said, this is a passing time where it feels very powerful, but there’s something beyond it. And maybe it was their Christian worldview that was helping them to look far beyond those years on college campuses—that not all life pivots on what is done right now and what is said right now and the efforts that are made to change the world, through our screaming and railing against “the man,” as you said. So, it’s very interesting to think of what it means to have the long game, as it were, in mind, and to practice those things that don’t seem very loud: that gentle answer, that turning the other cheek. How do we help students and children to value free speech, the choices that they can make, the religious liberty that they have, when often we hear louder voices related to like antidiscrimination, or the area of LGBTQ rights, and when those louder voices are saying, “This is what’s more important”?

STEVE: This is really a challenge for all parents. One survey that I read indicated, a third of all Stanford undergraduate students indicated it was sometimes appropriate to use violence to silence unwelcome speech. Now, that’s really a shocking statistic. And maybe if you get into it, it wouldn’t break down quite as badly. But, you know, there’s many Ivy League schools, there’s many colleges and universities that scored poorly on the Foundation for Individual Rights of Expression or “FIRE’s”, annual free speech ratings, and Harvard was at the rock bottom of that list. For me, it’s almost as if we’re dealing with a mass of people with very fragile identities that require regular, consistent, affirmation from everyone from media, from educators, businesses, even religious organizations, religious people. “If you don’t celebrate, you hate some would say,” so it’s kind of a binary distinction. So young people need to have a biblically grounded identity, one rooted in Christ and what Jesus thinks of them, not in their peers, not even in their Christian peers, who, while they can reinforce that, can’t substitute for what Jesus provides to them. And because there’s going to be situations where they’re separated from peers, maybe they leave high school, go off to college, all of a sudden, who are they? So, it needs to be rooted in Christ and not in their peers. And so how do we do that? We use the means of grace: We use the word, and we use prayer, and we use the worshiping community to help root them in those disciplines and remind them of who they are so they can continue to remind themselves who they are when they’re in different contexts. When those young adults protesting now discover how empty their causes and slogans and politics are, as ends in themselves—because they all do, we all do—they may yet find the true door that’s Jesus, who tells us to take heart, to have courage. So that’s a great exhortation from someone who really embodies hope. “Take heart.” And I love what you were saying earlier, Kelsey, about perspective. I think part of what we try to do as parents is to help our children gain perspective. Because if we look back at our college years, how many of us really had much perspective at that point in life, the age of 18 to 22? We had not lived a lot of life, and so, you know, for most of us, it was very much what was happening that day. That was life. I think as parents, we can help our kids have perspective by reminding them of events in their own personal history, where they felt a certain way, like a boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them or something happened—they lost a job or just something that was sort of “turn their world upside down,” and just help them see that. They felt that way at that particular time. But then they got through that, with the Lord’s help, and came to another place. I describe it as you’d be in a valley, and you can’t see outside of it, you know, you need to come up on the top of the mountain there to some extent and so you can see back and have perspective. And scripture helps do that. Worshiping with others, being reminded who you are in Christ helps do that. And then just persevering helps do that. And you gain perspective as time goes by. And I think, for all of us, if we’re older and we’ve been through a lot of these things, we can look back and we have a difficult time. We can look back and see one of those moments to say, “I did have one of those moments back then, and the Lord brought me through. The Lord will bring me through this as well, even though I feel awful right now, He’ll bring me through.” So kids need that same kind of encouragement and help to see a bigger picture, a bigger story that’s going on, and to place their little story in God’s big story.

KELSEY: Yeah, because what we do is grounded in who we believe ourselves to be or what we feel about who we are. And we shape our belief through those means that you mentioned—those means of grace that shape our hearts, that shape our understanding of who we are in Christ. And so all of the faithfulness, that faithful action in the world, it flows out of faithful shaping of hearts. And what you said about perseverance as a part of where hearts are shaped. What I mean is that cycle that is outlined in scripture, that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character, hope that will not disappoint us. All these other things, the rights that we may be trying to lay claim to, they are going to disappoint us. And the thing that we want to run away from—that suffering and that discomfort—the things that we’re trying to make others accommodate, honestly, in our lives, those things are not going to produce the type of perseverance, character, hope that is produced through the Lord’s curriculum for us, which is, it’s challenging. It’s difficult, but it creates resilience in us. We talked about that fragility— that is the opposite. And I think Jonathan has another thing to bring out that’s in relation to that fragility, and that perception of even speech as violence. You mentioned violence. But there’s this other thing to talk about here as well.

JONATHAN: Yeah, this just ties into that last point. We were talking about what do we value more, freedom of speech, or antidiscrimination? Something I see increasingly, and I guess I’m wondering if you see this, too, and your thoughts on it: I feel like I increasingly see people refer to offensive speech as violence. And when I see that it always alarms me a little bit, because I feel like intentionally or unintentionally, it’s kind of a ploy to characterize speech as something that can be more strongly regulated or even reciprocated with actual violence. Is that something you’ve seen, this trend of calling speech violence?

STEVE: Oh, sure. I mean, for some time, I think we’ve seen that kind of hyperbolic, inflammatory sort of language has increased. And I think, again, that’s a reflection of the fragility of identity for one thing, and it’s also invoking language in the service of power. Because if you can label language as something other than just words, it’s also: You’re actually committing violence against somebody by your words. When we look at that, we think, well, that’s just—that’s ridiculous. You haven’t even touched the other person. They’re words, they hurt, they’re offensive, but they’re not sticks and stones. They don’t actually hurt in that way in which we think about violence. So that, I think, is also a power play to use words in that manner. And I think a lot of the hate speech types of legislation really does violate free speech guarantees. And it’s a dangerous kind of precedent to have out there. So, yeah, I think it’s just another reflection of some of these things that we’ve already talked about using language in that way. And again, it’s also like you said Jonathan, so it’s a way to try to shoehorn that in and get that kind of disagreeable talk regulated, because it’s not speech. It’s actually violence against somebody—which I disagree with that.

JONATHAN: And again, you hit that theme of something being a right, versus something being right, because it’s so hard to say, “I’m uncomfortable with this law against hate speech,” because then it’s like, “Well, are you saying hate speech is good?” “No, I’m just saying, not everything that’s wrong, or even evil, should be illegal.” And that’s sometimes a really hard distinction to make in conversation.

STEVE: One example of this is the recent legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives—Congress had to do with this—called the Antisemitism Awareness Act. And while I don’t believe it’ll pass the Senate, ultimately, it was an expression of concern about some of the anti-Semitism comments, protests that are occurring on campuses, there’s also been a lot of criticism of the Act because of the fact that it is a form of hate speech regulation. And so it sets, in my mind, sets a bad precedent for the future. Because if that kind of speech—it’s not targeting anybody in particular, it’s offensive—but if that kind of speech can be regulated, then other kinds of speech that we would want to engage in could be regulated as well. For example, any kind of speech by Christians that are supportive of a biblical marriage and sexuality might be viewed as hateful by some and therefore subject to some type of regulation. So, we would not want that to happen. So that’s the problem with some of these attempts to regulate.

KELSEY: From a theological perspective, this is something that we wrestle with a lot, this idea of sanctification. And what I see in these trends towards the regulation of speech, and so many other regulations, is trying to make us conform, as a society, to particular laws, so that we don’t hurt one another. So that evil is restrained, which is a portion of what government is supposed to do is to restrain evil. But when we add to the laws, as the Pharisees did, what we are doing is we are just straying from the Lord’s plan for how people mature and grow, and ultimately grow up into Christ, for those who are believers. This is the sanctification process that we’re talking about, where we grow more and more like the one who lived a perfect life on our behalf. And that now, we can even look around at the world and discern the evil like what Jonathan was saying. There may be evil things said that are not against the law of the land. But that when we see them in operation, we recognize these are against the law of love, and I don’t want anything to do with that. But it is something that is a transformed heart, the fruit of a transformed heart in operation, instead of increased regulation to make sure that people aren’t hurting one another. With speech in particular, since we’re on that part of the topic—and the illustration breaks down—but I’ve said before, you know, sometimes you let your children glut out on junk food or candy, or watch too much TV, and they go, “Oh, I feel awful or having done that. That was not a good choice.” We are hoping for not only ourselves to increase in discernment, but for our children to increase in discernment and wisdom and to be able to look around the world and be like, “No, that is heinous.” And over here, “Oh, that is glorious,” and to learn to pursue and hunger after the glorious and to shun and turn away from the violent, the heinous, the damage that we can do to individuals, words, actions, attitudes of our hearts all combined. But the thing I will return to, to reiterate once more, is that we have been given space and time—that our human condition is a condition of learning. And that’s what we’re all about in Concurrently—is reminding ourselves and one another: We have the great privilege to learn. The Lord has granted that to us as a part of our humanity. So I want to let you have any further words, Steve, before we do our scriptural anchor and tagout. Is there anything else that you would like to add before we close down our thoughts for today?

STEVE: Well, I just think this would be an encouragement to parents: I know there’s so much going on in the world and so many things to think about. But I think that we’re discipling our children, we’re doing that by teaching. And we’re doing that by modeling. So when we model this kind of speech that is appropriate, then that’s important for them to see that. And when we teach them from scripture what speech is appropriate and what’s not, that’s a wonderful thing. So when they come into contact with some of these different ideas, and extreme sort of views, they have this sort of rootedness in the word and in Christ, so that they know how to react to these different situations. I often say to people we can take all of these legal maneuvers and cases, and litigate cases and everything to protect first amendment rights, and parental rights and all of that, but all we can do is create some space. We can’t make people believe in religious freedom; we can’t make people believe that religion, much less Christianity, is important. We can’t do those things. Because those are things of the heart; the law is unable to do that. And so we have to pray. And we have to continue to, like I say, model and teach what’s appropriate, and realize that we’re going to fail, but Christ will not fail.

KELSEY: Religious liberties for creating space for human learning. That’s what I’m hearing. So today, from scripture, Romans 15, verses 1, 2, and 5: “We who are strong, have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves, let each of us please his neighbor for his good to build him up. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus.” It is He who has equipped


Show Notes

Free speech. Religious liberty. Where do these rights come from? We’re joined by WORLD’s Steve West to talk about our liberties and their origins.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study. Sign up for the News Coach Newsletter at

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