In one sense, defending blasphemy codes is the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is demonstrate how everybody has them — you can defend them because everybody defends them. Blasphemy codes are inescapable — it not whether a society outlaws blasphemy, but rather which patterns of speech will be considered blasphemy. We don’t use the word blasphemy much anymore, but we do regulate “hate speech,” “fighting words,” and so forth.
Here is a quick round up of some recent articles on the subject. First, somebody over at Slate noticed that something funny was going on. And Russell Moore argued here why blasphemy laws are wrong, and a response to that post can be read here at BaylyBlog.
But in another sense, defending blasphemy codes is quite difficult — in no small part because people have come to believe that simple disagreement is blasphemous. They therefore hear what you are proposing, not as a restriction of incendiary slander, but rather as a prohibition of simple disagreement — which would of course be ludicrous.
In order to make sense of all this, we should turn first — as we should always turn first — to Scripture. How does the Bible define blasphemy? This approach is far to be preferred to our current practice of letting hyper-sensitive Muslims define it — or worse, the PC-mongers on our universities campuses.
In Scripture, blasphemy is railing, vituperative, incendiary, and inflammatory language. It it not mild disagreement — even if the disagreement is registered on a very important topic. In my book 5 Cities That Ruled the World, there is a sentence that noted at one point in his career Muhammad was a marauder and a pirate (which he was), and this sentiment was treated in Jakarta as if it were blasphemous, and the book was burned. But according to a biblical definition, it was not blasphemous at all.
Also in Scripture, blasphemy is defined by what is going on — the manner or content of speaking — and not defined by whether or not it is directed against divine things. For example, blasphemy is the word that is used for simple slander against others (Col. 3:8). In addition, it would be possible to blaspheme false gods, which Paul’s pagan friends in Ephesus were glad he had not done (Acts 19:37).
So in my ideal Christian republic, would it be legal for someone to say that he did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Of course. Would it be legal for a bunch of rowdies to parade outside a Muslim’s home, taunting him with insulting descriptions of Muhammad? Of course not. The reason is that the civil magistrate is charged with keeping the peace, and such fighting words are inconsistent with that. The gospel overthrew the worship of Diana in Ephesus, and not incendiary taunts. In my ideal Christian republic, slander would be against the law — and it would be against the law even if directed against pagans, heathens, antinomians, or congressmen.
But having said this, it is crucial to note again that the prohibition of fighting words is to be defined by the Bible, and not by the hypers. Christians ought to have complete freedom to hand out Christian literature, even if they live in Dearborn. Cartoonists should have the freedom to draw pictures of Muhammad. Robust debate, satire, give and take, parry and thrust . . . all good.
Freedom of speech is a glorious gift of God, and the fastest way to make it disappear is the way we are currently doing it — by absolutizing it, and then discovering such absolute freedom is unworkable, and clamping down on everybody for the sake of a pretended even-handedness. When we clamp down on everyone in such confusion, we find that we have simply outlawed criticism of those who are clamping down on everybody. Which turns out to be pretty convenient . . . for them, anyway
It would be far better to recognize that apart from a clear word from God, we are ethically disoriented and completely lost. Without a clear word from God, we cannot define fornication, we cannot define murder, and we cannot define slander. So why should we trust our ruling elites with this? They have already demonstrated they cannot define marriage — the idea of a boy and a girl is beyond them. They cannot define murder — defending the defenseless in the womb seems to them to be an extreme concept. And they cannot define slander.
This means that we shouldn’t let them impose their blasphemy codes — but not because blasphemy codes cannot be defended. Rather, it is a bad idea to let people pass blasphemy codes when they have no idea what it is, or why it is bad.