For decades, one of the best ways to sell a movie was to say that it was being protested by Christians. It was a narrative, a useful trope, by which it was announced that an established story, known to all, was being replayed one more time: Brave, speaking-truth-to-power artist attacked by prissy, philistine, Peyton Place christers.
And for some years now, one of the best ways to ruin a movie’s box-office potential is to have it denounced by Muslims¯in part, of course, because there is no frisson of baiting the bourgeoisie in saying something mocking about Islam, but mainly because the theater owners don’t want to take the risk of violence that Muslim protests bring.
This imbalanced treatment seems awfully unstable, and it is bound to resolve itself in one direction or another. The hopeful direction would be a greater appreciation of free speech and democracy among Muslims. But if somewhere along the line, a few Christians get the idea that more forceful protest is the answer, who would be surprised?
So, speaking for a documentary film called The Da Vinci Code¯A Masterful Deception , Cardinal Arinze, an important figure in Rome, suggested: "Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget. Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical. So it is not I who will tell all Christians what to do but some know legal means which can be taken in order to get the other person to respect the rights of others." As Reuters reports , Arinze’s comments were released only ten days after another Vatican cardinal called for a boycott of the film: "Both cardinals asserted that other religions would never stand for offences against their beliefs and that Christians should get tough."
The thoughtful legal blogger Eugene Volokh has called this "censorship envy." It’s important to note that criticism, mockery, and even a call for Christians to boycott something are not necessarily species of censorship. Then, too, Arinze’s comments were made in Europe, which lacks the free-speech protections that the United States knows. If Muslims can have recourse to ostensibly neutral laws banning offences against religions, then why can’t Christians?
The answer is that the European laws are not, in fact, neutral. As France gradually relaxes its laïcité bans on such Islamic clothing as headscarves in public spaces like national schools, while retaining the bans on Catholic clerical dress, the purpose of French secularization seems clear: It was not anti-religious, as the old counter-Enlightenment conservatives claimed; it was always merely anti-Christian.
But, then, neither is the American free-speech argument entirely neutral. When the Boston Globe editorialized this winter against the Danish publication of cartoons featuring Mohammed, Eugene Volokh hunted down the Globe ‘s comments over the years on "Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the Brooklyn Museum’s painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. And he found, naturally enough, that none of the Globe ‘s worries about good manners and respect for others had been deployed in favor of the upset Christians.
We have not yet felt the full extent of the damage done by the European and American reaction to the Danish cartoons, but it will be deep and long lasting. The far leftists who support Islam against the West, and the middle-left fellow travelers who go along with them, were revealed then to be willing to set aside all of what one imagined defined them¯the mockery of religion, the belief that faith was an archaic relic that humankind had outgrown¯in favor of making common cause with an Islamic religion that had, for their purposes, the advantage only of violently rejecting the Judeo-Christian worldview.
But that seems to be enough. One can wish for an increase in good manners in the public square, at the same time that one supports the principle of free speech. But if the lesson being taught is that legal action and threats of violence will produce results for one group, it should not be surprising that other groups learn the lesson of the day¯particularly when the group feels under active attack. That’s not envy. It’s just successful schooling.
Fortunately, a general Christian prohibition against violence prevents all but a few wild-eyed extremists from acting on that lesson. But that’s what bad laws and bad situations do¯they empower the fringes and set loose the crazies.
In addition to which :
Rod Dreher’s new book on “Crunchy Cons” has been receiving a good deal of attention. Gilbert Meilaender isn’t buying. In an amusing sendup of the moral preening of the crunchy cons, Meilaender invokes the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton who observed that it is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt. Meilaender’s is among the many lively arguments to be found in the May issue of First Things . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?