In my class this semester on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Inquiry, I have been struck by how many of the foundational arguments for and against tolerance for free speech have been made in the context of religious belief and expression. Whether it is Hobbes’ antagonism toward such speech in Book II.29 of “Leviathan,” or Locke’s defense of toleration in his “Letter,” or again Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” and so on, the root exemplar of free speech historically was religious speech.
A new book treats this subject systematically, Religious Speech and the Quest for Freedoms in the Anglo-American World, by Wendell Bird (Cambridge University Press), and argues for a similar conclusion, it appears.
In the secular, contemporary world, many people question the relevance of religion. Many also wonder whether religiously-informed speech and beliefs should be tolerated in the public square, and whether religions hinder freedom. In this volume, Wendell Bird reminds us that our basic freedoms are the important legacies of religious speech arising from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Bird demonstrates that religious speech, rather than secular or irreligious speech based on other belief systems, historically made the demands and justifications for at least six critical freedoms: speech and press, rights for the criminally accused, higher education, emancipation from slavery, and freedom from discrimination. Bringing an historically-informed approach to the development of some of the most important freedoms in the Anglo-American world, this volume provides a new framework for our understanding of the origins of crucial freedoms. It also serves as a powerful reminder of an aspect of history that is steadily being forgotten or overlooked-that many of our basic freedoms are the historical legacies of religious speech arising from Judeo-Christian faiths.