“Any regime or context in which the content of what is publicly expressed, exhibited, published, broadcast, or otherwise distributed is regulated or in which the circulation of information is controlled. The official grounds for such control at a national level are variously political, moral, social, or religious.”
“Some rulings may be merely to avoid embarrassment (especially for governments).”
More than 70 years ago, George Orwell wrote an eerily prophetic dystopian novel he titled 1984, a seeming inversion of the year 1948, hinting that the future he envisioned wasn’t so far away. In the novel, in a civilization damaged by war and conflict, a totalitarian superstate rules the world under the mysterious and all-seeing eye of Big Brother. With hidden cameras and microphones to watch and listen to every movement of its citizens, and telescreens in every home to show censored, hand-picked propaganda, the infamous “party” enforces its rules through the thought police. Those who refuse to conform are brutally purged, becoming “unpersons” who disappear along with any evidence of their existence.
Seventeen years earlier, Aldous Huxley had published his novel Brave New World, in which citizens, awash in a society of luxury and consumerism, are coddled and perfected through countless advances in technology from the moment of their birth so that they never feel a moment of suffering. Yet, even in such a seemingly ideal society, those who speak out against the monotonous, unemotional life they lead are threatened with banishment. That future, Huxley added in the foreword of a Brave New World Revisited (1958),was arriving much more quickly than he had expected.1
And let’s not forget the work of Ray Bradbury, whose most popular novel took its title from the temperature at which books burn. Fahrenheit 451 told the story of a dystopian world where books were not only banned but burned by a squad of “firemen.”2
A Brief History of Repression
My examples notwithstanding, censorship is not just the stuff of futuristic fiction.
The example of Socrates in the fifth century BC was an ominous reminder of what could happen to those who challenged the prevailing wisdom of the ruling class. Authorities in every government and religious structure were exquisitely aware of how “dangerous” literature could be for influencing social change, thus threatening their rule. During the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BC–AD 14), a teacher named Corvus was caught allowing a woman to lecture his students on why married women shouldn’t keep producing children. Augustus, concerned with the declining birth rates among the Roman elite, ordered Corvus to be charged and tried with harming the state. Instead of ordering the death penalty, however, he decreed that Corvus’s writings should be publicly burned. Not long after, private possession of his writings was also deemed a crime. Eventually, the mere act of reading the work of Corvus became a punishable offense, called “literary treason.”3
As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the fifth century AD, so too did any lingering social commitment to what today would be called free speech or freedom of expression. The ideals of Greek and Roman philosophy, which had built a sustained culture in which ideas could occasionally hold in check the brute power of the state, disappeared rapidly as those forces that the Romans termed “barbarians” swept through former Roman provinces, eventually capturing Rome itself in 410 AD.
The bloody history of what elementary students long ago learned to call the Dark Ages of Europe is a veritable catalogue of horrors for those who questioned the authority of the dominant state or church. Hundreds of thousands of eccentrics, atheists, and Christian martyrs lost their lives as all-powerful regimes attempted to stamp out the dangerous ideals of independent thought and free expression. Even the seemingly more tolerant culture of early Islam in North Africa ultimately descended into a fully authoritarian culture. Only in selected enclaves could groups practicing other faiths or traditions express their faith. Proselytizing—the free expression of ideas in the attempt to win converts to those ideas—was ultimately forbidden.
In addition to literally burning those who read and disseminated manuscripts or books that the state had banned, authorities turned to a familiar attack upon the documents themselves. Examples are everywhere: the condemnation of a dissident inevitably resulted in the condemnation of any written works he had authored. Luther’s “heretical” works were publicly burned by the agents of the Roman Catholic Church and the state, and Luther himself even burned the papal bull that excommunicated him in 1520.
The advent of the Age of Reason in the 18th century, with an enhanced view of the natural rights of each individual gained through the crisis of the Reformation two centuries earlier, began to build a cultural defense against tyrannical power in both church and state. Dissidents and their publications found increasing freedom in a Western culture that challenged the social norms of the previous 1,500 years. As late as the Nazi regime in Germany (1933–1945), however, mass book burnings ominously presaged the horrific crematoriums of the death camps.
Ideas, we have learned, can be dangerous things, particularly to those who hold or seek to hold unchallenged sway over populations through state decrees, religious enforcements, or control of cultural media.
Even today, in liberal democracies around the globe, elementary and secondary schools ban books from their libraries that they fear may impact the students in disagreeable ways or expose them to cultural knowledge at an inappropriate age. Governments of all kinds around the world continue to keep certain literature out of the hands of their citizens. Some of this is a defensible vigilance to protect younger and more vulnerable members of society. Much of it is concerned with the maintenance of power by totalitarian regimes.
Governments, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and even massive, publicly traded media companies are exquisitely sensitive to the power of the written word and what it can do to turn society on its head—how easy it can be to build resistance and even revolt against perceived authorities through the pages of a simple pamphlet.
But in a world where communication has become predominantly digital and far more instant and globalized than even Orwell or Huxley could have imagined, the method for the dissemination of these “dangerous” ideas has drastically changed. Authorities—in government and business—are unsure of how to move in the brave new world of shifting popular loyalties and incendiary theories. Where does actual power lie in a culture where unfiltered ideas or beliefs can “go viral”—escaping the norms of free speech as traditionally understood? Pundits everywhere are noting the emergence of societal forces—particularly in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Parler—that cannot currently be controlled by government and are instead in the hands of corporate executives, for whom bottom-line profit is often the ultimate determinant.
“The owners of corporate giants should not decide which views are right and which are not,” Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said after then U.S. President Donald Trump was banned or restricted by several of the largest social media platforms in early January 2021. Morawiecki’s dictum is more than a little ironic, for in Poland, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media are regulated by law, and the prime minister has suggested similar regulations should be instated throughout the rest of Europe. Perhaps he intends us to understand that it is “censorship” when tech giants restrict free speech, and only necessary regulation when government does the same.4
Like many who complain about corporate social media censorship, Morawiecki cites a natural right to “freedom of speech” in his argument, calling it the “salt of democracy.”
The American Moment
Despite the ultimate inconsistency of his views, the prime minister is only underlining a deeply grounded American belief that has been foundational to the United States for more than 225 years. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes this right to free speech a cornerstone of the republic:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Both constitutional experts and the American people agree that the entire point of the Bill of Rights is to protect people from an over-reaching government. The popular consensus about the broad right to free speech is profound and enduring in American culture. But as society has rapidly transitioned to communicating largely on privately owned, profit-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the heretofore unchecked power of social media giants to censor certain kinds of speech they find unacceptable has become a topic of fierce public debate. Do publicly traded social media companies enjoy the same rights as individuals to endorse some speech and prevent other speech?
Social media executives have been regularly called to testify before the U.S. Congress in recent years as the reach of their media platforms now routinely exceeds that of all traditional media—print, television, and radio—combined. Elected representatives interrogate business leaders about perceived political favoritism in decisions about what speech to allow and what to restrict, threatening government regulation of these massively popular platforms. One pivotal question is often asked of these tech giant executives: Are you a publisher or platform? If you allow anyone to say whatever they want, then you are a platform. If not, then you are a publisher. There are vital legal ramifications in either direction.
Should governments cajole corporations to ban certain kinds of speech, or allow other kinds?
A secretly taped video of Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey leaked shortly after Dorsey and fellow executives banned Trump from his massively popular Twitter account revealed Dorsey opining that “this is going to be much bigger than just one account.”5
You can imagine someone in the Twitter hierarchy got fired for that leak.
The Future of Free Speech
Today, tensions in the United States and worldwide are higher than ever about free speech issues, and conflict is rampant. Things not previously thought of as political are taken as such. Someone advocates for a “plant-based diet” and millions assume the speaker is a “left-wing tree-hugger.” Complaints about higher taxes are viewed as unjustified complaints by “money-hungry anti-regulation” types. Those who describe a future prophetically envisioned in which America restricts both freedom of speech and freedom of worship are described as “conspiracy theorists.” Their cautions about papal influence in global affairs are dismissed as “hate speech.”
Bible-believing Christians have, for 250 years, been both eager for the promise of America as a defender of God-given rights and fearful of the coming era prophesied in Scripture, when the American republic will turn into a totalitarian state, brutally suppressing the very freedoms its Constitution currently enshrines. The biblical book of Revelation reveals the sweep of a sequence of three tyrannical powers, concluding with the emergence of a “lamblike beast” that many Bible expositors believe symbolizes the United States. Each of these three powers, in turn, wages war “against the saints”—those who are committed to the Lordship of Christ and who, through His power, keep His commandments. The last of these powers, the “beast from the earth” that “had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon,” ultimately “forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads,so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:11, 16, 17, NIV).
The evident collusion between tyrannical governmental authority and the even more pervasive power of “the merchants of the earth” (Rev. 18:11) to accomplish the goal of snuffing out religious liberty and freedom of worship is there for all to see who study biblical prophecy.
For more than 150 years, Seventh-day Adventists have been scanning the political landscape, looking primarily for government-initiated restriction of free speech and religious expression.
What if government, acting more by proxy than through legislation, at some point uses the even more sweeping power of “the merchants of the earth” to accomplish its liberty-destroying objectives?
How should Bible-believing Christians relate to the threat of government and business working together to enforce “social norms” against what they define as “hate speech” and “wild-eyed conspiracy theories” about how the world will end?
The 19th-century abolitionist Wendell Phillips said it well: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
“Watch and Be Ready”
The recent evidence of restriction of expression—whatever we think of it—began with decisions taken by the leadership of tech giants and political contributors. With amazing rapidity, the business world pivoted to a position of denying those it deemed unhelpful to its interests access to the media platforms and money by which public figures had acquired political power.
We dare not assume the perpetuity of our current liberties. Scripture predicts that they will ultimately be eroded by the same anti-liberty forces that have fought against God’s kingdom for centuries. Those forces will include governmental, ecclesiastical, and business interests that work for common interest and a command environment in culture, worship and the economy.
Elected governments are notoriously fickle in both following and amplifying social and cultural trends. As people yearn for a unified social compact in which civic strife and the threat of violence is reduced, it takes no additional prophetic gift to assume that government could work with and through the agencies of major corporations to legitimize restrictions on religious liberty and freedom of expression. While the broad outlines of the events that will unfold are clear enough from the Bible and the gifted insights of the Spirit of Prophecy, we probably shouldn’t assume we have every detail figured out as to how the narrative will unfold.
The clarion call of Jesus from two thousand years ago still rings: “Watch and be ready.”
The most important task in this amazing moment is to continually assess everything in our culture, our structures, and even our church through the lens of the gospel story. In that story of loss, rescue, freedom, and the power of choice, we learn crucial lessons on how to treat those we disagree with, and how much opportunity we give to those who oppose what we believe.
Look for Part 2 of this article on how the history of the great controversy highlights the urgency of our moment.
1. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 1–4.
2. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine, 1953).
3. Frederick H. Cramer, “Bookburning and Censorship in Ancient Rome: A Chapter from the History of Freedom of Speech,” Journal of the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (1945), 170.
4. Poland’s PM: Social Media Need Anti-Censorship Regulations, Associated Press, January 12, 2021.
5. Joseph A. Wulfsohn, “Twitter ‘Whistleblower’ Leaks Video of Dorsey Telling Staff Actions Will Be ‘Much Bigger’ Than Trump Ban,” Fox News, January 14, 2021.