Defending Franklin Graham's speech

I’ve been to Liverpool only twice, and both times the city was hospitable. The next time? I’m not so sure.

In 1965, my family was returning to Canada after several years living in Plymouth, England. We were booked on the Cunard Line’s RMS Carinthia to sail from Liverpool, so we arrived in the city a day or two before departure. I was five years old, and I remember Liverpool mostly for only one wonderful thing: I saw my first motion picture there and promptly fell in love with Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

Forty-plus years later, Dr. Gerald Pillay, Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, invited me and three other scholars to address an international conference of presidents of Christian universities. Leaders from Madras, Nairobi, Krakow, and San Francisco attended, among a couple dozen others. The proceedings were crowned with a sumptuous dinner in the great dining room of City Hall, hosted by the Lord Mayor himself bedecked in his gorgeous chain of office. And it fell to me to offer the toast of thanks on behalf of the conferees to our gracious host.

I’m not confident the current Liverpool mayor would want to hear anything I have to say. He certainly doesn’t want to hear what fellow Christian Franklin Graham has to say.

According to the BBC, ACC Liverpool, the main convention centre in that city, recently cancelled Franklin Graham’s scheduled evangelistic event. A spokesperson said that the venue had been “made aware of a number of statements which we consider to be incompatible with our values.”

Not specifying what set of values a conference centre might be expected to have, nor whether they have been articulated anywhere for the scrutiny of the public that helped pay for it, the spokesperson continued, “In light of this, we can no longer reconcile the balance between freedom of speech and the divisive impact this event is having in our city.”

Mayor Joe Anderson then tweeted his support. The cancellation was the “right” decision because “our city is a diverse city and proud of our LGBTQ+ community and always will be.”

Now Glasgow has done the same, not citing any clear and present danger from Graham’s event (the usual standard for curtailing free speech) but merely the concern of some that Graham will say things with which some people will strongly disagree. (I’m not soft-pedalling the objection: See the BBC’s coverage here. UPDATE: The O2 in London has refused him now as well.)

Readers of this space know that I am no fan of Franklin Graham’s public utterances on a range of controversial issues. But to my knowledge none of them have descended to meet any serious standard of “hate speech.” And one notes that neither ACC Liverpool nor the Scottish Event Campus accuses him of that—merely of saying things that the people who run them don’t like.

Apparently, in some British cities nowadays, diversity is restricted to a single opinion about sexual minorities, which doesn’t strike the observer as being diverse at all.

Meanwhile, at the farthest reach of the Commonwealth, tennis greats John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova recently decided to breach protocol to promote their view of diversity. They unfurled a banner at centre court to assert that because Australia’s greatest player, Margaret Court, has continued to speak her thoughts about homosexuality diversely from McEnroe and Navratilova, she should have her name removed from the arena in which some of Australia’s best tennis is played.

That doesn’t sound very diversity-loving, either.

To be sure, there’s a little good news among the bad. Australia’s The Age reports that “prominent Liberal MP and gay marriage advocate Tim Wilson is opposed to the proposed removal of tennis great Margaret Court’s name from the stadium at Melbourne Park, calling such a step ‘too 1984’ for his liking.”

Closer to home, the award-winning American journalist and leading gay rights proponent Andrew Sullivan opposes hate-speech legislation as a dangerous curtailment of freedom. One doesn’t have to guess how he would feel about conference centre executives cancelling an event because the speaker has articulated the view that remains the majority opinion of people around the globe—a view he would find odious, to be sure, but clearly part of the “diversity” of modern life.

I myself have been heartened by gay and lesbian friends who speak out—in conversation and on social media—on behalf of true diversity and freedom of speech. They are intelligent enough, humble enough, and, frankly, adult enough to weather opinions they dislike in order to preserve the freedom that only yesterday was withheld from people of their views.

Notice that I didn’t call them “good enough” or “moral enough” or “generous enough.” The friends I have in mind surely are those things as well. But they are also wise enough to know that history does not flow inevitably in one direction. They know that today’s gains may prompt tomorrow’s reaction—and then what?

To paraphrase Sir Thomas More, they know that if they cut down all the protections for speech they don’t like today, and the devil comes for them tomorrow, they will have nowhere to hide. And they see that the devil is indeed coming for them…in politically and socially reactionary movements across the globe.

So there are good reasons—ranging from high principle to sheer prudence—to tolerate speech we don’t like. Can we Canadians do better?

Can we Canadian Christians do better?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).