Self-Censorship in the Christian World: An Underestimated Consequence of Secular Intolerance
A recent report published by a group of Christian institutions seeks to shed light and raise awareness on the deleterious impact of Christian self-censorship in all spheres of Western societies.
The increasing attacks on the freedom of speech and conscience of Christians in the West have been the subject of many discussions, columns and initiatives in recent years. But much less is being said about the attitude of Christians themselves, especially in the upper echelons of Western societies, towards these existential challenges to Christianity.
Are they fueling in any way — by their silences or omissions — the trend that has been going on for several decades, and which has progressively eliminated Christian influence from the spheres of decision?
The issue of self-censorship in the Christian world is the subject of a recent report produced by The International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF), the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America (OLIRE) and the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe (OIDAC Europe).
Presented during an online June 9 press conference, the report is entitled “Perceptions on Self-Censorship: Confirming and Understanding the ‘Chilling Effect.’” It is based in a field of study encompassing France, Germany, Colombia and Mexico — considered textbook cases for understanding the dynamics of this phenomenon, stemming directly from secular intolerance. The interviewees, chosen among the authoring institutions’ networks, were of different ages, genders and educational backgrounds as well as geographic locations, and come mostly from the education, media, political and religious fields.
Forms of Self-Censorship
Along with establishing that self-censorship in the Christian world is not a mere hypothesis but an overwhelming reality, the report also warns that the significant number of successful court cases involving freedom of speech for Christians does not coincide with an appeasement of secular intolerance, nor with a liberation of the speech for Christians.
According to Madeleine Enzlberger, executive director of OIDAC Europe, while the law still defends freedom of speech overall in many Western jurisdictions, the social pressure tends to be much more deterring and oppressive than the legal framework.
“Because of the social climate of intolerance around Christians, they don’t feel allowed to speak freely. It is the basis of the chilling effect,” she told the Register following the report’s presentation, adding that the choice for a growing number of Christians to keep quiet on certain issues in public tends to make religion, and thus the Christian anthropology and values, more and more relegated to the private sphere.
The forms that self-censorship takes are multiple and often subtle, the report indicates. Most of the time, this mechanism is almost unconscious. Friederike Böllmann, author of the Germany study, noted in an interview with the Register that none of the interviewees would mention self-censorship to describe their deliberate omissions, and that they would rather describe their attitude as being professional, tactical, politically correct or simply cautious.
“Many people, especially those employed by Christian churches, said they would make a distinction between the form and the content of their public statements, claiming for instance that while their stance on sexual and bioethics issues or on COVID measures hasn’t changed, their wording has changed in order to be more inclusive and welcoming to a greater amount of people, but without losing their core beliefs,” Böllmann said.
Another tendency emerging from the study, especially for Germany, is that of prioritizing the battles. In other words, a person who challenges the established order of secular intolerance on one issue will be unlikely to show the same determination on other important issues. And the “chilling effect” mentioned in the report is, according to its authors, necessarily amplified by the so-called cancel culture that has been spreading all across the West in the academic, artistic, political and media worlds.
“With the shift of the ‘right’ for people not to be offended, the risk for people in the media and politics to speak up is just too high,” Böllmann continued.
“In Germany there are groups that are being excluded from campuses not because of what they say but just because they may have given a talk to some church that may be identified as conservative. In the same way, if an intellectual or an artist performs in a city, the mayor can be accused of supporting him. You have to be very careful who you’re seen with.”
While noting that unlike France, there is no laicité (a formal policy of separation of religious influence from government policy) in Germany, Böllmann said that being a very practicing and believing Christian is no longer accepted within society.
“People are not discriminated [against] for belonging to a Church, it is seen as a simple cultural element but as soon as it is about real faith, if you argue as a believing person, it is identified as right-wing extremism,” she said.
In France, which embodies the most pronounced form of post-modern secularism, a generational gap seems to have developed and continues to grow. According to the various interviewees, in the face of a Catholic Church hierarchy and an older generation particularly prone to self-censorship in order not to displease the dominant anticlerical mentality, a new generation of unabashed and more daring faithful is emerging in concert with a renewal of conservative thought in the country.
In Mexico and Argentina, one of the most noticeable aspects of the research is that practicing Catholics are more prone to self-censor than Christians from other denominations, especially Evangelical Christians, who tend to have a better biblical training. In general, a high level of religious education appears to play an important role in the ability to resist the “chilling effect” in these Latin American countries. Those with a solid grounding tend to speak more openly about topics related to life, marriage and family from a Christian perspective.
Education on the one hand, and awareness of self-censorship on the other, are the two main keys to overcoming the chilling effect of secular intolerance, according to the conclusions of the report’s authors. In fact, for almost all respondents in all countries, the mere realization — via their own answers to the researchers’ questions — that self-censorship is occurring among Christians, especially in countries with advanced secularization, was enough to trigger in them the desire to reflect on its true impact on their lives and on the ways to combat it.
Dennis Petri, one of the leading authors of the report, said during the June 9 press conference that a Mexican bishop reached out to the team after answering their questionnaire, to thank them for prompting the interviewees to reflect about this serious issue. This in turn led the researchers to the conclusion that among the many things that can be done to address this, raising awareness among Church communities would be the most pressing and efficient step to take.
“We’ve heard more and more cases of self-censorship over the past years, it’s getting too much to be unnoticed, so we needed to document this and show the bigger picture,” Enzlberger told the Register, warning that the consequences of such progressive disappearance of Christian voices in the public discourse is having a very damaging impact on societies as a whole. “Many seemingly minor self-censorship phenomena lead to the silence of many, and if such a situation consolidates, we can no longer say we are living in liberal democracies anymore.”