Iceland, Pornography, and What Liberty Doesn’t Mean

Iceland is trying to ban internet pornography, and people all over the world are outraged. Supporters think it’s a good idea that will protect children and women; opponents don’t like the consequent implications against the freedom of speech and expression. While the US has not started a national campaign to ban internet pornography, many of the hot-button issues on our own political table revolve around the same question: What kinds of freedom (and how much of it) should we support? The debate is equally sticky in Christian circles. Should we vote against same-sex marriage, abortion, or free-reign of internet pornography? Should we force our morality on to others who don’t want it?

Some have  argued that morality differs significantly from legality—what we desire as Christians is different from how we should vote, because we live in a secular society. Our opposition to same-sex marriage doesn’t mean we should ban it for others. We live in a free country, and need to support freedom, even if we don’t necessarily agree with what freedom allows. If the majority of US citizens were Muslims, we wouldn’t want laws passed which would force us to go to mosque every Friday. In the same way, we shouldn’t force our own ideals onto others.

Should we even care about political freedom, when we have freedom in Christ? Absolutely. While we are citizens of Heaven first and foremost, we are also citizens of a nation, and our votes (or lack thereof) impact our daily lives. As a result, we should be very interested in the freedoms our country values. We need to uphold the liberty that so many have given their lives to safeguard. We also have to make sure that we aren’t unduly pushy—parading around with “Turn or Burn” signs is not the best method of showing Christ’s love.

However, does that really mean that we should vote against our convictions as Christians? I think not. The heart of the subject is really about freedom—is freedom license to act solely based on our own judgments, or should freedom enable us to act well?

When we talk about “freedom,” we usually mean that people can do whatever they want without the fear of punishment or consequence. This definition is disastrous in the context of laws and the government. It pits the law against freedom, giving anarchists exclusive right to its claim. John Locke, the British philosopher whose ideas influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, has a different notion of freedom. He claims that a human’s ultimate end is happiness, but that no one can be happy without being part of a civil government precisely because of anarchy. The lack of laws enables people to do whatever they want— enslave, steal, murder—without restraint, and everyone is left to defend their lives and property in fear. Only within a system of laws are people safe enough to pursue their ultimate end:

 Law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no further than is for the general good of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish…The end of law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom.

Good laws will encourage people to do good things, and they will be happier as a result. If laws do not lead to happiness, we had best abandon them. American freedom, then, does not mean that we can do anything we want, but that we have liberty within a set system of laws. Here, one could argue that because America is a democracy, it will reflect the majority’s beliefs, whether that majority believes in God, the Force, or cannibalism. True, yet our founders hoped that the people would have the sense and conviction to vote for just, upright laws.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Consider the same-sex marriage debate: proponents argue that same-sex marriage will bring them happiness. Similar reasoning is given for other issues such as abortion, pornography, or the recent legalization of marijuana. If it makes someone happy, why not? As Christians, however, we believe that certain actions are not good for the soul, which was created to worship God. Any action that moves us further from him will inherently makes us less happy, though it may bring us temporary pleasure. One day we will stand before the throne of God, and he will hold us accountable for our actions—including the votes we cast against our Christian convictions, simply because we didn’t want to step on someone’s toes with our steel-toed morality boots.

How, then, should Christians vote? If freedom means the right to do whatever we want, then inasmuch as we should support freedom, we will certainly vie for anarchy. If, however, freedom facilitates the right kinds of actions, then Christians should vote according to their convictions of God’s truth.

Of course, deciphering God’s truth is not always black and white. Christians are often divided on issues such as gun control or environmental regulations, and even debate over whether we should vote on issues of which we are unsure. While we may hear differing opinions which sound reasonable, whatever the outcome we must live out our faith to the best of our abilities in our every-day lives and in the voting booth.

  • Meg

    Very insightful. This helped open my eyes not only to the meaning of political laws but also to the laws that God gives in Scripture. A lot of people think that God is a kill joy because of the rules that he set in place. In reality those laws are there to help guide our freedom not restrict it. Thank you for this great post!

  • Nate

    “one could argue that because America is a democracy, it will reflect the majority’s beliefs, whether that majority believes in God, the Force, or cannibalism”

    America is a Constitutional Republic not simply a democracy. Legally, the majority can only take us so far. Our constitution keeps the laws within a certain boundary.

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  • lori

    I think one problem we have as Americans, though, is with distinguishing between restraining and punishing. We are a very, very punitive nation, as our incarceration rates prove (far higher than anywhere else in the world, and similar only to those of the gulag-era USSR). My understanding is that the Iceland proposal involves finding ways to restrict people’s access to porn, but it doesn’t impose penalties for possessing it. I personally think that is a fine, sensible law that doesn’t infringe upon liberty in an undue or troubling way. But, I have no doubt that if we were to try to ban pornography here, we’d mainly focus on punishing people found in possession of it (as we did during prohibition, as we tend to handle everything). At that point, I think the government moves beyond simply taking steps to restrain people from harmful actions and influences, which I think is legitimate, to using its power to compel people to live by a certain standard and punishing them if they don’t, which for things that do not directly harm another specific individual, I’m not sure is warranted. Which is to say, I’d favor filtering, but not criminal penalties for possession, which sounds like what Iceland is proposing, but which I can’t imagine happening here, given our punitive American mindset.

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  • Kim

    I understand what you are saying, but do you truly believe that pornography does not “directly harm another specific individual?” Research proves otherwise. It harms the women who are involved in making it, as well as the men who view it, and the women and children who are victims of violent crimes against them by those who view it. Those facts were the impetus for Iceland’s action.

    John Stonestreet of Breakpoint, the late Chuck Colson’s ministry, says: “But the idea comes not from conservative Lynchburg or Provo but from liberal Iceland—that’s right, Iceland—a European social welfare state with fewer than 400,000 residents living on a volcanic island in the North Atlantic. Tiny Iceland has a big problem—violent, hardcore internet pornography, which officials say endangers women and children. That’s why some officials want to block access to it.

    “We have tobe able to discuss a ban on violent pornography, which we all agree has very harmful effects on young people and can have a clear link to incidences of violent crime,” says Iceland’s interior minister.

    I do believe this is something that “directly harm[s] another specific individual.”

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