Toby Young on the future of free speech for Christians

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In 2020, journalist Toby Young set up the Free Speech Union to protect free speech, which he believes is under greater threat in the UK than at any time since the Second World War.

More recently, Young, the union's General Secretary, lambasted Worcester College, Oxford, for cancelling a Christian Concern training event last year.

"The College's uncritical acceptance of claims that the conference harmed students was a serious error," he said.

Young, 58, is an associate editor of The Spectator, where he has written a weekly column since 1998, and during the Covid shut-down, he set up The Daily Sceptic blog.

Christian Today spoke to Young about the particular free speech challenges facing biblically orthodox Christians.

CT: Why do you think theologically-conservative Christians are falling foul of cancel culture in the UK?

Toby: Some orthodox Christian views are now considered offensive, or even 'hate speech', which is why people expressing them, whether in person or on social media, sometimes find themselves in trouble. None of this will be news to your readers, but what may be news is that this censorious attitude now extends to the Church of England.

A CofE curate recently replied to a tweet from a green lobby group that was urging people not to have children because – apparently – it's bad for the environment. He urged everyone to have as many children as possible and quoted the familiar Biblical passage about God urging man to go forth and multiply.

A group of predominantly female CofE vicars then attacked him en masse, with one primary school teacher even suggesting he should be killed for uttering such heresy. He was then the subject of multiple complaints to the central church. It seems that expressing orthodox Christian beliefs is now unacceptable in the Church of England.

Toby Young

CT: How committed do you think this Conservative government is to tackling the threats to free speech?

Toby: The present Government has been sending out mixed messages about its support for free speech. For instance, it has brought forward the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will strengthen free speech protections in English universities, and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab recently announced he's going to bring forward a Bill to create a British Bill of Rights that will prioritise free speech.

But the Government has also brought forward the Online Safety Bill, which will force social media companies to remove 'legal but harmful' speech from their platforms. That will almost certainly include some posts expressing orthodox Christian beliefs, although the big social media companies need no encouragement when it comes to removing them.

CT: What is your prognosis for Christian freedom of expression in this country over the next five years?

Toby: The short and medium-term prognosis isn't good. I fear the obligation the Online Safety Bill will impose on social media companies to remove 'legal but harmful' content will make those platforms even more intolerant of some orthodox Christian beliefs – such as the belief that sex is immutable. That belief isn't 'harmful', of course, but trans rights activists will claim that anyone expressing that belief is 'harming' them and such objections are likely to be taken seriously.

Indeed, that claim is already taken seriously by some social media companies – for instance, a member of ours started a petition on urging the Oxford English Dictionary to keep its definition of woman as "adult human female" and removed it on the grounds that defining a woman as an "adult human female" was 'hate speech'.

My advice to any orthodox Christian worried about their right to freedom of expression being eroded is to join the Free Speech Union.

CT: You would not describe yourself as a religious person but what has been your experience of Christianity in your life?

Toby: When I had my daughter, I went to see the vicar of my local church to see if she could get a place at the local CofE primary school. I told him that both my wife and I had been brought up in non-Christian homes and sent to non-Christian schools and therefore we'd had no choice about whether to embrace or reject Christianity.

For the sake of our daughter, I said, we'd like her to go to a Christian school so she could make an informed choice. He looked a bit sceptical, so I said we could have turned up to his church and pretended to be Christians, but we thought that would be disrespectful. At that point he perked up – he said he'd identified many such parents in the pews – and said that if we did an Alpha Course our daughter could come to the school. I asked whether she could still go if we didn't convert at the end of it and he said, "Provided you approach it with an open mind, yes."

My wife and I then did the course and we did approach it with an open mind, but neither of us converted and the vicar was as good as his word. We had other children and assumed the school's sibling policy would take care of them, but it turned out it only would if we attended church once a fortnight so we ended up going to church for about five years until the last of our children got a place at the school.

I enjoyed the experience, but at no point was I tempted to convert. However, one of our children has converted to Christianity as a result of going to the CofE primary school.