We Cannot Say We Weren’t Warned

Taken from The European Conservative

It might seem overblown to call these appeals hearing the Trial of the Century. It’s not. The ability of people in every society of the West to speak freely about what they believe is true is on trial.

Believe it or not, the Trial of the Century just happened in a courtroom in Helsinki. The Finnish parliamentarian and physician Päivi Räsänen this week returned to the dock to face hate crimes charges for having quoted the Bible in defense of Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality.

While it is not altogether surprising that yet another Christian has been brought up on charges of blaspheming against LGBTs—who have been elevated from ordinary people, as equal as anybody else, into liberalism’s divinities—a statement the Finnish prosecution made in the trial’s opening raised the proceedings from an ordinary example of post-Christian liberalism’s contempt for the faith and free speech, into something epochal. Attention must be paid.

In her opening statement on Thursday, the Finnish prosecutor said, of a 2004 pamphlet authored by Dr. Räsänen, “The point isn’t whether it is true or not, but that this is insulting.”

Think about that: The point is not whether these words true or not, but that someone’s feelings were hurt by them.

This is the essence of totalitarianism: the demand to control reality. The Finnish state attempts to outlaw not simply expression it does not like, but facts it finds offensive. This little statement by grim-faced prosecutor Anu Mantila is what makes this two-day legal proceeding the Trial of the Century.

It’s like this: If, in a liberal democracy, the state has the power to declare truth subordinate to ideology, then you live under totalitarianism. It might be a soft totalitarianism—fines for thought criminals like Päivi Räsänen, instead of the gulag—but it is totalitarianism nonetheless.

It is telling that Mantila initially asked the appeals court not to let Dr. Räsänen and her co-defendant, Lutheran bishop Juhana Pohjola, even testify. It was as if she only wanted her allegations heard, with no defense from the accused. The court denied the prosecution’s request, but that it was even made tells you the kind of tyrannical mindset we’re dealing with.

For those just coming to the story, find background information in The European Conservative essay by Paul Coleman published after Dr. Räsänen’s 2022 trial. In brief, the Finnish state charged the Lutheran lawmaker and former head of Finland’s Christian Democratic party with hate crimes for three things.

First, she tweeted a photo of some Bible verses in 2019 in a criticism of her own church, the state Lutheran church, for endorsing the LGBT Pride festivities that year. Second, the state charged her for hate speech over a 2004 booklet she wrote for fellow Lutherans explaining the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage (Bishop Pohjola was also charged for sponsoring the publication of the pamphlet). The state piled a final hate speech charge onto Dr. Räsänen for explaining her views on a 2019 radio debate.

If Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola are convicted, the law permits them to be sent to prison. But the prosecutor, in her boundless mercy, is only requesting heavy fines and a retraction. (Of course, retraction as punishment is forced speech, and if they won’t do it? Then what?)

It is obvious that a court victory by authorities here would amount to criminalizing Christianity. But wait, you say, doesn’t Finland have an established church? Indeed, but that ecclesial body has been captured by LGBT ideology—which is what occasioned Dr. Räsänen’s controversial tweet. What would be criminalized if the doctor and the bishop lose is orthodox Christianity—that is, Christianity that remains faithful to Scriptural teaching about marriage and homosexuality.

We have known this since Finnish prosecutors first announced the charges. But Anu Mantila’s opening statement declaring that truth is beside the point here reveals the evil heart of the matter: that the trial is not simply about so-called ‘hate speech,’ but about truth and liberty itself. It is about whether or not old-fashioned liberalism, which prizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion, can hold out against the Left’s soft-totalitarian successor ideology.

Don’t think for a second that this trial is merely about Christians and homosexuality. If the state can establish in law that truth is subordinate to ideology, then nobody is safe. Today it’s about a grandmotherly Javert tirelessly pursuing a Lutheran lawmaker and her bishop over blasphemy against LGBTs. And tomorrow?

What happens to scientists whose research findings violate LGBT activists’ orthodoxy? In the United States, transgender campaigners often make outrageous, scientifically insupportable claims—as is their right. If the Finnish state wins this hate speech trial, every scientist—indeed, every citizen—in Finland will know that to contradict publicly what transgender ideologues proclaim, however absurd, will be to put oneself at risk of prosecution.

What becomes of a society whose rulers forbid speaking the truth? Solzhenitsyn knew. That’s why he said the fundamental act of resistance was to “live not by lies.” A system built on lies, as Soviet communism was, could not last forever. It depended on the fear of the masses that they would be persecuted if they spoke what they believed to be true. In communist Czechoslovakia, the persecuted Vaclav Havel observed the same thing. The “power of the powerless,” Havel said, lay in refusing to live by official lies, and being willing to suffer for the truth.

George Orwell also had Prosecutor Mantila’s number. He understood that to insist that truth must be the slave of ideology is to ratify totalitarianism. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote:

It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you—something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

This is not to say that Päivi Räsänen and her bishop are correct about homosexuality. As a Christian, I believe they are, but of course we could all be wrong. The point is that in a free society, we all should have the right to be wrong. I would certainly not punish the mistaken theological opinions of pro-LGBT Lutherans on grounds that they hurt my feelings. I do not wish to live in a society that lives by the rules of a kindergarten. To risk have one’s feelings hurt is a price we must all pay for the gift of living in a free and rational society, in which it is possible to discuss and debate matters. Yes, it is important to sanction in law deliberate lying, including slander and libel (defined as lies told to damage someone’s reputation). But truth must be sacrosanct.

The short trial ended today, September 1st, with a verdict expected in the next four to six weeks. If the state loses a second time, it has the right to appeal further up the legal chain. As the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is funding and coordinating the defense for Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola, points out, the Finnish state has virtually infinite resources to expend on pursuing these two Lutheran ‘heretics,’ but the doctor and the cleric are merely private individuals. If not for ADF International, which is raising money for their defense, these two faithful Christians might well be financially crushed.

Again, it might seem overblown to call a two-day appeals hearing the Trial of the Century. It’s not. The ability of people in every society of the West to speak freely about what they believe is true is on trial, either legally or culturally. As old-fashioned liberalism dies, its successor ideology is a militantly illiberal leftism that sees all social relations as nothing but power struggles. It also regards truth as whatever serves to advance the interests of its favored factions.

For the Right, it’s easy to see this kind of thing as nothing more than the Left being pushy and abusive—annoying, but not that big a deal. Other conservatives—self-styled ‘winsome’ Christians, say—might not like what’s happening in Helsinki, but may doubt whether criticizing homosexuality is a hill worth dying on.

They’re both wrong, and dangerously wrong. What implacable Finnish prosecutor Anu Mantila is doing is laying the legal groundwork for nothing short of therapeutic totalitarianism. To subject truth to ideology is to establish that reality is only what those in power say it is. And as no less an authority than Hannah Arendt wrote in the foreword to her classic study The Origins of Totalitarianism, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “it has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

We are, then, facing the abolition of man. Do I exaggerate? I leave you with the words of Arendt, a Jewish scholar, written after the glow from the ovens at Auschwitz had only just faded:

In this sense, it must be possible to face and understand the outrageous fact that so small (and, in world politics, so unimportant) a phenomenon as the Jewish question and antisemitism could become the catalytic agent for first, the Nazi movement, then a world war, and finally the establishment of death factories.

It must be possible to face and understand that so small (and, in world politics, so unimportant) a phenomenon as the fate of a Finnish pamphleteer and a cleric, on trial for affirming what the Bible says about homosexuality, could become the catalytic agent for far worse persecutions in this century, at the hands of a soft-totalitarian ideology that seemingly overnight has already captured all the institutional and cultural heights in Western democracies. It has happened before, to a people of the Book who were despised by totalitarianism in power, loathed as living rebukes to their ideology. We cannot say we weren’t warned.

Rod Dreher is an American journalist who writes about politics, culture, religion, and foreign affairs. He is author of a number of books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Benedict Option (2017) and Live Not By Lies (2020), both of which have been translated into over ten languages. He is director of the Network Project of the Danube Institute in Budapest, where he lives. Email him at dreher@europeanconservative.com.