What does it mean to slander a religion? Or to slander key figures in a religion?

Are any of the following statements slander?

  • The Christian assertion that a man named Jesus was the son of God is false.

  • God never chose a man named Mohammed as an exemplar for humanity, to whom central truths about morality and history were dictated by an angel.

  • The story of Abraham is a myth, a made-up tale invented by an ancient culture.

Each of those statements rejects faith-based claims. Says that the respective religions are, in essence, wrong.

Is it slander to say that a religion is wrong? Or that a person is wrong to believe in such a religion? I don't think so, either by the common understanding of the word or by American legal definitions. But it appears that a number of conservative Christians disagree with me.

Not surprisingly for these politically fraught times, the denotation drama was set off by President Obama. Here's the particular paragraph from his speech delivered last week before the United Nations General Assembly:

"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: 'Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.' Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support."

On the one hand, this looks to be about as controversial as, hm. I was going to say "motherhood and apple pie." But even those might poke a political anthill these days. So let's just say "not controversial."

Obama speaks in support of religious tolerance. He offers a list of examples, not an exhaustive catalog, of ways that tolerance can be violated. And he ends with at least a modest claim of American exceptionalism. Everybody cheers? Hah.

Erick Erickson, editor of RedState insisted that "the President of the United States declared that the future does not belong to practicing Christians." It's a trope picked up and repeated many other places on the web. See here and here and here just for some examples.

Seems to me that such critics are guilty of what logicians call a "category mistake." That's an error committed when someone argues that something belongs to a category that it can't possibly be part of. "That is an ugly red banana" may be wrong but it doesn't represent a category error. Bananas can be red and even ugly. "That banana is a lousy squash," on the other hand, is a category mistake because bananas are inevitably in a different category than squashes.

Erickson's claim can only be true if any denial of the truth claims of faith is, inevitably slander. They've all got to be bananas. Which ain't necessarily so.

(I did find one conservative columnist who made exactly that claim without running into the category error. Diana West at Arizona Daily Sun, oddly, turns to what she says is the Muslim sharia definition of slander to back her position. Obama, on the other hand, is not a Muslim but an American lawyer and former law professor who is going to be using an American and even a particularly American legal understanding of the term.)

So what's slander? It's a lie spoken in public that defames someone's reputation. But it's more than that. Both in law and conversation there's usually a sense in which the speaker must know that what's said is a lie. And colloquially, there's an element of ill will, if malicious intent. (The legal term "malice" isn't so much about nastiness, however, but of reckless disregard for the truth.)

By that standard, were any of those statements I started with slander? Nope. For one thing, none of them can be proven to be true or false. All of those statements -- and their converses -- rest at some level on faith rather than facts. This side of the Great Perhaps, there's no unambiguous, tangible evidence either way. So it's impossible to say that someone offering those statements is knowingly lying.

Beyond that, they say nothing negative about the character of believers or of the founders of the faiths. There's nothing malicious or nasty in them.

Remember that what set Obama off was that nasty bit of YouTube-ry that portrayed Mohammed as a womanizer and intentional fraud and was at least a pretext for violent demonstrations in many nations. (However it figured into the attack on the Libyan consulate, whatever I've read indicates the film had some role in inspiring protests elsewhere.)

I suggest you read Obama's entire speech. It includes a vigorous defense of unpleasant and insulting expression. Doubles down on the goodness of American protection of such nastiness. Unambiguously condemns violence as an appropriate reaction to insults. And then does circle around to his assertion that the future does not, should not, belong to people who seek out ways to insult and attack other faiths and those who follow them.

Is it necessary for Christians to insult Islam, Mohammed and Muslims for them to make the case for their own faith? Is it necessary that Muslims insult Judaism and Jews to make the case for their own faith? Is it necessary for Jews to insult Muslims to support their own beliefs? And so on.

I hope not. But if I simply tell you I think your religion is hooey, that's not slander, either.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas.