The Lord’s Prayer at the Movies | Vol. 3 / No. 4.3

Coming attractions unlikely to include prayer | Photo: Alex, CC BY 2.0
Coming attractions unlikely to include prayer | Photo: Alex, CC BY 2.0

Okay guys, here’s the thing: this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Nothing.


Here’s the TL;DR: The Church of England/The Anglican Church/the state-sponsored religion of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is launching a new website to get people to pray more. Why isn’t really my concern — as I’ve said recently, people can pray or not pray so their hearts’ content so long as they try to do productive things as well. But these certainly well-meaning folk are trying to advertise for this website in a commercial spot of the kind played in movie theatres just before the film, the ones that used to be reserved for the “coming attractions” trailers. Said commercial spot comprises sixty seconds of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

And the movie theatre chains Odeon, Cineworld, and Vue — 80% of the screens in the country — have decided not to show it, citing a policy that they don’t show political or religious messages in those advertising spots.

Now, according to the Guardian, the church [has] warned that the move could have a “chilling effect on free speech” and said it was at a loss to understand the logic behind the decision.

So allow me to explain.

First: this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is about your speech and the law, not about your speech and commerce.

Freedom of speech laws do not protect all kinds of speech. Most countries actually have laws that do curtail freedom of speech in certain circumstances — state secrets laws, hate speech laws, and incitement to violence laws are a few good examples. These are restrictions on freedom of speech that many of us accept as being done for the common good.

Freedom of speech also does not protect your right to be listened to. Nowhere do you have a right to be listened to. You may say what you like, and do so in many places, but you can seldom force people to listen.

You also do not have a right to speak everywhere and anywhere you like. You may not go onto private property to say things, and claim your freedom of speech was infringed because you were escorted off the premises. You may not say anything you like on the television or radio — there are often (rather prudish, if you ask me) rules regarding swearing and sexual content. And furthermore there is the issue of who owns the medium of speech, which brings me to my second point.

Second: this has everything to do with commerce.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a member of an oppressed minority. You go to a theatre to see the new Star Wars film, and you’re forced to sit through sixty seconds of sponsored content made by a group that has traditionally oppressed you, often violently. It doesn’t matter which oppressed group, and it doesn’t matter what the content is — it’s going to make you uncomfortable. An announcement by the British Nationalist Party whose sole content was a sixty second lesson in how to bake chocolate chip cookies would still make recent immigrants uncomfortable.

Now imagine that that discomfort — it doesn’t even have to be offense, remember — is enough to make a sector of the population less likely to go to see films in theatres. Remember that the film sector is doing a whole lot worse than it used to be. Hell, I haven’t been to the cinema in literally years.

What do you do? Well you can’t single out any one group — that would run afoul of anti-discrimination laws — so you do the next best thing: you say you won’t play soapbox for even the most well-meaning of messages that might make your revenue stream smaller. Economics: pure and simple.

That’s what’s going on here. It’s not about the Lord’s Prayer giving “offense.” Neither is it baffling. It’s about theatres making their audience — their whole audience — as comfortable as they can, so that they’ll continue coming back and spending money there.

A government or any employee or policy of the government that curtails speech of any kind does infringe on freedom of speech. But speech through privately-owned channels is not subject to the demands of any one group. If the cinemas were owned by the government, or were a commonly-used platform for the spreading of all religions’ messages, then singling this out for exclusion would be a free speech issue or a discrimination issue.

But as it is, it’s nothing more than business.

If Christians boycott the new Star Wars films because the theatres won’t play the ad, maybe they’ll change their minds, and that’ll be their prerogative, but I wouldn’t count on it. If that many people cared, they wouldn’t have to advertise in the first place.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.