02/05/2015 04:58 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2015

Religious Satire Can Be a Positive Thing

For three decades, the United States had its own version of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that saw a massacre of much of its Paris staff in January after printing cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

The Dallas, Texas-based Wittenburg Door, a now defunct religious satire magazine, had a different mission from Charlie Hebdo. The Wittenburg Door, aka The Door, published satire in order to build up the church rather than simply mock religion. It was staffed by Christians who parodied the failings and foibles of religious figures, but who took God seriously.

The Wittenburg Door was nearly as offensive in its day as Charlie Hebdo. Mother Teresa once graced the cover as "Loser of the Year." The magazine had its origins in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which some labeled "Hippies for Christ." The title came from the church door in Wittenberg, Germany where Martin Luther nailed 95 theses criticizing practices of the Catholic Church in 1517, starting the Protestant Reformation.

The Wittenburg Door appealed to Christian youth who preferred an edgier tone to their religious messages than the mainstream fodder available at the time, much like today's youth oriented churches that have rock bands and light shows. The magazine was founded by the late Mike Yaconelli, owner of a religious publishing company in California called Youth Specialties.

"It took us three issues to recognize two things," Yaconelli wrote in the 25th anniversary issue in 1996. The first was that "Wittenburg was spelled wrong (Wittenberg). We decided that the misspelling was a kind of divine statement of the satirical nature of the magazine."

The second was that The Wittenburg Door worked better as a satirical magazine focused on the evangelical wing of the church, rather than as a straightforward record of youth missions.

The magazine spent the bulk of its erratic publishing history satirizing excess, slamming fraudulent preachers, and probing the misdeeds of those who used religion for self-aggrandizement. In return, they received praise, adoration, condemnation, lawsuits, and banishment from Christian bookstores.

Yaconelli grew weary of religious satire after a quarter century and gave the magazine to Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas. That's how this irreverent publication wound up in conservative Texas.

In addition to publishing The Wittenburg Door, Trinity housed and fed the homeless in a series of row houses in east Dallas, and they still do this charitable work. When they were in the magazine publishing business, Ole Anthony and Trinity staffers participated in exposes of the deceptive practices of the Rev. Robert Tilton and other televangelists, making friends and enemies along the way. Friends among the righteous, enemies of the fakers and con artists.

Robert Darden, a professor at Baylor University, was the magazine's longtime editor. Darden, a scholar and author of more than 30 books, is founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, now housed at the Smithsonian.

I came across The Wittenburg Door as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1990s, and soon after settled on religious satire as a dissertation topic. I visited Dallas several times, and Anthony and Darden have since become friends.

The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted me to revisit a topic I explored 20 years ago: Is it ever okay to ridicule religion?

According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans who heard about the attack said it was okay to have published cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad, but 28 percent disagreed.

One respondent said, "Because I agree with free speech, but I also have a strong respect for people's religious ideas. It's a matter of respect - things you just don't do."

Making fun of religion is, in this view, one of those "things you just don't do."

But doesn't "free speech" mean you can publish anything, regardless of how offensive it is? Free speech has its legal limits, and even legal speech can have consequences. For example, Pope Francis, arguably the most progressive pontiff in decades, draws the line at mocking faith. "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," Francis said. "It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

Why not? Because offensive speech can result in violence, as happened in Paris?

Satire for good purposes from religious sources such as The Wittenburg Door should be protected speech, and satire from secular sources that degrades religion and deities and prophets should be just as protected. Offense is never an excuse for violence.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it this way in a 1929 dissent:

"[I]f there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought--not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."