What is religious freedom and why does it matter? Anyone who believes that they can sit these questions out will soon learn they cannot. Indifference will no longer be possible. As my friend Erick Erickson likes to say, “You will be made to care.” And you will be made to care sooner rather than later.
The landscape of the culture war has shifted. Courts continue to amass victories for proponents of a sexually libertine worldview. Marriage amendments seem to fall by the week. As a result, today’s sexual revolutionaries have shifted focus. With the wind at their backs, the goal has shifted from persuasion to the elimination and marginalization of contradictory beliefs. I can’t say it better than R.R. Reno:
To be blunt: Religious people who hold traditional values are in the way of what many powerful people want. We are in the way of widespread acceptance of abortion, unrestricted embryonic stem cell research and experimentation with fetal tissue. We are in the way of doctor-assisted suicide, euthanasia and the mercy-killing of genetically defective infants. We are in the way of new reproductive technologies, which will become more important as our society makes sex more sterile. We are in the way of gay rights and the redefinition of marriage. We are in the way of the nones and the engaged progressives and their larger goal of deconstructing traditional moral limits so that they can be reconstructed in accord with their vision of the future.
Traditional religious people are in the way, and many of our fellow Americans are doing their best to push us out of the way.
But what happens when it is fellow Christians that are pushing other Christians out of the way?
After last week’s column, Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt have doubled down with a new article chastising conservative Christians, and more particularly, Christians who own businesses, for being biblically selective—even hurtful and un-Christlike—about what weddings their businesses will or will not provide service to.
For both authors, an evangelical cake baker is guilty of hypocrisy for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony if the same baker would also provide a cake for a ceremony of a man and woman who have been improperly divorced or unequally yoked. Yet, one difference persists from the beginning. In the cases that Powers and Merritt mention, I don’t know of any court case seeking punitive damages or state coercion for Christians refusing to do weddings for unequally yoked Christians. They can call us hypocrites according to their interpretation (which isn’t accurate), but I’m not aware of accusations of hypocrisy being liable or deserving of state coercion.
Both wedding photographers and cake bakers are easy targets, I’ll admit. Their plight seems harmless after all. We’re talking about snapping pictures and mixing flour. Our concerns over religious liberty seem minimal to the concerns of Christians who are being slaughtered, quite literally, overseas. But there are significant and symbolic issues at stake involving bakers, florists, and photographers—issues that America and its laws must work out as the sexual revolution marches on amidst a country populated by conservative Christians.
A lot of the confusion in this debate is encapsulated in the Powers-Merritt article. There are nuances and larger principles at stake here that I think both are overlooking.
First of all, any legislation that would deny a gay individual access to public goods is deplorable. The legislation debated throughout the states doesn’t do this. I and other conservative evangelicals affirm that our gay and lesbian neighbors are made in the image of God and entitled to every service available to the general public. The Jim Crow connection, then, is little more than a soaring, imprecise use of rhetoric.
Secondly, there are differences between accessing general public accommodations and asking, or rather, coercing, an individual to lend their talents and services to an activity, action, or gathering that he or she thinks is sinful. Whether an individual is “affirming” or “participating” in their service is actually irrelevant. The locus of this debate is focused on the conscience, not degrees of complicity or accessory. Powers and Merritt seem especially fixated on this point, assuming the government capable of adjudicating these claims. A problem, though, beneath the surface of their argument is the very rationale of how they reach their conclusion: Powers and Merritt put themselves in the untenable position of telling private actors in these scenarios how to think about their services and talents (that their making a cake isn’t an “affirmation”), rather than deferring to the internal reasoning left to the actor to decide for his or herself. Powers and Merritt are not in the position to do the cogitating for those they write about. Indeed, only the individual should be able to decide for his or herself the interpretation of their conscience.
At a root level, it is a fact that a wedding ceremony is an endorsement or at least recognition of a couple’s love for one another. What is relevant is that laws not force individuals to contribute to a ceremony that he or she believes is founded upon “intrinsically disordered” passions. Or, as one commenter put it, “They can be required to make sin look good, just so long as they don’t have to sign a paper saying that it is good.”
Third, what Powers and Merritt fail to clarify is that this debate isn’t over whether Christians should or should not do something, but whether they must do something. They insist that this discussion is about whether a particular action is right or appropriate to one’s faith. Their discussion, though, omits how something that is right (according to them) can’t be compelled, which is important. To leave the discussion at that point, however, is to miss the larger horizon of implications.
To explain, I’d like to offer a real-life example: One of my friends once had the opportunity to photograph a fundraiser for a national political figure he did not support. He chose to go ahead and photograph the event, knowing that his services were helping promote a worldview he found abhorrent. He could have declined on the grounds that this person’s worldview was such that he couldn’t in good conscience help promote it. He should be free and able to obey his conscience. That’s what’s being asked for here, no more or no less.
The problem in the proposal advanced, however, is such that one should never advocate for unlimited choice in one plank of your platform, and unlimited coercion in another. That’s what happens when extremes govern civil society; and that’s a stage that is bound to collapse sooner or later. What’s needed is a mediating pluralism that recognizes and respect differences, not coercive one-size-fits-all laws that only serve to marginalize citizens. The Merritt-Powers proposal only ensures mutually assured degradation of both sincerely held beliefs and one’s liberty.
Were a gay baker to object to providing a cake for a church-sponsored event celebrating biblical marriage, I’d defer to a gay baker’s right to refuse, and respectfully seek out business elsewhere. He should be willing to serve Christians generally. He should not be coerced into providing food and drink for celebrating what his conscience forbids. That’s what it means to live in a free society. The state shouldn’t force the baker to provide a cake for a perspective that he or she vehemently disagrees with. In the same way, an African American who owns a t-shirt company shouldn’t be forced to make a t-shirt for a KKK rally. Imagine the stifling harm done to a society where a sign company owned by a gay man would be forced to print the heinously offensive, gospel-denying neon placards of the Westboro Baptist Church. That is no longer a free society. When companies are free to contract according to their conscience, the products of a free society—decency, respect, and civic pluralism—are cultivated.
Finally, religious liberty is not an absolute right used as a bludgeon to circumvent our nation’s laws. It was never designed with that intent, nor has it historically been used in this manner. Those proposing possibilities where gay persons are denied service at a lunch counter are simply using these hypothetical and unconscionable scenarios to extract fear from the public and legislators.
The issue never was, and never will be, about Christians picking and choosing what they will or will not do. It’s about what Christians are forced, mandated, or compelled to do by state law. Powers and Merritt, in this instance, are on the side of government coercion, and a loss of Christian conscience.
The great concern at issue is a government that would step in, target the Christian conscience regarding marriage, and adjudicate highly complex ethical-theological questions about whether baking a case is indeed “participation” or an “affirmation” by way of legal penalty. What’s at stake is theological nuance that the government isn’t equipped to meddle in when settling issues of conscience. So, government should trust private citizens, their consciences, and their associations, for no harm is being done.
I have no desire to divine motives, but the context of Powers and Merritt’s argument is deeply troubling. Why would they play to secular liberalism’s caricature of Christians? Why weaponize arguments for a side that already believes sexual liberty should win over religious liberty? Why proceed to make statements and arguments that will surely aid the opposing side as they litigate against Christian bakers, florists, and photographers? Why aid, incrementally, in the advance of the sexual revolution? Why side against their brothers and sisters by extending Caesar’s reach and strengthening his grip on the conscience?
I doubt Merritt and Powers will retract their position. But for those who object to my position or still seeking to learn their own, I’d ask you a couple of questions to examine what your principles are and where they lead:
- If Christians can be compelled to lend their craft to an activity or action their conscience objects to, what can’t Christians be compelled to do?
- Can you show us where, in Scripture, Jesus said to endorse or license sin for the sake of compassion and love?
- Is there a vocational exception in Scripture where Christians can wield their talents, skills, and crafts for practices that are sinful according to Scripture?
- Should a Christian-owned advertising agency be forced to help create ads for legal prostitution rings in Las Vegas?
- If a church allows its facilities to be used by the general public for wedding ceremonies, does the church have a right to deny its facilities to a gay couple seeking to get married?