Monday, March 3, 2014

Some late thoughts on Christians, business, and homosexuality

"Late" because the new hot topic is the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Which I am largely undecided about, given my general ignorance of the geopolitics of the region. (Aren't Ukraine and Russia both part of the Soviet Union anyway? Isn't this like New Mexico invading Colorado or something?) Sticking with my general policy of being behind the times, here is my post on Christians, businesses, and homosexuality.

If you haven't been following the news, recently a number of businesses owned by Christians have come under fire for refusing to serve homosexual couples. Which is the way one side of the argument has been portraying it; the other way is to say that Christians have refused to use their business as a means of publicly celebrating homosexual sin, even when ordered to do so by the government. The way we phrase these things matters quite a lot--the former makes it sound like we're dealing with a civil rights issue, the latter like we're dealing with a freedom of religion issue. Which is not to say the whole thing can be solved by proper semantics, just that the words we use affect the way the issue is perceived.


One other point about phrasing: we should be careful to talk about these as "businesses owned by Christians", not "Christian organizations." The only "Christian organizations" are churches, everything else is just a part of the city of man and as such not inherently Christian. To my knowledge, so far no attempts have been made to compel churches along these same lines, though no doubt at some point in the very near future pastors will be instructed to marry homosexual couples under threat of sanction (a direction in which Canada appears to be moving). That will be a radical game-changer, and will require a serious reconsideration of American culture by Christians.

The Details

In case you missed the specifics, the big stories are as follows (HT: Matt Walsh for gathering these together):
Just a couple of observations:
  1. None of these circumstances are tied to rural or isolated communities where the company in question is the only service provider in town. The smallest appears to be the Washington case set in the town of Richland (population ~48,000), which according to a quick Google search has at least three other florists. And of course there are other bakers in Denver, other t-shirt companies in Lexington, and other photographers in Albuquerque--all of that without taking into account the Internet options available.
  2. None of these services are in any way essential. No one is being denied basic human necessities (food, shelter, etc). Nor are there any civic rights in question--i.e. no one is being barred from the polls, kept off the ballot, or turned away from jury duty.
    In fact, I think we can go ahead and say that these are not only not essentials, the services in question are luxuries of the higher sort, akin to getting your Cadillac on custom order rather than being content with a new factory model Chevy. (Okay, fine, I'm not a car person and those might be terrible examples--but hopefully the point is clear.) 
  3. All of the services in question require active creation on the part of the service provider. So it's not as if there were thousands of "Gay Pride" t-shirts laying around the factory that the Kentucky company refused to sell. The florist and the baker were being asked to arrange flowers and bake a cake, respectively. Presumably, had the homosexual couples in question walked in a bought a cake or a bouquet of the shelf, no questions would have been asked. This suggests that at least on some level, freedom of expression and freedom of speech are also in question. 
  4. In addition to requiring active creation, three of the four instances (excluding the t-shirt case) require some degree of participation in the event in question. Anyone who says that someone can bake a custom cake, arrange the flowers, or photograph a wedding without being an active participant in and supporter of said wedding almost certainly has never been involved in one himself. 
No conclusions or thoughts yet, just some observations. 

A Caveat

Before going any farther, I should point out that to some extent I don't have a personal dog in this fight. I mean, I certainly have opinions that are personal in that they are mine (religious, moral, and political ones at that). But in terms of practical engagement, I am a professor at a private Christian university and as such am twice-over unlikely to encounter this exact issue. First, homosexual students are unlikely to seek out my particular institution. Second, even if they do they are unlikely to affect what I do in the classroom.
After all, neither my nor my students' views on homosexuality affect the way the Electoral College works, or the way the New Deal changed American political life, or the way the Supreme Court operates, or what Plato says about politics, or any other such subject that I cover. So take all of what follows with the understanding that I am not speaking from any kind of deep-seated personal investment in the outcome. The way I shop for groceries will remain the same whatever our culture decides on this issue (in fact, that will be true of every issue so long as my wife wishes to continue doing the shopping). 

The Opinions

There have been any number of bloggers and policy wonks diving into this debate so far. Here are a few of the ones I've read:

Jonathan Merritt thinks that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have favored Christians serving same-sex couples, and that we should too.
As far as I'm concerned the MLK portion of the argument is interesting enough from a historical perspective (just what would MLK have done? I highly doubt he would have been willing to compare the plight of blacks in the segregated South to the "plight" of homosexual couples who can't get Christians to take their picture, but then again I'm no MLK scholar...), but what's really of value in this post is the comments section where a number of perspectives are tossed around. Unfortunately, Mr. Merritt has a tendency (as of March 3) only to respond to the easy criticisms; the more serious and challenging ones from folks like Francis Beckwith have so far been passed over.

As several of these commentators point out, the part of Merritt's argument which is most troubling is his claim that:
It was into this context that King argued a public business owner cannot choose to serve certain customers and not others, regardless of religious convictions. He believed a public business must serve the entire public--period. It is not a far leap to see how King's arguments coincide to our current situation. King's logic can be boiled down to this: if a business is public, it must be totally public.... When it comes to the American marketplace, the ocean of religious convictions stops at the shore of public service.
Regardless of whether Merritt is right about MLK, that last sentence is one which I find it difficult to believe that any even remotely thoughtful Christian could ever endorse in good conscience for a number of reasons that I'll try to highlight below.

Keith Pavlischek responds to Merritt (having had his comments on Merritt's post largely ignored by Merritt himself) by pointing out that in essence:
According to Merritt... then, not only would Jesus paint or photograph the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender “wedding” ceremony, he would call upon Caesar to force his recalcitrant disciples to do so if they refused. And since there must be some kind of sanction for a refusal to do so, Merritt... must believe that Jesus would support some kind of penalty–fine, or imprisonment –were his disciples to refuse to paint or photograph those events. Jesus, according to this line of argument, believes that they deserve, as a matter of justice, to be punished by Caesar.
Which is a fair conclusion based on the thrust of Merritt's argument, and one to which so far Merritt has not responded. In short, Pavlischek goes after Merritt's claim to have a Christian position by articulating another Christian position and claiming (rightly, I think) the moral high ground. 

Matt Walsh has argued that this is fundamentally a question of tyranny vs liberty of conscience:
No other group is afforded such privileges [as homosexuals are currently claiming]. I can’t force a Jewish deli to provide me with non kosher meat. I can’t force a gay sign company to print me “Homosexual sex is a sin” banners (I’d probably be sued just for making the request). I can’t force a Muslim caterer to serve pork. I can’t force a pro-choice business to buy ad space on my website. I can’t force a Baptist sculptor to carve me a statue of the Virgin Mary.
I can’t force a private citizen to involve himself in a thing which he finds abhorrent, objectionable, or sinful.
And you know what? I would never try.
Maybe that’s what separates liberty lovers from liberals. For all their talk about “minding your business” and “this doesn't concern you” and “live and let live,” theirs is truly an ideology of compulsion. The free speech and expression of other citizens must be tamed by the whip of their lobbying, legislating, and litigating.
It is, of course, ridiculous to insist that any man or woman has a “right” to have a cake baked or t-shirt printed. It’s equally ridiculous to put the desire and convenience of the would-be cake consumer and t-shirt wearer above the First Amendment rights of the cake maker and t-shirt printer.
But this is tyranny. It doesn't have to make sense.
Make no mistake: this is tyranny. Tyranny is not injured emotions, hurt feelings, and minor inconveniences. Tyranny is the government compelling a man or woman to conform to a dogma or bow to an idol. Tyranny is when you are forced to abandon your beliefs and fall in line.
And tyranny is still tyranny, even when it comes wrapped in tolerance and “human rights.”
Some Rambling Thoughts of My Own

With all of that said, what do I think? A few things, in no particular order (other than the last one, which is most important):

1) The "freedom of business/property" argument is not one Christians should hang their hats on. For one thing, on the practical level property rights have been functionally dead in America for nearly a century. If you want to know more about that, take a Constitutional law course. We can kick and scream about how things "should" be, but the fact remains that for the last hundred years the government has claimed the authority to tell Americans what they can and cannot do in their businesses. As a result, in the real world of politics this approach is a loser.
But this is also a losing argument on the philosophical/theological level as well. As Christians, we likewise do not (or at least should not) believe that we have the right to do what we want with our businesses. If a compelling Biblical case is made that Christians ought to be photographing homosexual weddings or baking cakes for them or whatever, then we do not get to play the "I own my own business and get to do what I like with it card." For that matter, the "I can do what I want card" should never be in the Christian's deck to begin with. As I noted before, phrasing matters. When Christians are in positions of authority in businesses, we must always speak in terms of obedience and serving God, not exercising our own wills by means of our corporations. And so long as we consistently speak in those terms, we may still be ordered to act contrary to our religious conscience, but it at least gets rid of the illusion that this is just about business and not about freedom of religion.

2) Merritt argues that "when it comes to the American marketplace, the ocean of religious convictions stops at the shore of public service." The Pavlischek article linked above does an excellent job of responding to the political side of this argument in terms of Christ and Caesar, so I don't have much to add there. What struck me however was the odd implication that there is somehow a neutral area out there called the "marketplace" which rises above our petty religious squabbles and which when entered by human beings somehow neutralizes our beliefs and values.
Frankly, I'm not entirely sure how a professed Christian can consistently hold the position that there is a place--especially an economic realm--where one lays down ones faith in order to interact with others. (Though of course one may inconsistently hold the position--we human beings do that sort of thing all the time!) This is not what we see in Scripture, if anything we see the opposite. Over and over we are told that God is sovereign over our business affairs, and that because of this there are ways we are to behave whether we want to or not and whatever the culture might otherwise decree. Our businesses are not our own as I've already noted, but neither are they neutral--God's decree governs there as it does everywhere else in existence.

I suspect that this may have been nothing more than a throwaway bit of rhetoric, especially since Merritt spent the rest of the article trying to convince the reader to hold his religious position when entering the marketplace. Nevertheless, the idea that there is neutral ground where our religious inclinations should have no effect is one that shows up far too often even among orthodox Christians. It's perhaps rare to see the economic sphere treated that way (usually it's politics or science), but it's an idea that is at odds with the sovereignty of Christ and one which we have no business holding if we want to be even remotely faithful to Scripture.

3) This is not the new Jim Crow issue. Anyone who tries to compare the current status of homosexuals in America with that of African Americans in the South prior to the 1960s is either ignorant or dishonest or both. The state and city refusing to let you vote is not the same thing as someone refusing to make you a cake, and being beaten and jailed for peaceful protest is not the same thing as getting the government to order someone to bake you a cake. And, well, you know what? Go read My Soul is Rested and then we can talk more about this. 

4) Whatever decisions are ultimately made in terms of the civil law, our obligations as Christians remain unchanged. We are to:
  • Teach that homosexuality is a sin. Not a worse sin than other sins, and not a better one. It is a sin infinitely offensive to a perfectly holy God and deserving of eternity in hell, in exactly the same way as my gluttony or my pride or your greed or whatever other sin you care to imagine.
    But, there's an important follow-up point here: teaching that homosexuality is a sin is not the same thing as teaching that Christians must shun/avoid/reject homosexuals. We need to be careful in how we present this message so that the listener does not hear "homosexuality is a sin and therefore you are a sinner, but I am not and so think you are a worse person." Every one of us--you, me, and everyone else--is a sinner. None of us escapes this label and none of us can claim innocence above others. When we teach that homosexuality is a sin, we need to teach right alongside it the judicial equivalence of our own sin before a righteous God.
    That of course does not answer the question of whether or not a Christian photographer can refuse to participate in a wedding. The fact that the Christian photographer is also a sinner does not lead to the conclusion that therefore he should be compelled to celebrate someone else's sin as well. The point here is that whatever the state decides, it in no way changes the obligations on the photographer to be clear about the nature of sin.
  • Obey the civil law. What this looks like in practice will depend on what the law ultimately decrees and what your conscience allows. It may be that bakers and photographers do provide their services for homosexual weddings at the order of the state. In which case they will have to find a way to be very clear about what they think about the morality of the 'wedding' in question. It may also be that bakers and photographers have to shut down their businesses if their consciences won't allow them to do so. Not being a businessman myself, I can't really help much with this issue and will have to leave the practical answer to wiser folks than me and those actually involved in the industry. We can wish we didn't have to deal with this issue, but in doing so it's important that we
  • Not approach this with a sense of entitlement. We do not have a right as Christians to own a business in the first place. We do have many rights as believers, but living however we want free from control by unbelievers in this life is not one of them and is never promised in Scripture. In fact, we're told that the opposite is the case. We are to be subject to the governing authorities, which when Paul wrote that meant Nero--the Emperor who first regularly persecuted Christians. We have to live in the tension of obeying those who hate the God we love and waiting patiently for the day when this tension will be resolved. Until then, we are to 
  • Faithfully and persistently hold out the offer of forgiveness. This is the obligation that all other obligations must bow before. Our ultimate attitude towards homosexuals, government officials creating and enforcing policy, and every one of our neighbors must be that of preaching the offer of forgiveness and mercy from a loving God, even when we're told we are hateful for doing so. This goes beyond this specific issue and covers all areas of life. Whether we're talking about homosexuality, greed, gluttony, pride, or any other sin you care to mention, all are paid for on the cross for those who repent of them and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our fundamental responsibility is to share this message, and if it gets lost in the politics and civil challenges we face in our time, then we need to do a serious reevaluation of how we are engaging with the world and loving our neighbors.
    Frankly, I don't know what the best way to do that is in the political question at hand. It may be that sharing the Gospel is best accomplished by photographing/caking/floristing homosexual weddings. It may be that it is best done by continuing to refuse to do so. But I hope that we'll find that as long as we're approaching the issue with this question at the front we will be better equipped to handle whatever Caesar cares to throw at us. 

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