Cake and Compassion in Arizona

Not so long ago, voices were raised and lawyers were sharpening their swords in America’s latest battle in the ongoing culture war. The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado was threatened with a fine and up to a year’s incarceration for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding. In New Mexico, a photographer was similarly threatened for refusing to photograph a gay wedding. In Arizona, a bill was put forward which aimed at protecting the rights of those who wanted to opt out of participating in such weddings if such participation would violate their conscience. The governor of Arizona vetoed the bill. Owners of businesses now have no legal right to decline to provide their services for gay weddings, however abhorrent the weddings may be to their consciences.

As a foreigner who sits quite happily north of the forty-ninth parallel and who participates in fewer discussions about “rights” than do my neighbours to the south, I am aware that many nuances in this culture war escape me, especially the legal ones. I have never been sure that “rights” has been the most helpful prism through which to view such disagreements. But even apart from the quintessentially American discussion of the rights of religious persons vs. the rights of gay persons, it seems to me as if much of the present discussion misses the mark. Instead secular people are giving in to the now perennial temptation to self-righteousness and to use this issue as yet another welcome stick with which to beat the Christians. They always thought that the Christians were an intolerant, uncompassionate, judgmental, and bigoted bunch, and here is another proof of it. Such self-righteousness often seems to overcome thoughtful analysis.

One writer, for example, suggests that the Christians attempting to refuse their services at gay weddings do so because they think that homosexuality is sinful, and asks rhetorically if these same Christians will be consistent and also refuse service to people who curse, or commit adultery, since these things also are sinful. The rhetoric makes great reading, but is not helpful, since it compares things not truly comparable. No one openly promotes cursing, nor is society taking increasingly draconian measures to justify and normalize adultery. That is, a predilection to cursing or adultery does not constitute an ideology in the way that gay marriage does.

More to the point, a store owner cannot tell if someone who walks into his store is given to cursing, or promotes adultery as morally on par with fidelity. If the potential customer is given to cursing or promotes adultery, their sin is not immediately apparent to the store owner, and moreover it has little to do with the service he is trying to buy. But when a gay couple asks for a catered cake or a photo shoot at their gay wedding, their sin (for so the Christian store owner regards it) is immediately apparent.

And let us be clear: the point is not just that homosexual marriage is sinful; it is that by providing the service, the store owner is forcibly involved in promoting an ideology he regards as morally abhorrent. The store owner’s concern with his own moral purity is not the issue, nor is the necessity of extending compassion to gays. At issue is the possibility of conscientious objection, and whether or not society’s determination to normalize a certain lifestyle should trump the individual consciences of a minority. The whole issue of gay marriage is not just one of sinful acts (as in the cases of those who curse or commit adultery), but of ideology, and the attempt to offer a rival view of sin and human nature.

Some try to blunt this imposition of tyranny by pointing out that everyone is involved in moral impurity and rival ideologies in some way simply by living in society. Thus, according to this reasoning, whenever we buy a product whose makers fund a television show with whose message we disagree, we are giving our money to support that message, and since we cannot avoid this by removing ourselves from society, we should cease trying to impose our standards of purity on others. Thus, it is argued, the sinner cannot be separated from the sin, and Christians should stop being concerned with maintaining their purity, and become more concerned with simply being compassionate.

Like I said, all this makes great reading, since everyone wants to be thought compassionate, and no one wants to be stigmatized as a judgmental jerk whose only concern is with personal purity. But perhaps it would be helpful to our moral analysis of the situation if we stepped back from society’s heated preoccupation with gay rights and imagine other scenarios instead. Then it might become more apparent that the dichotomy between purity and compassion is a false dichotomy. We need not choose between purity and compassion; the Scriptures would insist upon both.

Suppose, just for example, a customer walked into a bakery and asked that the African-American store owner cater a meeting of his white supremacist group. Assuming that the African-American baker found this event morally abhorrent, may he legally refuse his services? Or suppose a group of neo-Nazis walked into a Jewish photographer’s studio and asked the photographer to cover their upcoming neo-Nazi rally—something in the spirit of, say, Leni Riefenstahl? Assuming that the Jewish photographer found the event morally abhorrent, could he justifiably refuse his services? Note that this is not on par with refusing service to someone who happens to be privately sinful, someone for example who secretly loves to curse or sees nothing wrong with adultery. The morally abhorrent element is present in the event itself for which the service is sought, not in the secret heart of the buyer. For the baker or the photographer to participate would be to give inner assent to the morality of the event and its ideology. Their refusal to participate would not be motivated solely by their desire to keep themselves pure, nor would it necessarily indicate a lack of compassion for individual white supremacists or neo-Nazis. Compassion is not the issue; conscientious objection to the ideology is.

Please note that I am not hereby equating homosexual marriage with either white supremacism or neo-Nazism. The point of the comparison is that the Christians wanting to decline participation in gay weddings find the event every bit as morally abhorrent as African Americans find white supremacism and Jews (or anyone else, come to that) find neo-Nazism. Like it or not, homosexuality is not a private proclivity like other sins; it is a powerful movement, and one that now demands the surrender of Christian conscience.

Some would suggest that the culture wars are over, and that such refusal of service at gay weddings is a form of kamikaze self-destruction, so that Christians refusing such service run the risk of losing all credibility. I agree that the culture war is over, and that (north of the forty-ninth parallel anyway) we Christians have lost. But that is no reason to sell out our conscience.

In the early centuries of the Church, we lost the culture war between idolatry and monotheistic purity, for idolatry was everywhere culturally ascendant and the Christians lost credibility for continuing to insist that idolatry was wrong. Indeed, we lost credibility so much so that we suffered persecution and death for that insistence. But our insistence on hating the idolatrous sin while we loved the idolatrous sinner did not result in our going into oblivion, as some think our present insistence will. Rather it resulted in our saving our souls, and eventually, in the providence of God, of saving the Roman empire. The World will of course remain the World, and with the Flesh and the Devil continue to war against us. The crucial question is: will we Christians become like salt which has lost its savour, or will we continue to live differently than does the World?

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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