On Bakeries, Pizza Shops, Florists and Same-Sex Nuptials

I can’t think of any other word to describe my impression of the brouhaha sweeping the country about the collision of same-sex marriage and the religious beliefs of small-business owners.
Off the bat, I’ll declaim what I believe to be self-evidently true: The radical monoculture of the Totalitarian Left tears at our shared social fabric. I could go on at length about the subject, but there’s not much I can add to what’s already been published by conservative commentators the last few weeks. Even for conservatives like me, who are supportive of gay rights, it’s difficult to be allies when the most prominent spokespeople of the Left have gone Full Alinsky on us, adopting hate-filled rhetoric and violent intimidation along the You Will Be Made To Care axis of “argumentation.”
That said, I am skeptical that a plain and faithful reading of Scripture justifies a small-business owner refusing to supply a same-sex wedding. There’s plenty in both Scripture and Tradition to bar a faithful Christian from being one of the spouses in a same-sex marriage … but serving as a contractor? One could, I suppose, elucidate a fairly subtle theological argument to justify non-engagement with a same-sex wedding in any capacity, including as a vendor, but it’s an argument — an interpretation of religious norms, not a plain-text reading of one. And the nature of many of these arguments I’ve encountered recently suggest that there’s not much theological nuance there; the arguments have all the superficiality of a post-hoc rationalization, a thin veneer disguising overt discrimination.
In other words: I throw the bullshit card on the idea that there’s a specifically religious reason compelling enough to justify the denial of service to same-sex clients. Especially when the very folks who argue their religious rights are violated by acting as vendors for a same-sex wedding also argue that those weddings are invalid in the eyes of God. So what’s the religious problem, then, in catering a make-believe wedding? The only way the religious-exemption logic holds is if the objector conceded that same-sex marriage (even civil marriage) is divinely sanctioned — but then, divine sanction erases the claim for a religious exemption. The mind boggles at the irrationality of it all.
To be sure, many Christians profess significant problems with homosexuality and the expansion of marriage to same-sex partners. Those problems are rooted in valid readings of Christian theology. I believe very strongly that Christians should not be targeted or persecuted for adhering to those beliefs. I also believe very strongly that gays and lesbians should not be ostentatiously refused public accommodation by businesses, through the self-serving and open-ended assertion of religious liberty.
These Christians are also Americans. The civil law has recently opened a gulf between what’s legally permissible and what many Christians view as being morally permissible, regarding the institution of marriage. Squaring the circle between private faith and the public Constitutional order isn’t easy, but there are ways beyond public foot-stomping to remain true to your faith while fully participating in even today’s more permissible social climate.
In fact, the real problem here is the perfect storm of a brand of Evangelical conservative Christians who want to make a stand, and be seen making a stand, for their disapprobation of gay rights — in opposition to far-Left ideologues eager to pick a fight with the “bitter clingers.” So we’re left with the rank idiocy of the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA bills but also uncharitable lawsuits against bakers and florists who prefer not to celebrate that which they morally oppose. The veiled threats of the far-right blogosphere contributes, too, with its denunciations of the “caving” by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, while far-left activists delight in vitriolic denunciations of alleged intolerance that are untethered to reality. All of this drama constitutes a self-inflicted injury for Christian conservatives.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a devoutly Christian baker, caterer, florist or wedding planner. You’re behind the counter, conducting your trade in peace. You go to church on Sunday, you tithe, you pray. And then Adam and Steve sashay into your storefront, ready to place an order for a sheet cake for their upcoming wedding. What do you do?
When you walk the Path of Martyrs, eager to be seen as making a stand for Jesus, you tell Adam and Steve that you can’t support them because you’re a Christian and won’t be a party to their sin. Cue the raging public shitstorm. (And, in a sense, the religious hypocrisy — viz Matthew 6:5.)
In a more reasonable world, when Adam and Steve cross your threshold, you smile at them, congratulate them on their engagement, ask friendly questions about their color choices, and enquire about the date of their ceremony. Then you appear crestfallen when you say that you can’t accommodate that date because you’re already booked solid that weekend, but you’d be happy to refer Adam and Steve to Jane’s Bakery across the street. And wouldn’t you know it, Jane just came back from a confectioner’s conference and she has some really great designs for contemporary his-and-his cakes!
Better yet, you mark that date on your calendar and genuinely take it off as a day of prayer, thus protecting you from the accusation of lying while deepening your relationship with Jesus. Sure, you’ll lose some revenue, but consider it as an investment in your treasure in Heaven. Net result: Happy customers, happy proprietors. You have rendered on to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and onto God that which is God’s.
The cynic view, of which I’m increasingly persuaded, is that all of this drama has very little to do with gay marriage. If Adam and Steve want to get married, fine; you’d think they’d find vendors who support them, instead of compelling vendors who don’t. Human decency, and all that. And you’d also think that small-business owners would recognize that baking a cake isn’t a sin, even if you don’t like your customer.
What we’re seeing is, I think, less a genuine question of gay rights or religious freedom, and more a paradigmatic question of whose orthodoxy will govern the terms of engagement in the naked public square. So in a sense, all of this drama is small-small potatoes skirmishing in a much larger and more significant cultural war, a conflict wherein certain modes of thinking that contradict the Authoritarian Left must be rooted out, suppressed, denounced — while certain practices that conservative activists despise must be de-legitimized in the name of “freedom.”
Don’t be distracted. None of this is really about a nuanced view of Christianity, or about gay marriage. Rather, it’s about competing claims to the power to coerce normative values on the larger body politic.
Hence, dismay.

On Mosques and Religious Tolerance

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances … This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

So says President Barack Obama, in reference to the plans by an Islamic group to build a major mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. Interesting perspective, that.

The response to the $100 million project sponsored by the Cordoba Initiative is depressing if only because of its banality: Lefties who ordinarily gloat at the erosion of the Judeo-Christian perspective in the public square nevertheless demand a mosque at Ground Zero to show how much America values religious pluralism, while conservatives who normally champion religious freedom demand that the mosque be suppressed or at least located elsewhere.

Both sides are wrong, and hypocritical. As usual.

Conservatives should know better than to impose a sectarian litmus test on the placement of mosques; building the facility a few blocks away from Ground Zero may be tacky, but it does not represent a threat to national security or to religious freedom, even if the project’s funders have shadowy ties to terrorism (hint: that’s what the FBI is for). Cries about the sensitivity of the “victims of 9/11” ring hollow, as well — the dead have no feelings to offend, and in any case, appealing to victimhood is hardly a staple tactic of the Right’s playbook, and for good reason. I cannot adduce a single non-aesthetic conservative principle that should justify opposition to the Cordoba Initiative’s plan.

However, liberals who assert that permitting a mosque in that location is a sign of America’s robust religious tolerance are not fooling anyone. The Left leads the assault against religious freedom in America, through incremental restrictions against the public display of Judeo-Christian sensibilities in the public square. No serious person believes that liberals are unabashed proponents of religious expression: Look no further than the ongoing drama over the Christian Legal Society’s funding for proof. If anything, this situation is a sign that the Left’s embrace of non-Western diversity is genuinely as muddle-headed and chronically unserious as many conservatives feared — that liberals cannot distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture, nor grasp that the Muslim world has no American-style “wall of separation” between religious faith and political authority that allows for the purely private religious belief characteristic of WASP social mores.

The one aspect of this situation that disturbs me the most isn’t the hypocrisy of it, however. Rather, it’s the unspoken assumption that the Cordoba Initiative’s plan somehow marks a referendum on America’s commitment to religious pluralism.

You hear it from Barack Obama. You hear it from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. You hear it from New York governor David Patterson. The refrain is the same: We must permit the Cordoba Initiative to do exactly as it wishes, because any restrictions on mosque placement will necessarily imply that the last 221 years of the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment protections will thereby be  irrevocably refuted. Or, in its more crude form: We must let them do as they want to show how tolerant we are.

Conservatives have missed the boat on picking up on the substantive argument, instead preferring by-and-large to offer twofold opposition on the grounds that, first, allowing a mosque at Ground Zero means the terrorists win, and second, that a mosque so close to the allegedly sacred ground of the Twin Towers constitutes a fresh trauma for the survivors of 9/11. Both claims are unadulterated nonsense. This is a logistics issue, not a political-philosophy dilemma.

The real problem here is the astonishing failure of leadership by New York city and state leaders. If we concede the Cordoba Initiative’s inherent right to build a mosque, and we accept that there is a legitimate perception problem (as well as public opposition) for a mosque at Ground Zero, then the solution is pretty simple: Let elected leaders apply the incentives and dis-incentives of government to “facilitate” the mosque somewhere else in New York. If they can do it to preserve spotted toads in California, why not a mosque in Manhattan?

I seriously doubt that New York under Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki would have ceded its moral authority to a group of shadowy imams the same way that Bloomberg and Patterson have allowed. The fact that this is even an issue speaks volumes about the leadership ineptitude from city hall and from Albany. The reason that American religious pluralism has been so robust is because the state serves as an impartial referee among competing interests without giving any particular interest the right to make an absolute claim. We didn’t allow the Mormons to engage in polygamy, we don’t allow just anyone to smoke peyote, we don’t say that molesting kids is OK as long as it’s only in the confessional, and we don’t let soldiers suddenly decide, a week before they deploy, that they have a religious opposition to war. So why should government abdicate its power to influence the placement of the mosque on the flimsiest of religious-freedom grounds? It’s hard to say which is more breathtaking: The irrationality of the situation, or the incompetence or cowardice of those at the helm of the involved governments.

Let there be no mistake: The Cordoba Initiative should be allowed to build a mosque. Placing the mosque at Ground Zero is tacky and insensitive and will be a thorn in the community for many years to come. But this whole brouhaha is less a referendum on America’s commitment to religious freedom than an indictment on the failure of political leaders to respond with foresight and wisdom to an entirely foreseeable controversy.

Let us pray that New Yorkers wise up to the real problem.