Originally published July 28, 2015.
This all started when someone posted this article, which says
1. Discrimination lawsuits have been brought against Christian businesses to force Christians to approve of behavior they find morally odious.
2. He would just “find another bakery”
3. If you call yourself tolerant but are intolerant of intolerant viewpoints, you are intolerant. This is the paradox of tolerance.
To the pastor’s credit, he points out that conservatives are misunderstanding tolerance, and he also talks of loving those you disagree with, but stops short of concretely saying what Christians should do in these scenarios.
To me it seems a conflation to say that the lawsuits are seeking to force Christians to approve of gay weddings. Far more likely is that the lawsuits are a result of everyone having the right to pursue happiness. If every bakery in the area refused to make you a cake, wouldn’t you feel like a second-class citizen? Part of the problem here is that LGBTQ are already treated as “not quite full citizens” in this country–the opportunities are just not the same. So there is a conversation about tolerance (the one Pastor Hein had), and the next conversation is about tolerance between different levels of privilege (the one Hein should’ve had). While legally the US is ostensibly secular, our culture and institutions still default to Christian in a lot of places, meaning things are harder for non-Christians, which leads me to the second point:
Find another bakery
Hein says if a Muslim bakery rejected his cross-bearing cake, he’d understand and find another bakery. That demonstrates the privilege Christians hold in the USA–you probably don’t have to travel far to find a bakery willing to fulfill this order. Hein falsely assumes that it’s the same for LGBTQ. That is not equality, and it’s not tolerant. Because people are acting in unequal ways we have to make laws about it, and many states and cities have. Not that we have to make laws about all intolerance, which I’ll come back to.
Tied up in all this is the idea of marriage itself. It’s this weird mix of legal and religious, two separate bindings, but we call it one big event. Even when a UVA law professor wrote a defense of Indiana’s RFRA (which is not the same as the federal RFRA or the ones in 19 other states), he said, “[The florist] objected to serving the wedding because she understands weddings and marriages to be inherently religious. She sees civil marriage as resting on the foundation of religious marriage.” As if that view is relevant since the two are, in fact, distinct. For the legal marriage, where you get a certificate from the courthouse and a sweet tax break and some end-of-life rights, who cares what mix of genders enters into that? (The New Mexico case was actually about a commitment ceremony since gay marriage wasn’t legal there yet.) Every church can still refuse to marry whomever in a religious ceremony. I think the New Mexico court’s ruling in the Elane Photography case had some very good wording: you take the pictures, but you can still say you’re against gay marriage (free speech), and you obviously don’t have to use the pictures in your marketing if you don’t want to. You just can’t refuse service based on orientation. From the concurring opinion: “In a context in which a business otherwise operates as a public accommodation, [denying service] is simply too harmful to the excluded parties to be tolerable.” And now we are at the meat of it since some intolerances are tolerated and some are not:
The paradox of tolerance
Hein cites the philosopher Rawls, who thought not tolerating intolerance is unjust and itself intolerant, which Hein takes as agreeing with the paradox. I haven’t read a lot of philosophy around this, but my research did find Karl Popper on the other side of the fence. I think Popper goes too far in saying that tolerating intolerance leads to elimination of the tolerant. But he did have a thought resonating with my point that we aren’t proposing to suppress all intolerances: “I do not imply…that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary”.
Philosophers aside, dumbing this conversation down to tolerance vs. intolerance loses the nuance of privilege and oppression which is at its heart, and which guides the morality. Even Rawls himself went on to say “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.” So, are security and the institutions of liberty in danger? (Aside: Hein should also take note that Rawls is saying here that Christians intolerant of gay marriage have no right to point out that their viewpoint is not being tolerated.)
Yes, they are. Hein, and other proponents, have only looked at their own liberty. If they have asked about LGBTQ liberty, they haven’t accounted for the privilege Christians have and LGBTQ lack. They forget it’s not so easy to “find another bakery”. Anecdote: my friend is traveling in parts of the South, and she pretends to be Christian to get along with people because it is safer than revealing her atheism. And the problem for LGBTQ comes not just from Christians, but from most religions. My point here is that it is death by a thousand cuts for LGBTQ. You are limiting access to the benefits of our society for a group with already limited access. The default view is that people believe in God. The default view is that people are straight. These aren’t true everywhere, but there are enclaves where they definitely hold true, especially the latter. Our rights do not exist in a void, but in an ecosystem where they extend until they run into another’s rights. Here Christians’ religious freedom bump into LGBTQs’ right to pursue happiness on the same level field as everyone else.
Talking about this in only terms of tolerance loses all this. We can see this nuance if we look at two continua: intolerant speech and intolerant action. For speech, on one end is saying, “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong.” That intolerance is protected under the 1st amendment, and it’s not putting the Rawls’s “institutions of liberty” at risk. On the other end, as a society we’ve gone on to classify some speech as “hate speech” and are legally intolerant of it. For actions, on one end you have the right to protest (free assembly), but we have restrictions about how close to an abortion clinic those protests can occur. The point here is simply that intolerance is nuanced, and we have to hash out where we are going to draw the line as a society. That line will move over time since society and culture influence which is the worse of evils. For example, maybe we can be less defensive against intolerance of LGBTQ when the LGBTQ suicide rate from bullying comes down.
This is part of why gay activists and allies have taken up gay rights as a cause–a lot of harm is being done. But why have Christians chosen to have this fight? What makes gay marriage more of a sin that lots of other stuff we permit in our society? Because it’s a so-called lifestyle or existence sin as opposed to a single action? I’ve heard that a Christian baker is different from a Christian store owner who sells cigarettes, but I don’t fully understand why. If you believe the body is the temple of God, wouldn’t you believe that habitual smoking is on par with homosexuality? Do Catholic store owners sell condoms?
I think it’s important to ask yourself why only some battles are being fought. It seems to me that the big factor is change. “No gay marriage” was the status quo, and keeping something the same is easier than reversing it, like you’d have to do for cigarettes. I also think news media plays a big part by making it a litmus test for candidates, a proxy you can use to gauge their moral fiber.
I, and some Christians, want to go even further: The Christian baker isn’t “participating” in a wedding they don’t condone. They’re selling a cake. What would Jesus do? Go the extra mile. And not the extra mile of “explaining yourself courteously, and even provide another business which could meet their needs” proposed here, but the bake-for-them-two mile. And, no, it’s not the same to ask pro-gay bakeries to put “gay marriage is wrong” on the cake because of the power dynamic of privilege. See Reality Check #3 in this article to see how that is not tolerated in a world where Christians must sell cakes for gay weddings and why no persecution of Christians is happening here.