I’m relieved in a way that the Supreme Court decided to punt on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. We could do with a little fudging in the culture wars these days. So instead of tackling the deeper, perhaps irresolvable, conflicts of religious freedom and gay rights, Kennedy just narrowed the ruling to the single case in question, and cited the anti-religious statement of one member of the state commission as the crux of the case. Money quote:
To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical — something insubstantial and even insincere.
Kennedy was referring to one of the state civil-rights commissioner’s contemptuous statement about the baker’s faith. The trouble is, a growing number of people, many of them exactly kind of person who sits on a civil-rights commission in a blue state, do actually and sincerely feel contempt for religion and religious belief. They think that all religious thought and practice is bonkers, irrational, based on ancient, strange texts, and with no relevance in the modern world, and a force, on the whole, for bigotry. When those texts and beliefs are used to do what many consider harm to someone based on an involuntary characteristic, it’s a no-brainer. Of course gay rights will increasingly win out in these cases, especially now the state commissioners won’t be so dumb as to air their real views in public.
And this is true even for weak-kneed Christians like me who have no interest in hitting anyone else over the head with our faith. When it comes to full-on fundamentalists, the capacity for some scrap of mutual understanding is increasingly remote. The more distant you are — socially, geographically, generationally, culturally — from anyone who practices religion in any serious way, the harder it is to empathize, and to see these cases as a conflict at all. It simply seems incredible that someone would hold these views faithfully.
I’m not criticizing the right to see religion in this way; I’m worried simply about how this kind of contempt and mutual incomprehension spill over into civil intolerance. Which is why I still hope we can muster up as much respect for the homosexual person as we can for the faithful one. Most of the time, if we use a little restraint, we can avoid these ugly and difficult conflicts. For those many of us who are both gay and Christian, it would surely be a mercy.
Elsewhere, Mark Shea, Catholic provacateur (I was tempted to say “iconoclast” but I don’t want to perpetuate that ugly word’s favorable current connotations), planted a seed from which a resolution to many of these controversies might just grow:
So how do we think bigger?
Well, to begin with, drop the pose of defensive hostility. At this point in the game, a gay couple coming into a bakery to get a cake is probably there to get a cake, not to launch a Supreme Court challenge calculated to destroy a Christian baker and inaugurate a nationwide purge of all Christian businesses.
But even if a customer is a militant jerk with a chip on his shoulder there are ways of dealing with this recommended to us by the gospel and modeled by the Tradition. Let’s consider them.
In Jesus’ day, Jews really did (unlike butthurt American conservative Christians with no problems bigger than Starbucks coffee cups, Google doodles, and Target clerks who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”) face oppression for their faith. The Roman occupier could dragoon any Jewish guy into carrying his heavy armor for a mile. It was not only a pain in the neck, it was ritually defiling for the tender consciences of some Jews under the influence of the hyper-purity of Pharisaism.
What was Jesus’ counsel?
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Mt 5:38–41).
[R]ather than immediately leaping to the headspace of fantasizing about ridiculous doomscapes of Domination by Totalitarians (something Christianists, not Christians, habitually do) I think it wiser to leap to the gospel and to the virtue of Prudence.
That means trying to build bridges of trust, not walls of hostility ….
So the plant I see growing from this is an alternative script for the Masterpiece Cakeshop conversation:
Customers: We hear you do fabulous wedding cakes. We’d like you to make us a cake for our big fat gay wedding.
Jack Phillips: Well, thanks for the compliment. Can we talk about this?
Customers: Sure, that’s why we’re here: to talk about getting a wedding cake from you.
Jack Phillips: Thanks. My specialty is custom cakes with a lot of artistry in them. I don’t bake wedding cakes just for fun and then hope someone comes to buy them. But there are custom cakes I won’t bake. I don’t do Halloween cakes, for instance, because my conscience tells me that our celebrations of Halloween are not healthy. No law says I have to bake Halloween cakes.
My conscience also would prevent me designing and making a cake that includes rainbows, or figures of two grooms on top, or anything like that, because of my convictions about what marriage is or should be. Apparently, you have different convictions. But if I make you a cake, I’d only want to make one that looks pretty much like a cake for any other wedding, weddings of men and women.
Are you okay with that?
The conversation can go several ways from here:
Customers: No we’re not okay with that. What kind of bigot are you?!
Jack Phillips: I don’t think that makes me a bigot, but suppose it does. Do you want to do business with a bigot?
Customers: What if we’re not?
Jack Phillips: In that case, you’ll probably be happier with one of the bakers in town whose heart would really be in this, because my heart wouldn’t be, and I may not live up to my advance billing.
If you insisted, I might even refuse, but I’d rather not go there ….
Customers: That sounds fair.
Jack Phillips: Then when would you like to talk about cake designs?
None of these scenarios seem as likely to end in litigation than did The Real Jack Philips’ pretty mild remark.
Mark Shea wants such prudence because Christ called for something pointing that direction (i.e., not standing on what you think your God-given rights are) you’ll never evangelize people by asserting your right to oppose them.
I want such prudence because if the Customers really are virulently anti-Christian provocateurs out to “get the Christian baker,” I want to disarm them, or at least discuss things with them in a way that makes them the unreasonable ones. There are signs in the Supreme Court briefs and opinions that carrying the conversation further down the artistic path before any refusal would have made Jack’s case stronger.
I don’t fault Jack for not being a lawyer or thinking like one. I still think he should have won on more substantive ground than he did win on. Free speech sometime can offend, and if “he offended me deeply” ever becomes trump to free speech, free speech is dead.
I don’t fault Jack for drawing a line where even some serious Christians might disagree with him. The gravamen of “if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” might suggest that he simply bake the cake, even with rainbow flags and “Congratulations, Adam and Fred!” inscribed on top, though I really can see myself in Jack’s shoes, and I have a hard time thinking it would be one of his best works because he’d be doing it with no pleasure and little rapport with the customers. And I don’t think it’s the government’s job to interpret and enforce “if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
But graciousness (Jack was pretty gracious actually) and dialog might go a long way both religiously and legally.
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