Well, what a right mess we've landed ourselves in. A real pickle, you might say: sour and briny. Indiana's recently passed version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written on a roll of paper so long that it stretches across the continental United States and divides the entire country in half. There's a lot of emotions flying back and forth over that papery wall, but between the barrier and all the slings and arrows flying about nobody can really see what the other guys even look like, or hear what they're saying. It's a bit like Battleship, except instead of plastic boats you're confident the other side is composed of evil in its purest form.
I've written a brief play to demonstrate the cartoon villainy we're imagining.
DREAM BIRKENSTOCK: The evangelical conservative military industrial Florida condominium complex is a pack of bigoted, hateful, trolling thugs who want to legalize hatred and discrimination and force us all into a Taliban-like society of heartless religious rule. Wasn't Jesus, like, all about love, man? Why do you hate love? Why do you hate freedom? Why do you care what happens in my bedroom? Get out of my bedroom, perverts! You might as well lay down your arms, you enemies of love! You're on the wrong side of history AND science. I speak with authority on these subjects because I majored in women's studies in undergrad and also minored in sustainable urban renewable rooftop micro-herbalism.
MAX SHOULDER-HOLSTER: You gays and your gay agenda lobby cabal parade planning commission committee have ripped a hole in the moral fabric of our society, and now you're sewing in a rainbow-colored patch! You hate freedom, religion, freedom of religion, and even religions of freedom. Marriage is between one man and one woman, preferably blood relatives. That's just the Bible, which is hefty enough to beat down sinners like you with. I won't do that to ya, 'cause I know someday Jesus will. You won't stop until you've driven all the honest, God-fearing men and women out of their businesses who won't kneel to your colorful crusade. You're the most destructive cultural wave in modern history, and Jesus loves you.
Alright, so that wasn't really a play. We'll call it post-modern, which is what you say when you've done a bad job of something but still want to seem profound. Anyway, those are the caricatures: the fake people we've imagined in our heads. The fact is we haven't bothered to quit screaming long enough to understand each other. There are, obviously, bits of truth in there. I've heard elements of both caricatures from genuine human beings. I have an eclectic assortment of friends and acquaintances on Facebook, and the full spectrum of emotion has been on display in my feed. As far as I know, they're all pretty decent people. Therefore the epithets slung at individuals on one side of the fence or the other don't make any sense; it is hard to be the devil incarnate as well a generally kind and selfless individual.
The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act
It's easy to scream and seethe. It's also pleasurable in that odd, self-righteous and cathartic sort of way. It's far more important, but also far more difficult, to listen, read, and understand. That's likely why the apostle James reminds us to sit down and shut up: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." Later, he says, "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."
If you're not endeavoring to figure out what exactly is going on with the issue, choosing instead to kick back in the comfort of your preferred echo chamber, then you might as well quit. If you speak out on the matter, you're simply a braying jackass, and remember: the ass is the only one who doesn't mind the sound of his own voice.
So what is the bill? I honestly don't know if it even matters any more, but here's the elevator summary: for many years before a Supreme Court decision in the early 90s, the government had to have really, really good reason to discriminate against someone based on their religious beliefs. Then along comes Smith. Two Native Americans are denied unemployment benefits because they were fired for ingesting peyote. They claimed being denied unemployment discriminated against their religion, which included ingesting peyote. The Supreme Court said the coincidence of the law prohibiting what their religion required didn't matter. This, in essence, lowered the bar for religious protections way, way down. So Democrats introduce the federal RFRA, which set the bar back up to where it was before the Smith decision. It passes with bi-partisan support and is signed into law by a Democrat. Later, many states pass their own versions, including Connecticut (whose governor recently barred travel to Indiana for having a nearly identical bill), to ensure that at the state level these same protections exist. What's the law do? It allows the court to consider your religious convictions as a defense. There's no guarantee you'll win if you raise such a defense.
It's important to note these laws, contrary to what's being said about Indiana, have been a boon, particularly to minorities. A Muslim man, for example, recently won the right to wear a beard in prison thanks to RFRA. They are, in general, good and useful laws, providing individuals of faith a chance to defend themselves in court. As this (liberal, pro-gay marriage) Boston University professor writes in USA Today regarding Indiana's bill, "...we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?"
but the indiana bill contains all sorts of evil, evil, anti-gay provisions, doesn't it?
No. You've heard it was "different" than all the other RFRAs, and these differences give the Christian majority a blank check to carry out their anti-gay agenda. Wrongo. There are two notable differences. The first extends the protections to corporations. But aren't corporations soulless and evil? Sure, except all the ones you like. This simply means if someone decides to go after a chain, for example, with a discrimination suit, then the corporation has the same tools as individuals. That's not an inherently a bad thing by any means. The second change allows the RFRA defense to be raised in private suits between citizens. If a neighbor decides to make a private case against you using a state discrimination law, then you can use the RFRA as a defense.
For more, check out this reddit thread and this "10 Things You Need to Know" at the Washington Post.
As I'm writing this, the Indiana legislature is working on an insertion to extend special protections against LGBT individuals. Although I am in support of the RFRA, I heartily applaud these extra protections.
wait, you hate me *and* you want me to have legal protections? what is this i don't even
I'm actually hoping at this point we've all calmed down enough to realize that we don't truly all despise one another with fiery contempt.
Here's the thing. Conservative Christians, listen up. It's rough to be LGBT. Like, really, really rough for a lot of people. Check this out. Also this. Despite the skyrocketing cultural heft of pro-gay rights advocacy in the States, there's a lot of bad treatment towards the LGBT community still. When I say "bad treatmeant," I mean genuine hatred and horrible violence. It's a serious issue that must be addressed, and I support legal protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender individuals. Special protection means we emphasize in the law of the land that despicable behavior isn't acceptable. Further, I think it's a moral crime to deny someone food, shelter, clothing, medical care, employment, etc. based on identity. Our opinion on whether or not such an identity is a choice is irrelevant; it's just who they are. God was kind enough to condescend with humanity in the flesh; I think we can at least endeavor to meet people where they are.
why do some Christians care so much about a stupid cake, anyway?
Why do you? A wedding, and everything that goes into it, is of immense importance to the individuals involved. You wouldn't be bothered if you couldn't get a cake if it was just a meaningless element of the celebration. If it didn't matter, then it wouldn't matter.
I've seen this general line of thought crop up as an argument against the Christian business owners who decline to provide wedding services to same-sex couples. "They're just taking photographs, not performing the ceremony." "The food is only for the reception, which isn't part of the wedding anyway." "It's just a cake, it doesn't matter. They're not joining the celebration." etc. etc.
First of all, having been in several weddings, including my own, I can affirm that if anyone says a photographer is "just there to take photos", they have no idea what they're talking about. Wedding photographers are bullies and tyrants we hire to immortalize a celebration. They run half the show. You can't be a good wedding photographer without being neck deep in all the proceedings. You don't want a wedding photographer who isn't.
The core of the issue here is that opponents of religious objectors have decided the theology of the objectors, and are holding them against their invented religion's standards. You have no right to decide for me what my work signifies or represents. When you tell me what my work or actions signify, or what they don't signify, then you have taken up the mantle of the theologian and judge. You simply have no grounds for deciding that. If I bake a cake, and you find it a meaningless object, that is your prerogative; as for me, I labored by the Scriptures. "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." I produce nothing that is without religious significance. Yes, even my dumps if we are to be so crude. If you find your wedding reception irrelevant to the wedding, that is also your prerogative; as for me, I find no reasonable grounds to divorce the wedding from the celebration that immediately follows under the big tent.
Further, simply because some Christians are pro-SSM, or against SSM but feel Christian business owners should provide wedding services anyway, doesn't somehow negate the beliefs of Christians who disagree. It doesn't mater if this guy thinks I should bake the gayest cake I can. It doesn't matter if you think pizza shouldn't be served at weddings anyway. It matters what I feel about my services.
what's the difference between refusing to sell lunch and refusing to cater a wedding?
The former denies material goods that supplement a fundamental human need. The later declines to contribute to a voluntary ceremony of deep cultural and spiritual significance. Marriage is a big deal across all sorts of lines. Like I said before, if it didn't matter, then it wouldn't matter. There's no question that for the bulk of serious Christians, marriage is a serious matter of faith. It's merely not a legally binding arrangement between two consenting adults. The law is coincidental. The phrase "holy matrimony" is thrown around like a joke these days, but it's a real belief. Marriage is holy. It's a sacred union blessed by God. It's up there in importance along with Communion (the Eucharist) for many people. For the majority of believing Christians (there are many of the nonbelieving sort, but that's another topic), marriage is between one man and one woman, and it cannot be dissolved except in extreme circumstances, depending on your tradition.
It comes down to this: Many Christians feel their vocation is a holy endeavor (often referred to as a "calling"). It doesn't matter if you don't see baking as holy; your opinion about their beliefs is irrelevant. They also see marriage as holy. They accordingly feel compelled to treat weddings as holy ceremonies, and therefore they feel morally obligated to refrain from contributing the fruits of their calling to a ceremony that would not be holy. The individuals getting married are practically irrelevant. It matters what they're doing, and what they're asking other citizens do under threat of litigation, that matters. For many believers, this isn't about waging war on the LGBT community in any sense. It's about being able to worship God as they feel obligated.
the gay lobby agenda/the evangelical lobby agenda
For God's sake. Everyone has an agenda. It's just a list of shit you're planning to do. Or discuss. So yes, the "X" agenda exists; there are multitudinous movements with a list of things they want to get done. That's just a sign of a functioning democracy. Also, about lobbies: everybody has lobbies. So yes, the "X" lobby exists. There are groups using their assets to advance their cause in the political sphere. This is something we all want, unless it's lobbying against us. Then it's evil and stupid. There are a variety of religious lobbying groups. There are also a variety of gay rights lobbying groups. Just because it's a lobby doesn't mean it's a conspiracy.
Unless you're in a lobby group like the Balloon Council, which has got to be up to something. Don't trust those guys.
"the wrong side of history"
I hope we can all agree that this phrase is completely meaningless. Is history not the recounting of all that has happened? It seems to me that if there are sides to history, they are this: that which has happened, and that which has not yet happened. I don't believe moral judgments can be made about either side of that division. Unless, I suppose, you buy into the myth that anything further along the timeline is necessarily better than what came before it. That, however, lands us in the uncomfortable position of judging the Peace of Westphalia worse than the German decimation of Europe. What people mean by the phrase "the wrong side of history" is really that some individuals are in disagreement with dominant, or perhaps only nascent, cultural views. Being in the majority or minority here is no moral credit. It simply indicates popularity. I think we would do well not to presume history's judgments; none of us, as of yet, have hopped the fence to the far end of time and surveyed the land.
When we idolize progressivism, we must always be asking questions about what exactly we are progressing towards. On the flip side, when we idolize conservatism, we must always be asking questions about exactly it is we are conserving. Neither being new, nor being old, are inherently good. "Test everything, hold fast to what is good."
the challenge of pluralism
There is no getting around the fact that we live in a society where we all have dramatically different opinions about the world, how it operates, and what sorts of obligations that lays upon on our shoulders. Our task is to strive to listen and understand, and, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Conflicts are bound to arise. They already have. Anger is flaring in the Midwest, seemingly for no reason other than for anger's sake. Businesses across the country are getting shuttered and individuals are receiving death threats. No, I'm not talking about the LBGT community here: some of those "hateful bigots" in the news who've decline to serve same-sex weddings are receiving death threats because of their religious convictions. "Oh, that's not everyone," you say. "That's just an extreme minority."
Exactly. You don't get to paint an entire portion of the populace as hateful and bigoted and then wave away such actions from your own camp. If you accept nuance in your party, you must accept it in the other. Give conversation a chance. We can't legislate each other into oblivion. Well, I suppose we could try, but that would have drastic consequences.
Lastly, if you find a wedding so incredibly important that you would deploy the state to ruin the livelihood of anyone who declined to provide materials for your ceremony, I would ask that you take a step back for a moment and consider the situation. If you find your conception of marriage that important, then surely they must find their own conception of marriage equally important. They likely having nothing against you as a human being. They might even be struggling with how to transform love into action. This sort of thing is worth a discussion, though, not a lawsuit. Getting angry and taking revenge are easy. Understanding is hard, but it's worth it.
This country works in no small part because of our ability to compromise. Things fall apart quickly when each corner demands an all-or-nothing solution. If we don't work to understand one another, to communicate and compromise, someday we'll find ourselves all holding torn shreds of an old flag.
addendum: on love
It occurred to me after posting that I hadn't made the obligatory "Jesus loves us and wants us to be overflowing with love towards him and towards everyone else" section. I didn't for two reasons. One, I forgot. Two, "love" is a thing so thoroughly misunderstood and has so many different meanings for different people that it can almost do more harm than good if we argue "all we have to do is love." Yes, of course we have to love; that is the chiefest of our commandments. It's important to understand what love is, though. There are already mountains of books written on the topic, and I have neither the desire nor the time (nor, if I'm honest, the chops) to address the issue here.
What I'll say is this: For the Christian, love radiates purely from God. It does not exist apart from him. "God is love," the apostle writes. (The reverse, mind you, is not true.) We even find love as evidence for the Trinity: how could love exist apart from between persons? Love is and does many things, but the facet we are concerned with is transformation. Love changes people. That's what God is all about: taking our miserable, dead-in-sin selves and shaping us into something wonderful. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
Out of love, God reshapes us into something capable of containing love. Containing so much of it, in fact, that love spills out from us and heals and soothes those around us. Well, that's the goal, anyway. It doesn't always happen, but that's something we work on. Part of the "new creation" that God makes us is that we gain a new ethic, a new way of navigating the world. It functions positively and negatively. Do's and Don'ts. Be kind. Be generous. Pray in secret. Don't make make a show of your piety. Don't lead others into sin. All of this ethic is rooted in love. It doesn't function otherwise; the instruction comes from God, and the grace to carry it out also comes from God. Unfortunately for the desires of our bodies, this ethic also contains a sexual component. It's reasonable to believe that if the Scriptures are trustworthy and true (whether or not they are is an entirely different conversation), then God/the authors/the authors inspired by God has/have a reliable enough metaphysical understanding of human nature to command some things and forbid others. If God did make us, I assume he knows us at least as well as I know my sandwiches. I also assume he knows us so well that when he establishes an ethic I don't like, it's probably better that I go along with it anyway. God is love. He loves us, and in that love he gives us guidelines so we can work on becoming the sort of people he's always thought we should be.
So what? Well, this means it is utterly disingenuous to assume that Christians sincerely committed to a certain ethic aren't acting out of love. Rather, it may be that their radical love is what lands some business owners in such hot water.
We should remember that love doesn't mean doing whatever another person insists. That's a child's definition of love, but not ours. You can quote 1 Cor 13 at me and say love "does not insist on its own way," and therefore I must fulfill a request I find objectionable. That verse cuts both away; if my love can't insist on its own way, then neither can yours. If I wanted to further counter, I'd say that God is love, and God does insist on his own way. Gotcha! It's easy to weasel in and out of these arguments. They don't work. Anyway. I hear this often from secular society: love that demands you do something disagreeable isn't love. It's abuse. Allowing someone to do what they want when you believe such an act is harmful isn't love, either. Helping your buddy get laid at the bar might make you a good wingman, but nothing about that has anything to do with real love.
So yes, love is vitally important. I mean that in a literal sense; love is a key component to life. A commitment to love, though, in the Christian sense, is a commitment to God. It's a commitment to his will. That trumps everything. It's nonsense to think I could disobey God, to willfully separate myself from him, the source of love itself, and somehow still love. What I do may look similar to love, but it is only counterfeit love. It can do no real good except by coincidence of God's intervention. Love, the real thing, is incalculably better and infinitely stronger.