A Question for Progressive Christians on Religious Liberty

religious-libertyLast week I wrote on the significance of the free speech and religious liberties issues involved in the New Mexico State Supreme Court decision, which barred Christian wedding photographers from refusing to photograph same-sex ceremonies out of conscience. I pointed out that, in essence, the state is demanding a sacrifice, an offering that constitutes the price of citizenship in a sacralized state. Among other things, I said that as Christians we need to be prepared to be martyrs, those who give testimony in the face of opposition, to the Kingdom of God, on a host of issues whether it be unjust military actions, economic situations, or violations of God’s creative ordering for sexuality.

Predictably the reactions were mixed. Certainly the non-Christian commenters and respondents had some negative comments, who basically agreed with the court, comparing these photographers to segregationists, etc. I disagreed with them, but it was to be expected. The more interesting reactions were those of more ‘progressive’ Christians who, nonetheless, seemed to support the Court’s decision that the moral and religious convictions of their brothers and sisters ought to be subjected to the State in this area. They essentially echoed the sentiments and arguments of non-Christian critics, only with a caveat about being personally Christian, or an extra jab about self-righteousness for good measure.

This raised a question: in general, where do the Christians who disagree on the material issue of same-sex relationships stand in relation to their witness of their brothers and sisters as a political issue? Or how about those who agree that same-sex relationships are prohibited to the Church, but the secular state is to be governed according to its own principles apart from Christian convictions? If it came to it would they support Christians who have taken, gentle but principled stands on this issue out in the economic and political realms, or, would they generally side with the State on this issue? I’m not talking about outright bullying and so forth, but, essentially, saying ‘No, that’s not something I can support. Sorry.’ in the way that Elane photography did.

So, for example, I am not a pacifist. At the same time, I have deep respect for the consciences of my pacifist friends and family in the body of Christ. I was raised, somewhat, in the Quaker tradition and learned a bit about their quite costly conscientious objections, as well as willingness to risk imprisonment and legal persecution because of their religious convictions. Even though, at the end  of the day, I disagree on the material issue of war, I still would support their decision to be conscientious objectors and would argue for their religious liberty to do so.

The question I’m asking is: if it comes to it, will progressive Christians support their fellow Christians’ right to exercise their religious conscience in submission to King Jesus against the will of the State, or not? Or, to put it in more Anabaptisty lingo, is resisting Empire only about economic and military issues, or can it be about social and moral issues as well? Does the issue of same-sex marriage, trump the religious liberty issue here for you, or not?

And, if there are degrees to your support either way, what are they? Should a wedding photographer have to photograph and practically affirm through artistic and economic practice a practice they object to? How about a preacher who, non-aggressively, but honestly preaches what he/she believes are the historic injunctions against same-sex practices in Romans 1 and elsewhere? If that were to one day be deemed ‘hate-speech’ or some other such designation, where would you stand given that you disagree with that interpretation?

I ask this in good faith because the answer isn’t always straightforward. There are situations where ‘religious liberty’ concerns runs into other human rights such as life, liberty, etc. and I probably would side against the ‘conscience’ side of the debate, such as, in say, polygamy cases, or the application of certain fringe practices. Maybe this is one of those cases where you think that Christians should be quietly obedient, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and obeying the authorities placed over us (Rom. 13)? Is this one of those issues for progressive Christians, or is there some other category or reasoning that I’ve left out?

Without a full-on discussion about whether the verses really say one thing or the other on same-sex practice, or who is right at the end of the day, the traditionalists or revisionists, I’d be curious to hear people weigh in, either in comments or if you’re a blogger type, a short post or something. I don’t plan on arguing or even commenting much, but I am curious to see where people are at and the conversation this might start.

Soli Deo Gloria

33 thoughts on “A Question for Progressive Christians on Religious Liberty

  1. I think that no matter what your stance is on same-sex marriage, the court shouldn’t be able to regulate who you decide to personally do business with; it doesn’t matter what the reason. I think that Christians should be able to stand for what they believe, especially if they aren’t hurting anyone else. And why would someone want a photographer at their wedding that doesn’t want to be there?

    • “the court shouldn’t be able to regulate who you decide to personally do business with; it doesn’t matter what the reason.”

      Do you believe that people should be able to refuse service to others based exclusively on their race?

      • I don’t believe race is equal to sexual orientation. I don’t know how much it helps for a person to refuse business to any person but I think if they feel uncomfortable and/or convicted due to their beliefs, then they should be free to make that decision. Sexual orientation is not a gene. I’m not saying it’s a choice, but it hasn’t been scientifically linked to any gene either.

      • Sexual orientation is genetic. Full stop. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that it isn’t genetic, and literally reams of scientific evidence to suggest that it is.

        That’s neither here nor there, though.

        Under the eyes of the law in the states in question, homosexuality is *legally* equivalent to being black. If you argue that people should be able to discriminate against gays, you are also arguing that people should be able to discriminate against blacks.

        So, I’ll ask again: do you think a public business should be able to refuse to serve someone based on their race?

      • No, a public business should not refuse to serve someone based on their race but again I don’t believe ethnicity equals sexual orientation. That is not true that there is some pile of evidence proving sexual orientation to be genetic. There are genes that we assume contribute to someone’s orientation but there is no solid evidence. You can’t base a law like that on an unproven theory. It isn’t a fact unless there is a hard and fast rule and there isn’t with sexual orientation unfortunately. All this would be a lot clearer of there was.

      • For starters: what you believe has no bearing on what the law *is*. Under the current implementation of the law, you agree that people should be discriminated on based on race, race is *legally* equivalent to sexual orientation, which means you don’t believe that sexual orientation should be discriminated against. Whether or not you believe that race is equivalent to orientation is irrelevant.

        Secondly, if you don’t believe that being gay is a genetic situation, you must believe that people choose to be gay. Let me ask you: when did you choose to be straight? I’m sure you’ll be able to give me a general timeline.

  2. Derek –
    like you i see something of a divide already on this issue of homosexuality in particular – though not exclusively – between traditionalists and “progressives” within Evangelicalism. Here in Canada we have a situation brewing about a Christian University (Trinity Western) which upholds traditional views about homosexual practice. Again and again i heard both non-Christian and “progressives” chucking those with traditional interpretations on homosexual practice under the bus. TWU also recently un-hired Kevin Miller (writer/director of the film “Hellbound?”) when they discovered that he was not just someone who did not hold to ECP view on hell but was, in fact, a hopeful universalist; at clear odds with historic orthodoxy. Again, non-Christians and “progressives” chuck us under the bus as closed-minded, bigoted, NOT representative of Christianity, etc.
    I don;t know what the “progressive” side might say from their side, but even in this small micro-cosm it feels at times like we are the Reformers and “progressives” are the Romanist; thinking us barely part of the family of God if a part of it at all. Smacks of John 16:2.

    • The “traditionalist” view on marriage requires a view on God that is rather at odds with Jesus and his message, not to mention the Pauline expansion of that message (Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ).

      Those who are espousing the “traditionalist” (which is a poppycock term, but you used it) view on marriage are actively working to directly hurt people that God and Jesus both love very deeply, and their perverted sense of love (repeatedly shouting “You’re a sinner!” over and over) causes incredible broad and deep damage to any number of people.

      Quite frankly, when your version of Christianity requires that you exclude and hate people simply due to the way they were born, you should be tossed under the bus. I’m not interested in that being what Christianity means to people any more.

      • I’m sorry you feel that way for more than a few reasons, but, I’m just going to point out that this post really wasn’t about debating the material issue of same-sex attraction, but about religious liberty issues.

        On your actual statements, I’d simply refer you to Wesley J. Hill’s excellent little work “Washed and Waiting” or Sam Alberry’s “Is God Anti-Gay?” Both authors have same-sex attraction and hold to a traditional view of the issue. They write compassionately and thoughtfully on this difficult issue.


      • You seem to have missed my point. Your right to religious liberty extends only so far as it doesn’t hurt other people. If you argue that your religious liberty requires that you do something that hurts someone else (either physically or emotionally) your right to religious liberty is null and void.

        This is not a difficult concept. It’s true of literally every single right enumerated to American citizens in the Constitution. I’m not sure where your cause for debate comes in, beyond utterly moronic “Christians are the ones who are really being oppressed!” drivel.

  3. When I look at the question in its immediate context, the court decision looks completely absurd to me. Why in the world should anyone be forced to do business with anyone else for any reason? But then I start to think about how Ronald Reagan defended segregation along these seemingly very logical libertarian lines when he was governor of California. Why should a court have the right to tell a private business that they have to admit black people? Can a Christian restaurant owner say we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone so, no, you can’t have your rehearsal dinner here because you’re gay? If that’s the case, then how is that different from a private business like Woolworth’s refusing to serve blacks at their lunch counters? Not taking wedding pictures seems different than not letting someone into your restaurant, but what’s the principle that explains that difference?

    The problem is that these things are always apples and oranges to some degree, no matter how much the modernists in us want for there to be universal consistency and want for analogies to be equivalencies. Gay marriage just isn’t the exact same thing as interracial marriage, though there are some legitimate analogies that can be made. There are other analogies that can be made to having a conviction that causes me to make certain business choices. Is a doctor who says that coffee causes cancer engaging in “hate speech” against people who go to Starbucks every day? Am I discriminating against dairy farmers when I buy soy milk?

    I don’t mean to be flippant. Obviously there’s a legacy of very real bullying and physical violence against gay people, and I think it’s appropriate to address physical and emotional abuse aggressively, particularly in the school system. When I was a teacher, I personally experienced “Christian” teens playing the Jesus card to justify bullying another kid for being supposedly gay, when it had nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with adolescent machismo.

    I disagree that Christians are bound to 1st century Jewish conceptions of what is “natural” in thinking about our sexual ethics, but I definitely think that other Christians have the right to make business choices that reflect these convictions. At the same time, it does trouble me to think about a Christian making a big spectacle as a martyr in order to make a statement that another person’s identity is illegitimate. Every anti-war activist I’ve ever known, for example, has taken great pains to assert that they are not saying soldiers are categorically bad people, even though soldiers can interpret their protests to say that. This issue would be categorically different from other causes for martyrdom because you’re suffering not for your own choices but for your disapproval of others’ choices.

    So those are all the nuances I can think of at this point.

    • Thanks for the reply. One little analogy I’d throw out, is that it seems more akin to requiring a pacifist independent artist to write a song or create a piece of art glorifying war simply because they are so contracted, than the restaurant thing. But yeah, these are all good nuances to wrestle with.

      • Right. I agree with you, but I don’t have a principle in my head that distinguishes between restaurant and photography.

      • If an artist signed a contract that says that they’d produce pro-war art, they should absolutely be held to the contract. I’m not sure why a pacifist artist would step into a situation where they know the requirements of their business would require them to violate their personal beliefs.

        The same is true for shop owners of any stripe. They knew getting into the game that they had to abide by non-discrimination statutes, and that when sexuality was added as a protected class, they’d need to serve homosexuals or run afoul of the law.

        You brought up the Quakers and their pacifism, but you missed one important point with their civil disobedience: they knew they were going to jail, and they accepted their sentences willingly. That’s what civil disobedience is. Shopkeepers being held to the standard of the law that says they can’t discriminate against someone based on sexuality know what the law is, and they seem to know that they’re violating it, but they don’t seem to be willing to accept the consequences of their action. They come across as childish and bigoted, instead of just bigoted.

      • A few points:
        1. I’ve noted elsewhere the civil disobedience is an option. Fully prepared for that.
        2. That NMHRA might have come into effect after the photography business started up. So, that’s also a thing.
        3. Simply because something is legal, doesn’t mean it ought to be.

      • 1. I’d be interested to see how you plan to practice civil disobedience against a law that doesn’t actually compel you to do something (Fred Clark has blogged about this extensively, so I’ll point you to his post here to iron out what I’m talking about: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/11/13/religious-right-still-doesnt-know-what-civil-disobedience-means/)

        2. So? Part of owning a business requires that you follow the law. When the law changes, you either continue to follow the law, or you close your business. In your ridiculous analogy, it would be the equivalent of the artist with the conscientious objection to violence terminating the contract that required them to write a pro-war song. You’ve entered into a legal agreement, if you don’t agree with the laws you either remove yourself from the agreement or you suffer the consequences. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it to. That’s part of becoming an adult.

        3. I agree! I look forward to your coming piece that questions why Christians continue to support laws which outlaw gay marriage because it violates the civil liberties of homosexual individuals.

  4. I am probably more supportive of government restrictions on businesses’s right to refuse to offer services to certain persons than many would be. I don’t think that it is conducive to a civil society to give businesses absolute freedom to discriminate in their choice of which customers to deal with.

    That said, I believe that there is a basis for distinguishing between different types of services. A wedding photographer (or, even more so, a wedding planner), for instance, is typically more than just someone providing a service in a detached fashion. They are on some level participants and facilitators, guests of the couple getting married, giving a sort of tacit approval to what is taking place and seeking to present it in the best possible light. Likewise, a B&B owner is hosting people within their own home and so should probably be given a little more legal support if they don’t want to provide a double bed for two unmarried people or an adulterous couple.

    A key factor in these cases is that it is not about discrimination against persons (‘no Jews, no blacks, no gays…’), but about a refusal to be complicit in or supportive of particular actions that violate our consciences. Degrees of complicity can vary from situation to situation, but it seems important to me that some recognition should be provided for this.

    It would also be interesting to see how things would be handled if things were reversed. For instance, if the Westboro Baptist Church went to a small printer, run by a couple of gay guys in a same-sex marriage, and asked them to print some signs with hateful anti-gay slogans, should the law restrict the means by which they could avoid taking on the job?

    • Alastair.

      Perfect follow-up question. I think you’re right on her about the degrees of complicity. Someone ought to think through various situations and identify the sort of framework or principles at work here as a guide. (Hint hint.)

      Also, I just spend 700 words asking a question. Proud of my progress? 😉

    • “A key factor in these cases is that it is not about discrimination against persons (‘no Jews, no blacks, no gays…’), but about a refusal to be complicit in or supportive of particular actions that violate our consciences.”

      When the end result of your refusal to be complicit in particular actions is that you end up discriminating against individual persons (you are essentially putting up a sign that says “No Blacks” or “No Gays”) you are describing a distinction without a difference.

      I don’t care whether you don’t want to help gay people because you “don’t want to condone their actions” or because you think they’re icky. Either way, you’re participating in discrimination against someone based solely on their genetic makeup, and that’s not OK.

      • Actually, it’s not against genetic make-up but practice. It is certain practices that would be refused. Not all people with that genetic make-up act on that attraction in the same way.

      • If you think it’s valid that someone discriminate against a practice of homosexuality then it is, by your logic, equally valid that someone discriminate against your *practice* of religious activity. Not everyone who is a Christian discriminates against gays; therefore, it’s within the rights of the state and of other people to discriminate against you based exclusively on behavior.

        You’ve hoisted yourself on your own petard.

  5. Derek,
    Pacifists should be equally concerned about religious liberty. If religion is fine except for when it conflict with the interests of the state, conscientious objection on religious grounds would go out the window as well. You see the same thing at work in the effort to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco. I don’t see any need to play these two idea off each other at all other than your continued bone picking with pacifism in country that excels at violence that no coherent Christian theology would claim. (The links you posted were pretty weak and didn’t deal adequately with a mature expression of pacifism and failed to address the “so what?” Even if he is correct it’s a far line from his reasoning to American foreign policy, the death penalty, and hand gun violence.)
    That said, many pacifists are equally concerned about religious liberty as it concerns homosexuality as well. IMO progressive Christianity has little to do with any actual movement of Christian pacifism and has more to do with posturing.

    • Karl,
      Nowhere did I pit pacifism against concerns for this issue and free speech. I simply used it as a very clear example of the sort of thing I’m talking about–how I would support the religious conscience of those with whom I disagree on the text.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  6. This is a good question to wrestle with, and I’m not sure which way I lean at this point. The homosexuality issue is just so sensitive right now it’s hard to see the tree through the forest. (I intentionally flipped it)

    I think there are two issues at hand here.

    1 I think people choose to not do business with other people all the time, based on the potential clients project. I was once asked to edit a short film for someone and once I saw the footage it was basically softcore porn. Should the goverment have been allowed to step in and say you aren’t allowed to discrimate against sexy movies? (I turned it down)

    2. I think there is a difference between services and human rights. Should a doctor be told that he cannot discrimate against homosexuals if the need medical attention? Absolutely!

    Should a grocery store be allowed to post no gays allowed? Obviously not.

    Could Same Sex couples find other photographs in New Mexico who don’t have a strong opinion on homosexuals? Probably – ( if there is a shortage of wedding photographers in New Mexico then I understand, but I highly doubt it)

    Now if said photogs take stand that they wont do it because homosexuality is a sin and they can’t agree with it then does that mean you won’t shoot people who are obese? Alcoholics? Adulterers? Liars? Thieves (even those that download movies off torrents and watch cable tv on streaming websites)?

    And if there were enough “progressive” Christian photographs available to service the area then I guess we wouldn’t be having this debate.

      • Oh. Hmm interesting. I think that is interesting because nowhere in the bible does God say “thou shalt have a wedding ceremony” so my next question would be. Why do we treat government/consumeristic practices as such sacred activities?

        I understand that marriage in a Christian context and under those conditions the act of a ceremony can become profoundly sacred and without a doubt be celebrated. I love wedding ceremonies and they become sacred because of the people involved and the belief constructs, but at the end of the day you’re there to sign a piece of paper for the government so they know you’re married.

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