The recent debates and fervor over religious liberty legislation in Indiana and Arkansas caused John Hammett, Senior Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern, to pause and think about the state of our (lack of) moral reasoning in this country.
I have followed the recent debates over proposed religious liberty legislation in Indiana and Arkansas with sadness and dismay. I have not read the proposed laws; they may be poorly worded and in need of clarification. But surely we all know that the precipitating cause is the rise of same sex marriage, and the key question underlying the debate is clear: Is it permissible for a citizen in this country to believe that same sex marriage, while legal, is not moral, and to live accordingly, especially in their business practices involving weddings?
Historic Christian moral teaching has seen men and women as created for mutually enriching relationships with one another. That is seen in the account of the creation of Eve in Genesis 2. To seal and symbolize the union of the man and woman the gift of sexual union is given. This has been the rationale for limiting sexual relations to the context of heterosexual marriage. Only in that context can sexual union serve the purpose of facilitating an exclusive, committed, long-term relationship in which their differences can enrich one another. Premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sexual relations cannot serve that purpose and so have been seen as contrary to God’s intentions for human sexuality.
Whether that teaching is true or not is a valid question, but it has been the overwhelming Christian consensual moral teaching throughout the ages. And that is why weddings have been special occasions for Christians. They are not merely civic arrangements, in which the state bestows on persons certain rights, privileges and status. They are religious occasions, often occurring in churches and presided over by ministers and pastors. They signify God’s blessing on the unions involved.
This is why a Christian business owner, called on to be involved in such an occasion, may want to decline. He would have no grounds for declining to photograph the birthday party of a gay man, or cater the retirement dinner for a lesbian employee of a company. Indeed, they should provide their services regardless of sexual orientation of the persons involved, as there is no special religious significance to such occasions. But is it really hard to understand that a Christian photographer could not rejoice in taking the pictures of a wedding he believes is contrary to the couple’s true best interests? Or that a Christian restaurant owner would be conflicted over facilitating the celebration of an occasion that she sees as sad? Can it even be granted that their motivation for declining to participate could be love for the couple, since they believe that the marriage into which they are entering is contrary to God’s good purposes for their lives?
Whether their beliefs are credible or not, are humble and sincere or arrogant and hypocritical, is a fair question. But to dismiss them as hateful and discriminatory, and to array all the economic, political, and even athletic powers of society to compel them to conform or be excluded from American life, is profoundly contrary to the very ethic of tolerance they are professing to uphold. Can the outraged majority not see this?
Moreover, the comparison of this situation to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s is simply not appropriate. I lived through that transition, beginning my education in a completely segregated elementary school and later graduating from an integrated high school. It was tumultuous and my family was among those that long harbored racist sentiments. But I never heard those sentiments defended on the grounds of religious liberty, and it is not hard to see why. Allowing a person of color to attend a school supported by all the tax payers of a state, or serving a person of color a lunch at one’s restaurant is not an occasion with special religious significance; a wedding is. Allowing one to do something is different than personally participating in it.
If one wants to draw a parallel to the contemporary situation, a more appropriate one may be the conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. There were some who could not in good conscience participate in the Vietnam War. If drafted, they declined to participate. Some questioned their courage or patriotism, and some may have suffered legal consequences, but historically we have granted such persons a protected status as conscientious objectors. I think that is the status some Christian business owners are seeking in the contemporary wedding wars. Our courts are moving to legalize same-sex marriage, as our government authorized the war in Vietnam. But some acknowledged a higher authority than the government, and sought liberty to avoid involvement in a war they deemed immoral. Today some deem participation in same sex weddings as immoral and contrary to the better way they, in love, desire to show same sex persons. To see such persons despised as haters and discriminators is very sad. Have we in Western society lost the ability to think clearly and make moral distinctions?
Of course, some suspect that the ultimate end game here is the desire to suppress all dissent to the validity and morality of same sex marriage. That would be the truest betrayal of the ethic of tolerance and may be the fear motivating the proposals for laws guaranteeing religious liberty. It is all a very sad situation.